COVID 19: The politics of disease and the disease of Politics. pt2

Part 2: The disease of politics and the need for a new politics   

In Part 1 we looked at how the Covid 19 pandemic is acting as a lens bringing into focus how our world is being shaped by three upheavals – neo-liberalism’s failed strategy; new rounds of geo-political power struggles and a political crisis of legitimacy in the major Western powers.

In Part 2 we trace how the consequences of this last upheaval, in the absence of a mass movement for social justice, is allowing elite governments, including our own to use the Covid 19 pandemic as a vehicle for diseased politics.      

The political patterns of lock-downs in the North 

The first of the European countries to implement a lock-down was Italy.

But Italy hasn’t had a functioning government since the EU decided to appoint their own functionary as Prime Minister after Italy had become the epi-centre of Europe’s debt crisis in 2008/2009 and was refusing to implement austerity “properly” as decided by the European Central Bank (ECB).


Since then Italy has had new parties like the 5-Star Movement challenge the post-WW2 parties.

Italy’s 2019 budget was rejected by the EU as it once-again flouted the rules of the Maastricht order.

Italy is ruled by a coalition with little public credibility. Infection rates rose and death rates because of this lack of credibility made lock-downs initially impossible to implement.

Spain was the heartbeat of the 2010/2011 phase of public occupations of central squares in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The Indignados of Madrid were the inspiration for the formation of a new political movement, Podemos, which has challenged Spain’s post-Franco duopoly of the Socialist, PSOE (on the centre-Left) and the Partido Popular (on the Right). 

Spain has had 3 inconclusive elections over 2018 and 2019, none of which has delivered a majority for any party to form a workable government.

Then there is the ongoing issue of the Catalan independence movement, which threatens to dismember Spain’s richest area. The leaders of an initiative to hold a Catalan independence referendum in 2018 have just been jailed for treason. 

Spain’s Covid 19 crisis and its response is at least partly to do with this political vacuum. 

France’s Macron won the 2018 Presidential elections in the second round after getting less than 25% of the popular vote in the first round. He claims to be an outsider of France’s main political parties and is a hugely unpopular figure in that country.

He has been confronted with the largest ongoing social movement - the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) – which brought much of France to a standstill as they occupied public spaces for over a year. Then his attempts at pushing through pension “reforms” (making people work to an older age and get less pension in return) saw France’s labour movement mount waves of strikes and were at a deadlock when the Covid 19 hit France.

It is significant that France has gone the furthest with their lock downs – the military is in the streets and all protests have ground to a halt.     

Then there is Boris Johnstone’s Britain. Johnstone won the 2019 elections with the promise to “get Brexit done”. But Brexit was an outcome of a referendum in 2015 in which the voters thumbed their noses at the whole political class, the economists and the commentariat who warned that Brexit would be a disaster for all. 

So Johnstone promises have split his own party and he is left with having to appease an electorate who wanted Brexit but who hate the austerity imposed on them since the 2008 crisis. So far he has chosen to steal some of the spending promises of his Labour Party rival.

Britain’s iconic public healthcare system, the NHS, while continuing to provide care free of charge at the point of service, has been turned into a commercialised enterprise of Public-Private Partnerships, an internal market” of Trusts and outsourced services. And starved of money during the years of austerity.     

Lacking legitimacy Johnstone initially dithered on the hope that “herd immunity” would somehow kick in and solve the Covid 19 pandemic. Since then he has gone full lock-down going on TV invoking the old WW2 Churchillian bull-dog imagery.

And then there is Trump. The world’s richest country is also the one with the worst and most expensive healthcare system of any of the “developed” nations.

The 2016 elections saw the surprise election of a real estate ignoramus over the ultimate Washington insider, Hilary Clinton.

Since then Trump has faced internal rebellions within the US state and even the threat of impeachment. And 2020 is an election year.

The USA is a federal country so Trump can’t just decree a nationwide lock down – this is a state prerogative. The USA is now the epi-centre of Covid 19 and major centres like New York and California are the main locations of morbidity and mortality. So the kind of “statesmanship” we see elsewhere in the world is not possible there. Instead it is state governors who are decreeing the lock down for their own agendas.

Trump in the meantime, as President, has the power over foreign policy. So his contribution to “statesmanship” has been entirely destructive. Decreeing more sanctions against Venezuela and Iran at a time when international cooperation is needed to fight the virus.

The USA exemplifies the political crisis of our times. The disjunct between the power of the USA and the quality of its political leadership has never been more glaring.

The Southern Equivalent 

Outside the rich countries of the Global North there are two outstanding examples of a lock down strategy for fighting the Covid 19 pandemic interfacing with political opportunism – India and in Chile.  

In India the current regime of Narendra Modi came into power via the election of his party the BJP in 2014. Modi’s political roots however lie in a Hindu movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that stands accused of fascism. 

Over the last two years Modi has been driving a war against India’s Muslim minority and closing down Indian-occupied Kashmir. In 2019 his notorious Citizenship Law – which begins to overturn India’s secular basis and discriminates against non-Hindus – has been the subject of mass protests. 

In 2020 Modi has now imposed a national lock-down of India on the basis of fighting the Covid 19 pandemic. This despite the fact that India, like the USA, is also a federal country of relatively independent states, and it should be the prerogative of state authorities to do so. 

So is this fighting disease or the disease of politics...? 

On the other side of the world, Chile – some say the birthplace of neo-liberalism as under the dictator, Pinochet, the “Chicago Boys” of Milton Freidman’s inspiration were invited to test out the plans of privatisation and monetarism after the coups against D’Allende in 1972 – there has been an ongoing mass uprising for much of 2019 and 2020. The government of Sebastian Pinera has faced civil disobedience and occupations of public squares not seen for decades. 

The main demand of this movement came to be that the Chilean people draft a new Constitution. Pinera has been resisting this demand tooth-and-nail. But eventually was forced to declare that a referendum on a New Constitution would be held in April 2020.

Then came Covid 19 and Pinera declared a lock-down and that the Referendum would be postponed indefinitely.

Which brings us to Africa …                                                                  

A lock down is not an option for many African countries. State authority has been destroyed in Libya and Somalia. Sudan and Algeria have had insurrection through 1918 and 1919 and there is still no effective authority. It is only a limited option in Nigeria. 

But it is an option for South Africa…

Cyril Ramaphosa became leader of the ANC by the skin of his teeth at the ANC Conference at NASREC in December 2017, and thereby the President of South Africa. 

The ANC has become riven with factions as it moved from a liberation movement to becoming the party of the elite and embracing neo-liberalism. The factions are in the main, not about ideological contestation but about different moments and forms of patronage with state contracts and access to BEE packages. The Gupta fracas was one of these forms of patronage which incurred the most notoriety. 

Ramaphosa himself appeared to be permanently damaged goods by virtue of his association with the massacre at Marikana.

Nevertheless, his supporters championed him as the leader capable of cleaning the Augean stables and re-establishing a government in which “things worked” and the corrupt get their just desserts. Of course “supporters” are a broad church of social forces – from middle class public opinion who want clean government, to new tenderpreneurs who want BEE contracts, to the wealthy who want to score more IPPs with ESKOM to the super-wealthy who want to continue to have an enabling environment where they can speculate all over the world in an unhindered way.

Since his victory there has been a growing unease with his inability to get things done. The various Commissions of Enquiry might have exposed all sorts of malfeance and corruption but nobody has been arrested as yet. 

Then came Budget 2020. With the mainstream media blinded by Moody’s threat of a downgrade, somehow a budget which had cutting the public sector wage bill at its epicentre and postponing the flagship NHI while cutting the healthcare budget was lauded by commentators for “showing great courage”. This whilst Covid 19 was on the way.   

So, might the Covid 19 and the lock downs finally be Cyril’s’ moment? In the sense that the neo-liberal lobby get their way of having a moral leader who gets things done?

Or is this an opportunity for those fighting for social justice to open the debate to more visionary ideas – not only to fight the virus and ensure that the pandemic does not wipe out huge swathes of poor but also to begin to push a new progressive policy agenda – like a unified universal national healthcare system etc.

Already a number of activist organisations all over the country – who well knew the threat posed by Covid 19 - met before the lock-down, and have used virtual spaces for discussion during the lock –down. They have raised both urgent immediate demands that are needed at this time to protect ordinary people from a disaster, and measures that can help us think about what things may look like after Covid 19 has wrecked its course. 

In a situation where government is practising the diseased politics of doing whatever to appease the markets rather than to dealing with the threats posed to the poor majority, the key will be not to merely stay at home under lock down and leave all the big decisions to government. The key will be how do we continue to find means of social mobilisation even under the shadow of the pandemic.

How do we overcome the disease of politics and force a new kind of politics even under the shadow of a pandemic?                



Leonard Gentle has been an activist since the 1970s and a trade union organiser for SACCAWU and NUMSA. He is the retired director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) and a former consultant in research translation to the SAMRC.    



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