By Dale T. McKinley
(This article was first published here).
Even during the best of times, there are always going to be rogues in our midst. However, it is during the worst of times (and we are most definitely in one of those times), when the roguish ranks seem to multiply exponentially and become ever-more emboldened.
There are different kinds of rogues. At the top of the pile are the “rogue-lights”; con-artists and scoundrels who cause lots of trouble but are generally redeemable. Then there are mid-range rogues of the nasty variety; the frauds, crooks, charlatans and swindlers who can do serious damage but whose activities are mostly smaller-scale. Right at the very bottom are the absolute worst of the lot; the truly horrible rogues who are wholly unprincipled, always deceitful, deeply narcissistic, inveterately corrupt and downright evil, and whose impact is often felt on an industrial scale.
Nowhere has the full panoply of roguishness been more on show during the Covid-19 (C-19) pandemic, than among politicians, corporate mandarins and the outfits they run. Little surprise then, that there are simply far too many rogues and cases of roguish behaviour to list in an article such as this. So, using some of the time that the lockdown has so forcefully provided, I have extracted what are arguably some of the most pertinent and egregious examples.
Let’s start with our own house and neighbourhood.
There is of course our favourite gangsta-style dresser and self-proclaimed “General”, Bheki Cele (otherwise known as the minister of police). His pseudo-moralistic, socially conservative and violence-embracing comments and approach are precisely what we don’t need during these turbulent, unpredictable and vulnerable times.
Next up is Finance Minister Tito (just call me a Thatcherite redux) Mboweni, for his general callous and patronising attitude towards the material plight of the majority of South Africa’s population, not to mention his thinly veiled (small-scale business destroying) xenophobia.
Or how about those members of South Africa’s police and army personnel who have varyingly whipped, punched, stolen from, beaten and shot hundreds of ordinary folk while enforcing the lockdown?
Then there are South African corporates like Clover and Shoprite-Checkers (among many others) that have failed to protect their workforces, resulting in many contracting the virus and some dying as a result. Companies like Mister Sweet and Ferrero (the maker of expensive chocolates for the well-to-do), have cynically used their status as “food processing” outfits to force hundreds of employees to work in close quarters under the threat of “no work no pay’ and dismissal.
Just north, past the 40km fence hastily erected last month to supposedly “secure” the border from the undeclared “enemy” (ie the Zimbabwean people), the rogues have not let a “good” crisis go to waste. President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his fat-cat militarised junta, masquerading as a democratically-elected government, deemed the wholesale destruction of already desperate informal traders’ produce and property as the best way to go about fighting C-19. After an opposition politician had the temerity to offer a small dose of legitimate criticism over the government’s general abandonment of the citizenry to fend for themselves, he was charged with insulting the president.
When it comes to South Africa’s BRICS buddies the roguish stakes have been raised further.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, certainly one of the most morally and intellectually challenged politicians around, has called C-19 “a little flu” and the concern around it “hysteria”. He has sacked his health minister for advocating a lockdown and made social media posts attacking the credibility of the World Health Organisation (WHO) by claiming the group encouraged homosexuality, masturbation and other sexual activity in children. Incredibly, Bolsonaro recently brushed off a journalist’s questions about the rising death toll (now over 10,000) by saying: “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”
Russian President Vladimir Putin (who for all intents and purposes, is the Russian state) has assiduously tried to distance himself from the outbreak, as if a roguely crafted stoicism and machismo can somehow protect him from the political and economic impact of the pandemic. Meanwhile state authorities have done their damndest to throttle accurate and timely C-19 related information and cover up their continued failure to properly equip and protect medical staff; as all the while the numbers of infected and dying grow rapidly by the day.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi initially dismissed the seriousness of C-19 and when he half woke-up to the opposite reality, his hastily announced lockdown left tens of millions of informal, migrant workers stranded and without any support from the national government. Modi has also done nothing to stop members of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from verbally and physically targeting Muslims, who have been blamed for bringing and spreading the C-19 virus to India.
For its part, the Chinese state has a uniquely rogue DNA; a combination of uber-capitalist economics with uber-Stalinist “communist” party politics. Whether it has been its initial and ongoing attempts to suppress information about the origins and subsequent extent of the outbreak, its complete silencing of internal whistleblowing and criticism, its brutally efficient repression of any attempts by workers to protest their working conditions or its introduction (in the name of fighting the virus) of hugely draconian and invasive surveillance measures, there is ample evidence to suggest it has been doing its utmost to win first prize for C-19’s best authoritarian rogue.
Elsewhere across the globe, there is a range of the ugly and the bizarre.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who clearly sees himself as a modern day Emperor of the Ottoman Empire, has overseen a systematic campaign of harassing and starving opposition-run municipalities of much needed resources to fight the pandemic. The most outrageous example saw his Interior Ministry shutting down a volunteer-run soup kitchen serving thousands of jobless people in the Antalya municipality. When it comes to areas run by the Kurdish minority, Erdoğan’s government has simply treated them as if they hardly exist. All the while, the occupying Turkish army and its reactionary jihadist militia allies are doing their best to prevent all medical supplies and humanitarian aid from reaching Rojava (North-East Syria).
Skip halfway across the world and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who truly does think that he is a feudal overlord, has warned he would order the country’s police and military to shoot dead anyone “who creates trouble”. More recently he threatened to introduce martial law in response to increasing dissent. Duterte’s ideological cousin in Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, has used the cover of the C-19 crises to engineer a parliamentary vote that allows him to rule by decree without a set time limit.
Not to be outdone, the Burmese (Myanmar) military arrested two artists in Kachin state, who had created a street mural showing healthcare workers fighting to save the planet and calling for unity, on charges of blasphemy. More generally, Burmese government authorities and leaders have been busy stoking Buddhist nationalism and ethnic intolerance, while continuing to wage war in several ethnic minority states.
Elsewhere, in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bolivia and Venezuela, journalists and citizen bloggers have been arrested and detained for reporting on or expressing opinions about C-19 on social media.
When it comes to sheer greed, corruption and contempt for the most vulnerable there are few better examples than that which recently took place in Puebla City (two hours south of Mexico City). There, a private water bottling company, Bonafont, closely tied to corrupt politicians, wealthy businessmen and narco-traffickers, drilled five water wells right next to a new plant being built, all without proper permits. The plan is to make huge profits selling the water to desperate Puebla City residents trying to fend off C-19, half of who lack any or adequate water access, thanks to captured, dysfunctional public services.
Or how about Mahan Air, a private Iranian airline linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). For weeks after the Iranian government officially barred flights to and from the country, it was allowed to fly passengers infected with the coronavirus to Iraq and Lebanon and between Iran and China, fuelling the spread of the virus across the Middle East.
And then there’s the UK’s EasyJet whose pilots and cabin crew were ‘asked’ to take three months’ unpaid leave while the company proceeded to give a £174-million dividend pay-out to shareholders; £60-million of that pay-out went to EasyJet’s founder, Stelios Haji-Ioannou.
Staying with the UK, it is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who provides what has to be one of the sweetest (rogue-eating humble pie) ironies to be thrown up by this pandemic. Johnson, who right up until C-19 hit the UK was energetically making xenophobic comments about immigrant workers and how they were supposedly taking advantage of Britain’s National Health Services (NHS), had his own life saved by two immigrant nurses working for the NHS when he was hospitalised with C-19.
Then there’s Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. In early April he declared that “no one in the country will die from coronavirus” (as of 10 May the official number of dead was 126), subsequently dismissed the pandemic as a “psychosis” and encouraged citizens to drink vodka to ward off the virus.
In direct competition for a liquid elixir, the government of Madagascan President Andry Rajoelina are busily touting a home-grown herbal potion as a C-19 cure. They have sent shipments to the “grateful” presidents of Tanzania, Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea.
Finally, there are some stand-out examples from the United States.
On the one side of the rogue coin are the greedy corporates and the dirty rich, who have been handed record bailouts, tax breaks and the like while public hospitals and low-income people have been starved of financial support. A handful of Wall Street investors – in this case “short-sellers” that “borrow” shares to buy them later at a cheaper price – who bet on US stocks taking a tumble as the pandemic was gathering steam, made a cool $344-billion (that is almost eight times the entire C-19 stimulus package of the South African government).
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has added a further $24-billion to his already over-stuffed bank vaults, while his company does its best to muzzle and fire workers trying to ensure that basic personal protection equipment is provided. Other corporate behemoths like Target, Starbucks, WholeFoods and Cargill (the US’s largest privately held company) have also failed to adequately protect their workforces while raking in the profits. In one Cargill meat processing plant in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, unsafe working conditions saw 130 of the 900 employees testing positive for C-19.
And, in what just might be the most outrageous example of the very real and dangerous “psychosis” of placing profits before people, officials in the state of Ohio are encouraging employers to report workers for “Covid-19 fraud” as the state starts to reopen some businesses. Any worker who refuses to report to work because of concerns over the pandemic can now be reported and have their unemployment benefits taken away. So far, employers have “turned in” about 1,200 workers.
On the other side of the coin is President Donald Trump. Even before the pandemic, Trump was doing his best to outdo all his fellow rogues, but since the outbreak, he has surged ahead of the competition and is now well on his way to consolidating his position as rogue numero uno.
Not one to ever miss an opportunity to attack and undermine anything based on science and rationality, Trump had already dismantled the team set up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to deal with pandemics before the outbreak had even reached US shores.
As C-19 began to spread, he called it a “Democratic hoax” and when he finally realised that he needed to do something, Trump proceeded to withhold federal government supplies of crucial medical equipment and financial support from some states run by Democratic governors.
Trump’s verbal abuse and political attacks on those trying to do the right thing have not let up since. In mid-April, he unilaterally suspended US government funding to the WHO (which constitutes about 15% of its entire budget), stating, without a shred of evidence, that the WHO was “mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus”. And, just a few days ago, the Trump administration shelved a CDC report meant to provide state and local officials with step-by-step guidelines on how they can re-emerge safely from lockdown.
While Trump clearly does not give a damn about ordinary, decent folk regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or nationality he most certainly has a soft spot for far-right, neo-fascist thugs. His public calls to “liberate” states trying to rationally balance shutdowns with the gradual opening up of economies have been swiftly answered by such thugs and their hangers-on, who have subsequently engaged in a series of armed provocations. Recently, a small, heavily armed group of these wannabe SS storm-troopers tried to storm the Michigan state capitol building; the next day many state legislators turned up at work wearing bullet-proof vests.
Trump is a deeply insecure and narcissistic rogue. As one major US media outlet reported, during a five-week stretch from mid-March to late April Trump lavished himself with congratulatory remarks 600 times (an average of 15 per day) while the infection rate and death toll across the USA skyrocketed. And according to White House insiders, Trump is refusing to wear a face mask because he is afraid it would make him look bad and thus hurt his chances at re-election.
No doubt about it, Trump is the human equivalent of the bony-eared assfish. The little deep-sea creature has the smallest known brain-to-body mass ratio of all vertebrates. At its 2016 unveiling in a Canadian museum, the curator had this to say: “It’s got a big bulbous head… a very large mouth… a tapering body and flabby skin’. Enough said.
Welcome to the C-19 rogues gallery.