Protect Us, and We Will Protect Each Other – SAFTU call on Ramaphosa Government:The War against COVID-19 must be Fully Engaged with Working-Class Support
15 March 2020
At a time, the new coronavirus strains are infecting scores of South Africans, SAFTU leaders are contemplating the appropriate response for society, the working class, the state and capital, to what may be a massive crisis that sickens tens of millions of us and kills hundreds of thousands unnecessarily.
Naturally we endorse the standard scientific advice to engage in “social distancing” and extremely good hygiene, while bearing in mind that the immediate in-house supply of clean, running water and soap is not available to around a third of our households as a result of municipal state failure, according to national government. Debt relief to these municipalities is vital. But this is another reason we need a mass public-works programme, to improve our society’s access to even as simple a municipal good as clean water.
In addition, we will be debating the following principles and demands in coming days.
PROTECTION OF SOCIETY SHOULD BE BASED UPON NOT ONLY “PERSONAL DISTANCING” (OR “SOCIAL DISTANCING”), BUT JUST AS IMPORTANTLY, UPON STATE-SOCIETY SOLIDARITY.
· Successful responses to coronavirus by Hong Kong, Singapore and (belatedly) Chinese authorities emphasize the slowing of virus transmission through limiting personal contact. That includes halting international air transport and forcing people to stay at home, avoiding unnecessary school, office, factory, place of worship, transport and recreational interactions that would spread the virus.
· As South African infections jump into the hundreds in coming days and thousands in coming weeks, following the geometric growth that this virus has accomplished everywhere, our state must work closely with society to limit human interactions to the bare minimum, but without taking the repressive measures that we know are sometimes within its reach.
· The crucial lessons learned from weak leadership in European countries and especially the United States, are that denialism, failure to act firmly, inadequate public education and consent, and elite-biased escapist strategies are fatal. What is needed in a South Africa rife with dissent and division, is for credible national leaders to join together and develop solutions that are clearly in the public interest, that also address our structural inequalities.
· Therefore, we must avoid simple top-down orders from the President and Cabinet, at a time our elites’ escapism from public services has become a scandal – and we must use this public health catastrophe as a way to improve many areas of life: our hospitals and clinics, our water and sanitation infrastructure, and even our economy.
PROTECTION OF PATIENTS WILL BE CRITICAL AS HEALTH INFRASTRUCTURE REACHES ITS LIMITS.
· We need an urgent hospital-building programme, and also rapid upgrades to clinics and emergency services such as ambulances. The Chinese are exceptionally good at this, as they showed in Wuhan. If we fail to immediately dust off long-delayed health infrastructure plans and begin building new facilities this week, then as the coronavirus spreads, our creaking systems will collapse, as happened even in parts of Italy with strong public health traditions.
· Our society’s coronavirus patients – especially the elderly – will need medicines urgently. For those given prescriptions, some of these medicines include the anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs that Treatment Action Campaign, Medicines sans Frontiers and their trade union, NGO and social movement allies won as our human right, fifteen years ago – in the process raising our life expectancy from 52 in 2005 to 65 today. This example should inspire patients across the world. For if their governments need to impose ‘compulsory licensing’ – enforced locally-produced generic supply of medicines (ignoring Big Pharma’s monopoly patents) – to increase supplies of coronavirus treatment, they have an important precedent, in which South African civil society led the world.
PROTECTION OF POOR AND WORKING PEOPLE IS VITAL IN SUCH TIMES OF EXTREME CRISIS.
· The capitalist system has thrown far too many South African workers to the wolves of casualisation since our liberation from apartheid. This means that outsourcing, the gig economy and a high degree of informality will leave millions of economic victims of coronavirus, without a salary and without the basic necessities required to live.
· An urgent pilot Basic Income Grant for those who are ill or who lose their incomes due to Social Distancing, plus the extensive draw-down and benefit-widening of our Unemployment Insurance Fund (with its massive surplus) will be vital. To pay for an expanded social safety net, much more creative fiscal and monetary measures will be needed, as the economy shifts urgently from the present reliance upon exports and imports, towards a more internally-consistent mode of self-reliance, based in part upon increased trade protection and immediate imposition of exchange controls to prevent capital flight.
· As public transport becomes dangerous and as shopping becomes increasingly difficult, the state should be arranging distribution systems to ensure sufficient food and other basic needs goods are provided.
· The short-term public works projects described above, urgently needed to improve infrastructure to make society more resilient, should prioritise those workers in sectors which will soon shrink rapidly. These include transport, tourism and hospitality, and many social services that.
· A moratorium on consumer interest payments will be needed for many who, due to the economic impacts of the coronavirus, will not have a steady income, and would otherwise fall into default on their loans for housing, transport, studying, and retail accounts. A general debt-payment holiday (sometimes termed Jubilee following the Bible’s Book of Leviticus) should be implemented for those affected directly or indirectly by this catastrophe.
· The programme of Free Basic Services which includes a modicum of water, sanitation, electricity and rubbish removal for only those considered extremely poor, should be expanded in terms of generosity and scope of recipient. If we want all our citizens to improve their hygiene with regular hand-washing, the taps and soap must be available. So too must immune-system-strengthening nutrition and health services.
PROTECTION OF HEALTHWORKERS.
· South Africa suffers health-system apartheid, in which the divisions in health care resources between the privately-insured population and the mass of South Africans must be urgently overcome. Sharing public and private resources in a carefully-planned way will be vital for our society’s survival.
· Our valiant nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers are in desperate need of support, especially those in the dysfunctional health sector. We need the urgent training of health assistants who can be called upon to provide services as our doctors and nurses become exhausted and ill.
Provision of safety gear to these workers is vital, and health workers should be the priority recipients of face masks and another protective garb.
PROTECTION OF THE ECONOMY:
· Unless urgent interventions are made, the private sector component of our economy will collapse, as it did during the first years of the Great Depression 1929-32. But like then, we must follow the advice of the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who identified aspects of the public sector and internal economic development that could kickstart sick economies.
· In South Africa from 1933-45, when the Great Depression and World War II destroyed the world market and froze international payments, the answer was simple. New state-owned enterprises like Eskom and Transnet, plus economic-localisation policies, created infrastructure that served South Africans (albeit in a racially-biased way), and therefore generated a massive increase in local manufacturing. Black workers’ wages ultimately rose at their fastest level ever (relative to white worker wages) as a result of the demand for labour that was artificially stimulated.
· In addition to health-care infrastructure, there must be a dramatic increase in public-works construction for healthcare, electricity, hygiene and water/sanitation supply. Hundreds of billions of rands have been allocated by the state and State Owned Enterprises to fossil-centric mega-projects (e.g. transport for coal exports), Special Economic Zones and other dubious uses. This is the time for a Green New Deal that will catapult South Africa into a sustainable, wage-led economic recovery, protected from the vulnerabilities of a globalisation era which has now come to a definitive, crashing halt.
· Economic crisis is not only collapsing our stock market (by 14 March it was 28% lower than peak in early 2018) but threatening our financial markets more generally, with spiralling debt defaults. Tightened exchange controls so as to radically lower interest rates, plus the potential for nationalisation of failing banks, are now under global discussion. Fiscal stimulation is, like 2009, all the rage - even in countries like the U.S. and Britain where right-wing ideologues rule. The North's 2008-15 "Quantitative Easing" (lose money) strategy could be implemented in South Africa but only if exchange controls prevent the outflow of rands; it was such controls that by all accounts assisted South Africa in withstanding the 2008-09 global financial meltdown, but they need urgent tightening.
· Subsidies that have been directed at now-failing export oriented industries should be redirected urgently, so as to support new industries that can take over from collapsed imports. These in turn will be vital once the African Continental Free Trade Agreement comes into effect, so that instead of the much-disrupted air and sea transport networks, Africans can access basic manufactured goods sent directly from South Africa. In past decades, this country had a vibrant set of basic industries: food processing, clothing, textiles, footwear, appliances, electronics and similar sectors. They were lost during the mindless neoliberal era of the 1990s, and even this year we've seen more evidence of imports swamping local producers, including poultry and steel. The intensity of Donald Trump's hatred for Africa includes serious threats of ending the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act, and what is needed in this context of a superpower leader gone insane, is less vulnerability to foreign markets.
· In short, we need to COVIT-19-proof our economy. That means the old neoliberal mantras of exporting raw materials and deindustrialising our manufacturing require urgent reversal. We need to COVIT-19-proof our fiscus and monetary system, so emergency taxes on the rich and corporations, prescribed assets so as to direct our pension investments into the real economy (not the casino-capitalist JSE), Quantitative Easing and directed credit will all be necessary, as many other countries are realising. And we need a decisive stimulus from below, with a Basic Income Grant and expanded unemployment support now just as urgent as guarantees to meet our society's basic needs in an affordable way.
Don’t waste this crisis President! Change direction! Act to protect your people!
Issued by SAFTU, 15 March 2020