Epidemics and social change

ON June 7, 2020, the President of the World Bank told the British Broadcasting Corporation that, “[t]he poor are in an unequal situation”.

He made the comment in light of ravages of the corona virus among the world’s poor. Given a chance, the President of the World Bank would probably edit himself. As it stands his statement suggests that (a) it is possible to be poor and not be in an unequal position and (b) his observation tells the world something hitherto unknown.

But we have heard similar statements, made with contemplation, by leaders of governments, telling us that “Corona virus has exposed inequality in our societies”.
Contrary to what the World Bank president seemed to suggest, it is not possible to be poor and be equal.

The facts and social consequences of inequality is bad distribution of the world’s wealth: obscene wealth for a few, and poverty for the majority of the world’s population. These social problems have been described and criticised for many years. They can be seen every day and are well-known. Knowledge of them did not come with the corona virus.

For politicians and the rich to pretend that the corona virus has ‘exposed’ inequality and poverty is to confirm the same old and notorious lie that politicians tell the poor that they will fight poverty.

Further, the pretence is politicians’ way of buying more time by suggesting ‘We are becoming aware of this for the first time, and we need more time to think about what to do’. And it is also to say governments’ documents titled ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy’, produced after costly exercises, are intended for some show.

What the virus has done — even this ought to be obvious without a pandemic further impoverishing and killing people — is to show the follies of current systems of distributing wealth and power.
That, if you concentrate wealth on the few and leave others poor, it becomes difficult for the poor to avoid disease and death by ‘social distancing’. This is to say that it becomes difficult for the poor to avoid the disease and death by staying at home because staying at home means there won’t be anything to eat for that day.

It is difficult for the poor to avoid the disease and death by washing their hands regularly with soap when, for years, ruling elites have ignored the poor’s need for clean water and their basic necessities like soap.  
One of the world’s leading experts on what happens in societies during and after epidemics is a Mosotho scholar, Professor Pule Phoofolo. He and others have studied the relationship between epidemics and change in society. Their studies have shown that societies that experience epidemics often undergo various forms of change, including revolutionary change that ushers-in new ways of distributing wealth and power.

Thus, with current corona pandemic, it is possible that some of the changes we have been panicked into — people working from home, teaching online for children whose parents can afford — will remain, in some form or other, for years to come.  

One of the questions about our current situation is whether our experiences of the corona virus are going to lead to any fundamental change that will end, or, at least, tackle, inequality and poverty. As those who have studied these matters have shown, in the majority of cases, epidemic-induced change begins to happen when society begins to conduct themselves in new ways that force politicians and governments to bring about change that accords with societies’ day-to-day experience of the epidemic and its aftermath.

In the current world situation, however, it is arguable that, it is politicians who should lead calls and action for change. That political leadership is necessary to recognise that poverty makes the poor unable to protect themselves from disease and death on daily a basis, let alone when epidemics strike.

But we are in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, capitalism has so enticed society that even those who the system has left in most hopeless economic situations have been socialised into accepting and even protecting the system. Consequently, they do not question its ways of distributing wealth because they have been socialised to live in the hope of benefiting from it one day.

On the other hand, politicians show a total lack of interest in ending poverty and inequality by changing systems of wealth-distribution they have created to benefit them.
Already, in 2014, those who study globalisation warned the world’s governments that the next cause of collapse of the world economy, leading to untold suffering for the poor, would be a pandemic. This ought to have prompted governments to establish social safety nets which would enable the poor to protect themselves from disease and death.

Governments’ response or lack of it to corona virus seem to suggest that despite this warning politicians carried on with poverty-generating and inequality-generating ways of doing things. It is clear that nobody prepared the world’s poor by ensuring they would be protected or they would be in a position to protect themselves from disease and death when a pandemic struck.

Without intention to criticise the generosity of those who extended and continue to extend a hand to Basotho who are hungry, at the very least, it is questionable whether the poor ought to be put in situations of having to show gratitude to the better-off in ways displayed on Lesotho TV.
Some images look really demeaning to the recipients of this generosity. Those who are helping the poor in their communities, away from Lesotho TV cameras, need to be applauded.  

There is need for change in the distribution of wealth which will ensure that, individuals’ generosity is in addition to support by government; and that such generosity does not cost the poor their dignity. There is need for change that will ensure that, when necessary, all of us are able to stay at home without some fearing dying of hunger at home with the children. There is need for change that will ensure that, all of us can avoid disease and death by keeping distance from one another, when this becomes necessary. There is need for change that will ensure that we all have clean water and other basic necessities for healthy, decent living.  

Motlatsi Thabane

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