Irrespective of its origins, the COVID 19 Pandemic has dramatically brought to the fore the reality of human global interconnectedness and interdependence, like never before in our lifetime.
The sad irony is that what proponents of globalization wished for but probably never thought would be possible to its full extent has been attained in a few cruel weeks, with the pandemic wreaking havoc that seems unstoppable. Another irony of the universality of this scourge is its overwhelming reach, cutting across some sacred divides, its non-discriminatory affliction of every group, an ‘equalizer’ of sorts. It cannot be lost on observers that victims now are not only the usual trodden of the earth but include leading citizens, even the political hierarchies and royal houses are not beyond its reach.
However, the consequences and impact of this scourge are not as equitable as its spread. The worst victims are bound to be, as always, the poor and the excluded particularly in the developing countries. The economic and social impact will be disproportionately affecting working people, the unemployed and the marginalized. Take employment and public health for instance, the fight against endemic disease and poor nutrition is an uphill battle even during normal times. Similarly, productive employment in the informal sector is precarious as it is. These conditions will be worsened with the onslaught that the pandemic brings in its wake.
Many African and other developing countries have followed Chinese, European and American approaches of drastic lockdowns, in the efforts to stem the spread of the pandemic. While such measures are naturally prudent, unlike in China and Europe, little thought seems to be given to the need to heighten measures to ameliorate the adverse economic and social effects on working people and the poor.
This is also a time not to lose sight of the need to protect civil liberties. The tendency in many African and other developing countries, to use law and order as a blunt instrument of control is regrettably too prevalent. A few cases are already apparent even in countries that are usually visibly committed to the rule of law, the reported incidents in South Africa bear testimony to such abuses. That South Africa has now taken steps with the appointment of a distinguished judge, to ensure a prudent balance the need to keep track of the spread of the pandemic and the need to respect citizens’ civil liberties and right to privacy, is commendable.
In addition to such measures, now is the time for policies to support workers and their families in multiple ways, ranging from sick leave to access to medical care. The guarantee of paid sick leave and medical care during this critical time would undoubtedly help check the spread of COVID 19. In situations where employment in the ever-diminishing formal sector is already in contravention of decent work standards in most African and other developing countries, there seems to be no social protection policies being formulated, let alone implemented to alleviate hardship.
The implementation of evidence-based support measures that take account of the realities of crowded communities where ‘social distancing’ is not possible, for instance, is therefore imperative. Long after the more immediate consequences of the pandemic have hopefully receded, the devastating consequences on economies, health and access to education, not to mention basic needs will linger as they are bound to be long-term.
When all is told and done about the COVID 19 pandemic and efforts to stop it, the world and African countries in particular cannot disregard the reality of its disproportionate impact on the poor and marginalised. These are not merely objects and subjects of testing and experimentation, but citizens with needs and rights. Any efforts that do not take account of these considerations are not only unacceptable but are bound to deepen the crisis and fail.
Evance Kalula is Chairperson of the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA), Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Cape Town and Honorary Professor at the University of Rwanda.
Sebastiana Kalula is a Geriatrician and Associate Professor of Medicine and Director of the Walter and Albertina Sisulu Institute of Ageing at the University of Cape Town.