Mobilise against invisible enemy - the novel coronavirus

Ronnie Kasrils says rediscovering our culture of voluntary service will defend and deepen democracy

Mobilise against the invisible enemy, the novel coronavirus, Covid-19

6 April 2020

At times of grave crisis communists internationally have selflessly responded to the battle cry: “Communists to the fore!” This watchword has resounded at times of war and invasion; against counter-revolutionary onslaught; against different forms of attack on the working class and people; against tyranny and any existential threat.

What then is the role of communists as we face an invisible enemy with the coronavirus spreading across the globe? The readiness to respond as a disciplined volunteer is illustrated by a Cuban doctor who on his team’s departure to assist stricken Italy stated: “We are all afraid but we have a revolutionary duty to fulfil…we take out fear and put it to one side…we are revolutionary doctors.”

Whilst our government has announced steps to counter the pandemic – with health professionals in the front line – we will need the organised support of our most dedicated activists ready to serve our people.

One of our strengths is the culture of volunteerism developed during the liberation struggle as exemplified by the volunteers in the 1952 Defiance Campaign, and the mass mobilisation of the 1980’s, reinforcing armed and underground struggle, which brought apartheid to an end. Creating brigades of volunteers in auxiliary service to help defeat the coronavirus should become the line of march.

We have witnessed an army of cadres in China turn the tide. A state that puts the people’s safety and well-being first will overcome any challenge. China and Cuba have shown the way. In Britain, Boris Johnson’s government – as with Trump’s in the USA – had to be called to account by the scientific and medical specialists for dithering because their concern was to protect finance capital and the stock market in the first instance – not their citizens. As the situation deteriorated in Britain an emergency call for 250 000 volunteers to reinforce the health system saw 500 000 registering in no time. In the USA, Trump’s view that the virus was just another flu outbreak has forced him to eat his words. Britain’s volunteers will help deliver medicines and food to the elderly and vulnerable, deliver supplies to the frontline, ferry people to hospital, work in hospitals in supportive non-clinical roles.

Back home no such call for volunteers has as yet been made by government – yet it is in our DNA. Witness the range of social forces who have rushed to the fore to assist those in most need. Inspirational organising is happening spontaneously, largely independently of the state.

The call for volunteers is growing in civil society with beginnings of a volunteer register underway. The SACP and Alliance should add their weight and experience to this initiative. The effort needs to be effectively co-ordinated and planned, otherwise everybody tries to do everything. Even with the best of intentions such actions may become counter-productive.

What can be done?

In the first place, every volunteer, like a good soldier, should understand the nature of the enemy, how to combat the threat, recognise friendly forces and strive for unity of effort in isolating the enemy. We should prioritise care for the most vulnerable; and adapt measures suitable to crowded conditions which those who are poor and marginalised cannot escape from. The government and scientific community need to work on this, learning from the people directly. They need to understand that staying at home is a measure of class privilege.

Among the challenges and tasks facing us:

Be knowledgeable in order to calmly provide the people with credible information and an analysis of the crisis and unfolding events. To be effective: understand, explain, publicise the rules, regulations, prevention and health issues.

Explain the need to wash hands and self-isolate. Explain the slogan: ‘Break the Chain’ which captures the attempt by government and society to enforce forms of physical isolation, quarantine, and treatment to prevent the spread of the virus from one to another.

Collect and help distribute soap, sanitizers, protective masks, household cleaning products, food, water (In Cape Town, civil society is organising the pairing of better-off and underprivileged neighbourhoods for mutual benefit).

Assist the homeless and elderly, including single head families often looked after by a youngster;

Help the orderly formation of queue lines at grant and pension pay-outs, food stores, water points, taxi ranks.

Inculcate a sense of solidarity – let your neighbours know you support your health and social workers; encourage hanging out national flag and posters from buildings, sing to one another from house to house as reported in Italy; applaud the health workers, develop mutual aid responses, inculcate a sense of community.

Report burst water pipes, blocked sewers, fallen trees, electric malfunction to the local council; see that they get on with the job.

Organise refuse removal and clean-ups.

Raise demands that health workers be provided with masks and safety clothing.

Support trade union demand for worker safety, the necessity of neighbourhood level organising, income and social security, the rights of those on zero-hour contracts or in precarious employment, and the need to protect those living in poverty.

Government made a promise that there would be no evictions during the shutdown. Cruel shack demolitions continue. Stand by the shack dwellers and lodge protests with the authorities. The eThekwini Municipality is the worst offender.

A key problem with physical isolation and quarantine is mental distress. Assist social workers identify those suffering this way. Give them empathy. “Physical distance, social unity” is the slogan of the Kerala Left and Communist-led Government which was swift to act and get on top of the pandemic. We should adapt the slogan and learn their lessons.

Public action – involving trade unions, and the broad Left, youth groups, women’s organisations, with cooperative endeavours from civil society, cultural and religious groups – of collecting, cleaning and preparing supplies, and assisting in distribution will raise the spirit of the people, encouraging them to trust in social unity and not to fragment in fear.

Counter xenophobia and protect foreigners; bring all the people who suffer equally from the pandemic threat together in a spirit of solidarity.

Act as whistle blowers. Report the abuse of power by security personnel, stand by those victimised; counter a military-police state mentality which can come-back to undermine our democratic gains when the threat is over.

Rediscovering our culture of voluntary service will defend and deepen democracy as we return to more normal times, although things as we have known them cannot ever be the same again. Volunteerism has been at the core of overthrowing apartheid. We need to inculcate that fighting spirit if we are to overcome this new monster that has reared its ugly head. Our people’s very survival is at stake. We must win this battle. The battle for a new world order will resume. Amandla!

Cde Ronnie Kasrils previously served on the SACP Central Committee and its Political Bureau on a long-standing basis and is a veteran of the Party, the African National Congress and the joint SACP and ANC military wing, uMkohonto weSizwe.