The effects of coronavirus are devastating in Europe and the US. But they will be even more harrowing if the virus spreads through the vast pools of extreme poverty in the Global South.
The measures necessary to combat the virus are impossible for billions of people.
S’bu Zikode is a leading member of the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa. He told Socialist Worker, “The poor are always excluded, and that applies to coronavirus too.
“We are in a tight corner. The president says we must stay indoors and carry our social distancing and wash out hands. The strategy assumes that everyone has a secure home and access to services
“How does this apply to the poor who have no access to water and sanitation? The strategy is blind to the reality of the lives of millions of South Africans.
“In the slums you will find many families living in a shack that is three metres by three metres. And in that there will be four, or six or even eight people.
“How can there be distancing in such a situation? Whole communities can be wiped out if coronavirus comes here.”
Nomsa Sizani from the Women’s League of Abahlali baseMjondolo told Socialist Worker, “We are being treated like animals, not human beings.
“We will hold our government accountable for what they are doing over coronavirus.
“The government says there must be no large gatherings. But our shack settlements bring a lot of people together in a small area.
“Because of that the authorities attack.”
Instead of assisting ordinary people during the crisis the eThekwini municipality, centred on Durban, is evicting shack dwellers.
Sizani says, “We are facing evictions regularly. Our old people, our children are traumatised. Our children are waking up at night crying and shouting in fear.
“It is such an embarrassment to our government. What happened to the ‘women empowerment’ that the president of the party in power promised us at the beginning of the year? It is clear to us that this ‘women empowerment’ is not for us, not for the shack dweller.
“The government says it is doing something about gender based violence. But it sends armed men to attack and leaves women and children homeless. If there is any rape or murder of a women or a child who has been made homeless in these attacks we will hold the government responsible since it doesn’t care about our safety.”
Zikode says, “There is supposed to be a moratorium on eviction. The government says so. But it is not carried out. Two settlements affiliated to our movement, Azania in Cato Manor and Ekuphumeleleni in Mariannhill, were attacked by the municipality.
“In both areas shacks were destroyed and evictions carried out. Ekuphumeleleni has been the subject of three attacks since the national lockdown started.
“After people’s homes were destroyed their building materials were broken, and then petrol was poured on them and they were burnt.
“In Azania live ammunition was used, and shots were fired despite the presence of children and elderly people. Both evictions were carried about by the notorious Calvin Security, an organisation that consistently acts towards poor black people with violent brutality and in brazen violation of the law.
Sizani says, “We want to take our part in combating coronavirus. We know it is deadly. But there is no virus worse than armed men shooting at your family. There is no virus worse than having to sleep outside, where there is always the fear of rape.
“The brutality of the South African Police Service, municipal security, private security, the Red Ants and the Anti Land Invasion Unit have taken too many lives and left too many people injured.
“The blood of too many innocent people has been spilt. Enough.”
Zikode adds, “During 15 years of our movement’s struggle, we have said that disasters are political. Disease is also political.
“Class determines whether you go to the private hospital where they have good facilities or to the public hospital which is overrun and without facilities.
“Take two people who are infected with coronavirus. The one who has three meals a day and a good home will have a strong chance to survive. The one who is malnourished will probably not.
“It will be the survival of the fittest—no, the survival of the richest.
“Across South Africa impoverished black people are being humiliated, abused, assaulted and sometimes killed by the armed forces that have been sent into the townships, shack settlements and inner cities to enforce the coronavirus lockdown.
“We have received reports of similar situations from comrades in countries across the continent.
“Already people who live in shack settlements are faced with many other diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis and HIV. This is as a direct result of the failure of the government to provide housing and basic services to our communities, the failures and decline of the health care system, as well as the economic crisis that has resulted in mass unemployment.”
“When the lockdown began we suspended our activities to create a safer situation. We are trying to operate through online methods. We are learning Zoom and trying to create WhatsApp groups.
“But it is difficult because many people do not have access to the internet.
“However, we have reminded all our members that access to life saving medication for people living with HIV was won through struggle and the politicisation of an important health issue.
“It is now vital that we politicise the crisis caused by the coronavirus and that impoverished and working class people take their place in this process."