South Africa is no longer colonised. But the minds of its elites, including its medical scientists and health officials, still are. This is why Covid-19 stalks the land, sowing avoidable disease and death.
After months of indifference, the elites and the connected who use media now care about Covid-19 again. Rising infections and deaths, labelled “the second wave”, fuelled in part by a new strain that spreads more easily, have bitten more deeply into the suburbs, which house the people who shape the debate. So, it is again the centre of attention, as it was when it arrived and no one knew who it would affect.
One sign of this new seriousness is that television channels, to the extent they are allowed to, now show the illness and pain inside hospitals. Until now, broadcast coverage of Covid-19 consisted largely of a parade of business people complaining about restrictions. If South Africans wanted to see what Covid-19 does to people, they had to watch international news channels.
But, while the virus is back on the agenda, there is still a strong air of fantasy about the way the elites see the disease. There is no recognition that the country faces a severe plague now because of what they did – and didn’t do – about Covid-19 since it arrived.
In the main, the government, scientists and private power holders are doing what elites do when things go wrong – blaming the people. The president leads the way, offering televised addresses at which he announces weak measures to fight the virus and then berates citizens for behaving badly. The elite follows suit, blaming teenage parties, taverns, shoppers – everyone except those responsible for containing the virus.
For the rest, we are told either that a severe “second wave” was inevitable or that the new mutation took the scientists by surprise. Both are clearly false.
Prevention is better
Since Covid-19 arrived, medical scientists here – or at least those who are endlessly available for media interviews – have parroted the claim that it was inevitable that Covid-19 would ravage the population because no country could escape a severe outbreak. This fails to explain why much of East Asia, New Zealand and Australia have avoided this – as have countries in Africa. Until a while ago, South Africa had as many cases and deaths as the rest of Africa combined – the gap is still so wide that, even if other countries have recorded only a quarter of their cases and deaths, this country is still the worst performer by a long way.
And, while almost the whole world is experiencing new infections and deaths, countries that have contained Covid-19 have a fraction of the 1 600 cases a day this country experienced between August and November, supposedly a time of “low transmission”. (It is not clear that we ever got rid of the first wave, given how high our case numbers were when we were supposedly doing well.)
The claim that the mutation was a surprise is odd since scientists know viruses always mutate. What was avoidable is declared a law of nature; what was predictable is dismissed as a freak.
Both claims hide the real reason we endure pain today – because the country never tried to beat Covid-19. Countries that have done this took quick action. In some, this meant measures to get cases down followed by testing and tracing infected people. In some African countries, it meant methods tested in previous outbreaks. This country did none of this.
The testing and tracing meant to follow the lockdown was never effective – partly because tests backed up at the national laboratory so results could not be used to trace contacts. Under pressure from lobbies, the government started lifting restrictions when case numbers were rising, giving the virus free reign. No effort was made to form a partnership with people in shack settlements and townships – or to ensure that people living in poverty who needed to isolate were able to do so without becoming poorer.
By treating the virus as an economic hassle, not a threat to life and health, the elites helped make “super-spreader events” inevitable. Citizens, offered neither help to protect themselves nor strong measures to remind them that the virus had not gone, relaxed their guard. To open tourism and then complain when teenagers hold big parties at coastal resorts makes as much sense as allowing taxis and mall owners to do what they like and then blaming the victims when the inevitable happens. Nor is it clear why citizens’ behaviour is to blame for the failure to test and trace effectively.
The power of the Global North
What has this to do with colonialism? This country has not fought Covid-19 because its elites, including its medical scientists, believe North America and Western Europe are the centre of the universe.
Those countries have done poorly at fighting the virus, although their health systems are touted as the best in the world. There, medicine is about using technologies to cure people, not preventing illness. But curative medicine is not that useful if there is no cure, which there isn’t for Covid-19. East Asian countries have endured several pandemics and so have become very good at protecting public health. Some African countries, despite limited resources, have learned from experience how to make prevention measures work in the face of epidemics.
Our elites (including the scientists) never showed any interest in how South Korea, Taiwan, Rwanda and Senegal were dealing with Covid-19 – they weren’t even interested in New Zealand, which should be more up their cultural alley. Instead, they reacted as decision-makers in North America and Western Europe did – their priority was to ready the health system, not to nip the virus in the bud. When they said no country had avoided a severe epidemic, they meant no country they take seriously – no major Western country. And they assumed, as those countries did, that the only way to fight disease is to get people into hospitals and give them the latest technical fix.
This seemed so obvious here that no one questioned it, despite the fact that where there is no cure and it is not even clear how well treatments work, there is a limit to what hospitals can do: even if they can help, they cannot prevent many people becoming ill and dying, which public health measures can do.
Given this, it is no surprise that the elites now punt a vaccine as the only way to fight Covid-19 – they understand only technical solutions. Vaccines do help people, and the country does need them. But the claim by some medical scientists that a vaccine is the only solution to Covid-19 shows the same tunnel vision as that which thought protecting hospitals was better than stopping the virus.
As important as vaccines are, they are products of the Global North to which our elites aspire. We are last in line for them because the rich countries know how to hog the best and leave the rest of us with crumbs.
This means we will, for some time, need the preventive health measures our elites don’t understand. We won’t get them as long as the heads of our scientists and power holders remain the property of rich Western countries.