08/04/2020

On COVID-19 and Imperialism



Nommo Editorial Collective








“Our yearning for a different world must be headed by demands capable of encompassing those who are nearly always forgotten.”




It is with a certain degree of hesitation and humility that we begin this statement on COVID-19. A feeling of restraint initially followed our decision to include our writing in the throng of words analysing, dissecting, encouraging action in relation to the virus and its social effects. Given the constraints placed on physical modes of organising and protest, our reluctance was tied to the sense that words on their own were not enough to heal the immense pain, suffering and uncertainty of this time. But in the spirit of solidarity with social movements working to make life more liveable for now and always, we offer some words and demands.


We wish to add our voices to the chorus of those calling for the world we inhabit after this epidemic to be radically different from the world we knew before. We have no choice, no other roads or paths to freedom except through the total transformation of society. We are in dissent against the social murder that has taken and does regularly take place through the devaluation of human life made possible by the forces of neoliberalism, capitalism and imperialism. Our dissent grounds us in centuries old and ongoing collective struggles that give much needed shape, definition, urgency and clarity to the nebulous and fractured present. This chorus will get louder and louder as the days go by – it cannot be stopped.


As a publication dedicated to the many struggles waged by Indigenous people, people of the Global South, their descendants and those in diaspora, against the everyday and structural violences of capitalism, colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism, we know that it is impossible to speak about the Coronavirus epidemic, without also discussing the glowing opportunity this presents for disaster capitalists and imperialists of all kinds. Be it the US state department trying its luck once again at violently deposing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (clearing the way for American fossil fuel interests), or the World Bank that continues to bang the drum of the deadly aid-for-austerity doctrine in the world’s most exploited nations –  this crisis calls for dogged scrutiny on those who seek to drain yet more resources and cheap labour from the global poor.


As COVID-19 hardens its grip on the world, with a million confirmed cases and thousands of deaths, we witness the exposure of the grotesque contradictions and brutalities of global capitalism. It is a lie to say that these injustices are only being ‘revealed’ as though for the first time, called forth from the shadows to which they had been previously relegated, rather their explicit manifestation in this context where they cannot be so easily brushed aside simply means more death, more suffering, more pain for those who reside in the world’s poorest and hence most vulnerable nations. A world that requires suffering and brutality to be ‘revealed’ before drastic action can be taken, is a world that sees the suffering of certain people as prerequisite, as normal.


While the virus has yet to spread throughout low income countries, in places of extreme vulnerability marked by high population density and severely limited access to running water (in part due to its privatisation) it is critical that the rate of infection does not reach the same levels seen in Europe and North America. Despite these clear dangers, news media in Europe downplayed the threats to the non-Western global poor, reacting with surprise at the relatively few cases in Africa. This lent legitimacy to the erroneous view that the virus could not survive in warmer weather, or that Africa’s possession of the world’s youngest urban population would mitigate the virus’s severity – an infodemic of sorts. But as Mike Davis points out, with cases appearing in Lagos, Kigali, Addis Ababa and Kinshasa, the world’s youngest population is already highly susceptible to malnutrition, ill health and existing infections, which heighten the deadly properties of the virus.


In places with rich organizing traditions, rightly anxious about resource sovereignty, economic growth has been subordinated to health and well-being by force. In countries such as Haiti, the inability to adequately attend to the health needs of its citizens is allied with US imperialist intervention. After the US backed coup which deposed Haiti’s social-democratic President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the island state saw its health budget slashed from 16.6% in 2004 to 0.06% between 2017-2018.


And the punishment for states that reject such brazen and racist violations of sovereignity surpasses belief. One third of humanity lives under unilateral sanctions imposed by the US. Those living under the most bruising sanctions also happen to be in the epicentre of the virus outbreak. According to The Intercept, an Iranian dies from the virus every 10 minutes, that’s 50 people infected per hour. To add salt to the wound, Mike Pompeo this month announced fresh new sanctions for the Iranian people.


Already, Google has removed Iran’s coronavirus app designed to broadcast public health updates. Banks won’t do business with Iran – even on transactions on essential supplies – for fear of being hit with fines by the US. Lorries packed with medical supplies destined for Iran have been stopped by Romanian and Bulgarian officials obeying US sanctions. And as Mehdi Hasan notes, the US has found no better time than now to bang the war drum, seeing  ‘an opportunity to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iran as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country’.


In the case of Venezuela, sanctions, according to Jeoffrey Sachs at the Centre for Economic and Policy Research fit the definition of ‘collective punishment’ as outlined by  both the Geneva and Hague international conventions, to which the US is a signatory. Sachs estimates more than 40,000 deaths from 2017 to 2018 were inflicted by sanctions. Venezuela’s healthcare capabilities will no doubt be put under extreme stress when the virus spreads. Anticipating this, President Maduro made a desperate plea to the IMF for an emergency loan. In March, his request was rejected on the grounds that there is no ‘clarity’ about whether the IMF recognised the Venezuelan government. This cruel decision must be seen in connection with the malign governance structure of the IMF itself, whereby financial contributions determine the balance of vote shares. In this case, the very empire calling for regime change in Venezuela (and that put a $15 million bounty on Maduro) has the most weight.


While the US busies itself by disrupting the flow of medical aid, pressing countries to reject vital medical aid from China and Cuba,  seizing shipments of ventilators paid for by defenseless island states, it has also passively waged misery on its domestic population. Since 2018, Trump administration tariffs on Chinese goods have artificially raised prices on Chinese medical supplies such as personal protective equipment by as much as 25%. ‘America first’ trade policy now has nurses wearing garbage bags.



“A world that requires suffering and brutality to be ‘revealed’ before drastic action can be taken, is a world that sees the suffering of certain people as prerequisite, as normal.”




It is imperative that the virus and its effects are not thought of as novel and unprecedented. For those attuned to an entirely different end of the global order, the current state of affairs, which include: the rampant spread of infectious diseases – in many cases, similar diseases have been spread by neocolonial and imperialist forces, take the cholera epidemic in Yemen, the result of the US and UK backed Saudi  and UAE gulf coalition siege, and the UN’s role in the devastating cholera outbreak in Haiti –  as well as state and military enforced lockdowns are not unique. Rampant capital and imperial expansion means that not only are such pathogens becoming increasingly common, but, as the authors of the essay ‘Covid and Circuits of Capital’ put it, ecosystems with ‘wild’ viruses ‘are being drastically streamlined by capital-led deforestation’ and made even more unmanageable by ‘deficits in public health and environmental sanitation.’


The destruction of ecosystems by agribusiness works alongside neoliberal policies and financialization which means there is a lack of health infrastructure in the Global South to sufficiently deal with the epidemic if rates of infection were to reach those currently seen in Europe and North America. This is the fruit of the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), which from the 1980s onwards entailed the redistribution of structural-decision making power away from the state and into global economic institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF in exchange for aid, leading to the axing of public health, education and public sector development.


The legacy of these aid bribes are still felt today. In 1987, the Bamako initiative put in place by WHO and UNICEF mandated the implementation of user fees for services in African hospitals at the point of delivery. In Zimbabwe, Congo and Burkina Faso, structural adjustment has led to economic and political crises, starvation, the destruction of homes and communities, deforestation and land grabs, all of which have greatly contributed to climate disasters in the past few years


Structural adjustment has also fed directly into the existence of the ‘debt colony’, the global system of dispossession through debt. As Thomas Sankara presciently argued in 1987:


“Debt has to be seen from the standpoint of its origins. The origins of debt arise from the origins of colonialism. Those who lend us money are the same as those who colonized us before. They are those who used to manage our states and economies.”


Today, debt is managed by groups of international creditors, both private and official, who control the movement of vast sums of money from the public of the global periphery into the financial systems of the world’s richest countries. Debt repayments force poorer countries into brutal and cruel austerity, it is theft and expropriation, where as of 2017, it was estimated that poorer countries had payed $4.2 trillion in interest payments to their creditors in Europe and North America since 1982, which far outweighs the development aid and foreign direct investment these countries have received.  In response to the imminent debt and economic crisis, brought on by the COVID-19 epidemic, there has been a deluge of articles from centrist-Western media that call for ‘debt relief’ and for rich developed countries to realise ‘that Africa’s looming crisis will eventually be their crisis’ but such calls reek of white saviorism and do nothing to speak out against the colonial logics upon which the system of global finance was built.  What is needed is debt cancellation, the restitution of stolen wealth and resources, the end of a world organised around expropriation, and immediate investment in health infrastructure and the end of neoliberalism in and across all sectors.


Despite calls from the Financial Times for a rebuffing of the social safety net, movements on the frontlines should not be fooled by this fluffy rhetoric. Remarks made by the World Bank President David Malpass at a G20 crisis meeting on March 23rd make plain that recovery plans will be in the service of rescuing big business, not hungry workers.


“Countries will need to implement structural reforms to help shorten the time to recovery and create confidence that the recovery can be strong.  For those countries that have excessive regulations, subsidies, licensing regimes, trade protection or litigiousness as obstacles, we will work with them to foster markets, choice and faster growth prospects during the recovery.”


It is clear that capitalism and imperialism are our great existential threats- it is not possible to build a just world with them, they cannot be reformed or appeased, they are insatiable dragons that require the sacrifice of countless ‘others’ whose lives are regarded as disposable apart from their ability to generate profit and stimulate the economy. In the coming days, and months and years, while governments talks about ‘winning’ the ‘war’ against COVID-19, our yearning for a different world must be headed by demands capable of encompassing those who are nearly always forgotten, of resurrecting a world based on care, mutual-aid and collectivity that rejects subjugation, conquest, ownership, individualism.


At the end of The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon tells his readers to ‘turn over a new leaf, work out new concepts and set afoot a new man’, What will the new man about to be born from this specific context look like? They would possess the knowledge that our struggles are long and interconnected, and health is intimately entangled with all other aspects of human life. Below is a non-exhaustive list of demands that we hope will be added to by those who read this statement. It is a speculative dictate for the world to come.



“We have no choice, no other roads or paths to freedom except through the total transformation of society.”





TOWARD A HUMANISM MADE TO THE MEASURE OF THE WORLD


GLOBAL HEALTHCARE NOW

We must tend to the global social body collectively, through the sharing of resources, skills, and materials. We call for the immediate end of neoliberal privatization of the healthcare sector in the Global South. Pharmaceuticals and hospitals should be nationalised, forced to stop their profit-making and create medicines that respond to the diverse needs of the population. We demand the immediate requisitioning of private hospitals, facilities, manufacturers and staff that can aid the mass production of ventilators, and protective equipment, so that they may be distributed to high-priority regions, such as the Central African Republic, which stores just 3 ventilators.



END ALL ECONOMIC SANCTIONS & END THE IMPERIALIST WAR MACHINE

We call for the immediate end to sanctions and blockades intended to punish countries such as Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and Palestine. We should see these sanctions as what they really are: a way to accelerate economic depression, hyperinflation, poverty and death in politically disobedient states. We call for the end of the imperialist war machine in all its guises. And with it the end of the death and destruction it leaves in its wake.


ABOLISH PRISONS AND BORDERS

Institutionalised incarceration is a form of extreme violence. Whether for-profit or run by the state, prisons mean to dispose of people. Prisons subject racialized communities, survivors of domestic violence and child abuse to human misery and nothing more. It is also impossible to do social distancing in prisons, where the probability of infection is several times higher. Keeping people incarcerated is to usher in a jail pandemic with open arms.  No one is free unless everyone is free, we say release them all.


We insist on the payment of reparations to the people and communities whose lives have been impacted by the callous injustice of the world’s borders and prisons. Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants must have their applications to citizenships fast tracked, and have the attending rights of citizenship, including unimpeded access to healthcare – as is already underway in Portugal.


IMMEDIATE CANCELLATION OF DEBT & END THE RULE OF GLOBAL FINANCE

Most debt is denominated in dollars and the currencies of many states’ in the Global South are pegged to the dollar (others like the CFA franc are pegged to the Euro). This allows the rich nations of the Global North to exert financial and political control over those in the South, who have no choice but to cooperate and implement ruthless economic reforms. The outcome, as we know, is catastrophic: spiralling debt, ecological devastation and widespread poverty – the inevitable results of capitalist production. Global finance subjugates the world to the demands of imperialism. We cannot let it continue to do so. We call for the cancellation of debt and the abolition of the imperialist system of global finance.


GLOBAL WORKERS RIGHTS

The future must be based on the needs and demands of those who live off work, not wealth. The response of the internationalist left has been to stand up for the rights of workers worldwide. Take the factories in Bangalore which remained open without protective equipment, or space to practise social distancing until wildcat strikes by garment workers forced factory owners to close down amidst the epidemic. We must follow suit and support migrant workers, factory workers, sex workers, street traders, agricultural workers and all those in precarious and informal employment, in China, Bangladesh, India, Ecuador amongst many others. Whilst UK/EU and North American governments have provided some limited funding to soften the blow of economic recession, through furloughing for instance, private sector hegemony in the Global south has gutted the capacity of many states to build public finances. We call for decent living wages for all, as well as paid sick-leave and social protection in the form of grants for workers, not tethered to the false poverty line trotted out by the World Bank, who themselves admit is too low to be used in any but the very poorest countries. This must be accompanied by a ceiling on tenant rents, and a total repealing of anti-union laws. We also demand that governments organise the provision of nutritious food and other resources for workers through public distributions systems.


HOMES FOR EVERYONE

In cities such as Alexandria in Johannesburg where over 700,000 people live in 5 square kilometres, in Lagos where over 300,000 people live on homes built on stilts in a lagoon, social distancing is a practical impossibility. We call for governments to house those needing shelter and safe, dignified places in which to live, to open up hotel rooms and unused homes and to find permanent housing solutions in the aftermath of the epidemic. We have seen, as in the case of South Africa, that the state has evicted workers from shacks, using ‘de-densification’ as an excuse. Such actions are indefensible and we demand safe housing, rent-waivers and a moratorium on evictions. We also call for the mass-provision of safe water access points in areas with limited access to water as well as the distribution of soap and washing facilities in all communities. We also recognize the fact that ‘home’ as both an idea and material reality, is not a safe or welcoming place for many people, for some, including women, children, adolscents, queer, trans and non-binary people, it can seriously threaten or endanger their lives, as well as emotional and physical well-being. To this end, we demand that well-funded shelters be introduced and maintained in local communities, capable of supporting those experiencing domestic violence and other forms of abuse during this time and after.


AN END TO MINING AND INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE

Research shows that the disruption of ecosystems by logging, mining, road building or industrial farming brings people into closer contact with wildlife, enabling the transfer of human infections of animal origin and increasing the risk of disease. Is Covid19, as Issa Shivji puts it, nature’s revenge for centuries of capitalist barbarity? The emergence of new pathogens is inextricably tied to global finance and imperialism, as large-scale mining and industrial agriculture are enabled by the inflow of foreign direct investment – mainly from the Global North to the South. This has had disastrous consequences for communities throughout the Global South, destroying the life-sustaining resources of local populations and leaving behind irreversibly damaged ecosystems. Many communities are still living with the consequences today. We cannot allow the reproduction of capitalism through imperialism to continue. It can only lead to social and ecological collapse. Therefore, we call for an end to the most exploitative and ecologically damaging sectors of capitalist-imperialist production: large-scale mining and industrial agriculture.