On 15 March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national state of disaster in response to the global Covid-19 pandemic. The government implemented lockdown regulations that included a relaxation of National Treasury procurement protocols to prepare the public health infrastructure for a wave of hospitalisations.
But rather than working for the public, many powerful people in the government and private sector used the crisis as a pretext for predatory self-enrichment. According to figures released by Parliament in 2021, R14.8 billion – 10% of the government’s Covid expenditure from April 2020 to June 2021 – was under investigation by the Special Investigations Unit.
Circling like vultures, elite delinquents brazenly enriched themselves, with hundreds of millions of rands diverted into dubious projects such as the decontamination of paper in Gauteng schools. Money set aside for personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers was especially vulnerable.
Even former health minister Zweli Mkhize – at one point a media darling – had to step down from the role because of his involvement in the irregular, R10 million Digital Vibes communication contract with his department. This included such boilerplate corruption as the company buying his son a car.
This full-bore looting had directly fatal consequences. It diverted funds from South Africa’s response to the global pandemic, increasing the risk of contamination and death for healthcare workers and their patients. It also fuelled other kinds of violence, such as the daylight murder of PPE whistleblower Babita Deokaran in 2021.
A sick state
As John Nichols shows in his new book, Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability For Those Who Caused the Crisis (Verso, 2022), the sleaze and graft in South Africa was mirrored and even exceeded in the United States.
For Nichols, who has explored the conservative and neoliberal turn in the US in recent decades, Covid was not an unpreventable disaster but a health crisis that was criminally mishandled by former president Donald Trump and his administration.
The result is that the US had recorded one million deaths by the end of May 2022, the highest Covid death toll in the world. The second-highest death rate was in Brazil, led by Jair Bolsanaro, a president as reactionary, vicious and scientifically illiterate as Trump.
When Trump began to receive medical intelligence about the viral outbreak in early 2020, his primary concern was how it might impact the November presidential elections. His response was to spread misinformation and minimise the severity of Covid, including using the racist framing of it as “kung flu”, owing to the first outbreak being recorded in China. Such hypernationalism seriously impeded global cooperation in a world crisis.
Trump was supported by a coterie of enablers. Professional sycophants such as former vice-president Mike Pence went out of their way to stymie government efforts to respond to the emergency, from politicising the use of masks and vaccines to encouraging states to “re-open” in the midst of rocketing case numbers.
Good for the goose
The result, as Nichols describes with precise anger, was working people – from Amazon staff to public-school teachers – dying because politicians saw “business as usual” as far more valuable than lives. Despite his inner circle being aware of how uninformed and destructive the president’s response was, they went along with it for personal advancement and to advance their extreme agenda of privatisation and deregulation.
The Republican Party turned lockdowns into a culture war, presenting restrictions on superspreader events as an attack on personal liberty. But in practice, people such as Jared Kushner, Trump’s absurdly unqualified son-in-law who was made a senior adviser, and Senate leader Mitch McConnell were primarily interested in supporting corporate profits.
As Nichols writes, figures such as McConnell – who is reputed to receive more individual donations from corporate interests than any other contemporary American political figure – are less public officials than shills who aggressively defend special interests that actively hurt the public good. McConnell used his position as Senate majority leader to crush attempts to pass a comprehensive stimulus package because it included clauses about corporate liability that threatened the commercial interests of his patrons.
However, this book is not a partisan job. It also exposes the responses of Democratic Party politicians. Former governor of New York Andrew Cuomo and one-time Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is widely despised for his response to police violence in that city, presented themselves in the media as pragmatic opponents of the authoritarian conservatives around Trump. But in practice, they had used their influence in the past to push neoliberal policies of outsourcing and reducing worker protections, which meant that the US lacked the PPE and other medical products required to respond effectively to the pandemic.
At the root of this elite corruption and mendacity is what Nichols calls the “Darwinian” culture of American capitalism. This actively normalises a politics of “cronyism, corruption, racketeering, lack of oversight and open invitations to the sort of cosy deal-making that well serves corporations but ill serves humanity”.
The end result is a hollowed-out democracy compounded by a lack of consequence management for ruling-class criminality. The US had developed an amnesiac political culture in which the likes of George W Bush, a president implicated in war crimes abroad and the 2007 financial crisis domestically, could rebrand themselves as “elder statesmen” despite disastrous personal records.
Nichols does not fall into the cynical trap of seeing government as irredeemably corrupt in itself. Individual politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, along with a host of public officials and unions at federal and local level, tried hard to represent the wider public interest in the darkest days of the pandemic. But the virus exposed the contradiction between the ideal of democracy and the reality of class power. As Nichols writes, the US was founded as a constitutional state in response to abuses of power by the British. But this excluded women, African slaves and indigenous people.
The centuries that followed have seen the continual clash between concentrations of wealth, oligarchical power, imperialist warmongering and white supremacy and the struggles to achieve civil and economic rights for all.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression exposed the fundamental weaknesses of capitalism. With the support of communist and socialist unions, the Franklin Roosevelt administration’s New Deal reforms were able to establish a regulatory framework that reined in some of the worst excesses of the rich. Yet in the past few decades, both Republicans and Democrats have demolished even these partial social gains. The result is a society that was woefully unprepared for Covid and even less ready for the coming environmental and technological disasters.
This is hardly limited to North America. The book parallels the political and financial crimes that South Africans have become too used to. With his craven pandering to the Gupta family, pathological lying and gross contempt for the law, Jacob Zuma would be welcome in today’s Republican Party, as would many other members of our ruling class.
As Nichols concludes, the defence offered means refusing this climate of elite criminality, and the mendacity and historical forgetting that supports it. For one part, this means challenging the logic of neoliberalism and how “business as usual” often means more dysfunction and misery for the majority.
But political accountability also has to be rooted in the force of popular power. It is something that has to be actively fought for as without this pressure, the powerful can easily ignore courts, media scrutiny and academic commentary.
The book ends with a chapter on how Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos made such a financial killing in the pandemic that along with having a private space programme, he is now on track to become the world’s first trillionaire. But in spite of now being the second-largest employer in the US, Amazon has aggressively resisted workers establishing unions and forced its employees to work in hazardous conditions during the pandemic.
Amazon workers at the company’s Staten Island warehouse staged a walkout in March 2020 in response to these working conditions. With aristocratic hauteur, Amazon executives labelled strike organiser Chris Smalls as “not smart or articulate” and dismissed the threat of unionisation.
But in April 2022, these workers were finally legally awarded the right to form the first Amazon union. The company is still fighting this victory. It knows that such accountability threatens its ruthless profiteering. Celebrating the milestone, Smalls said: “We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space because when he was up there, we were signing people up.” This is the kind of real accountability that gives the Bezoses and McConnells of the world sleepless nights.