Habib Ayeb writes how the global pandemic is a direct result of the neoliberal model of production, which is based on the assumption of the superiority of human beings over nature. The consequences are tragically diverse – from the extinction of bees, one of the most important links in the ecological chain – to the emergence of deadly new viruses. Assessing the public health response to Covid-19 in Tunisia, Ayeb argues that we must seek an alternative to capitalism before the system attempts to relaunch the processes of accumulation.
By Habib Ayeb
To start with, we must be clear, the Covid-19 pandemic does not correspond to a natural disaster such as an earthquake, a strong storm or a tsunami. These cases, all necessarily localized, can only affect the populations who live or frequent the place of the event. Of course, victims can sometimes number in the hundreds of thousands, but the direct impact on the rest of the world remains small. These events, at times dramatic, are the product of extremely complex mechanisms, underlying the functioning of the planet – the wind, tectonic plates, the tide – which scientists are able to explain but which are impossible to prevent.
Seen through this lens, the Covid-19 pandemic is not caused by an event that came from nowhere. The pandemic, which has gripped the entire planet, and of which the human cost will be enormous, is a direct result of the neoliberal, extractive and intensive model of production, which is based on the false assertion of the superiority of human beings over nature.
The most well-known example of the short-sightedness and the criminality of this dominant economic model is the catastrophic global disappearance of bees. A collective irresponsibility lies in believing that the ‘world’ can live without bees and that nature can continue as usual despite the extinction of one of the most important links in the ecological chain. Indispensable for the pollination of flowers, the bee is an essential link in the ecological and food chain and in the balance of ecosystems. It contributes to the survival of many plant and animal species. Their disappearance disrupts ecosystems, impoverishes biodiversity and thus promotes the emergence or displacement of certain viruses and other microbes previously isolated. This is clear for everyone to see because bees are visible. It is easy to notice if bees are there or not, to count them with some precision, and even to multiply them by creating the conditions for their conservation and reproduction.
The problem with a virus is that it is totally invisible to the human eye. That it is infinitely minuscule makes it both worrying and intriguing. The big difference between bees and Covid-19, is that the latter remains totally unknown. We only know what experts want to tell us, which is not the case with bees.
Not knowing an ‘enemy’ – whether real or imaginary – is a source of considerable anxiety; not knowing how to protect yourself can lead to occasional and uncontrollable panic. The solution may lie in denial or repression. If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. The disappearance of the bee, however, is a reality, whilst the presence of the virus remains in the realm of the abstract, the unimaginable.
The destruction of nature by human activity has brought bees to the brink of extinction.
But when the same destruction of nature creates the necessary conditions for the ‘birth’ of a virus, no one realizes this instantaneously. The virus only becomes visible even to specialists by causing more or less distinct events, which attract the attention of experts and scientists, and corporations and finance capital that can try and benefit from it.
Thus, it is not surprising that people always ask the same questions: where did the virus come from? Why now? Why isn’t there a vaccine or a cure? Why are we not able to stop the spread despite all the human, scientific, economic and political means that we have at our disposal?
We have heard these questions for weeks, without receiving any accurate or convincing responses. In reality, the proper response to such questions requires taking a step back.
Nature never gives way, it reproduces itself
All around us, we witness nature’s capacity to reclaim itself at given times and places. The blades of grass that appear as if by miracle through asphalt and concrete, the greenery that reappears in ‘abandoned’ landscapes after years and years of absence due to chemical treatment (pesticides or fertilizers); the animals that return to regions that they had deserted years earlier; the ancient olive tree, believed dead but which regenerates itself and gives life to a small verdant bud… are these not clear demonstrations of the invincibility of nature and its unlimited capacity for resilience?
The intensive use of chemical goods in agriculture, such as pesticides, the phytosanitary products, the chemical fertilizers and antibiotics, widely used for intensive animal rearing, destroy the living conditions for bees. Over decades, we have become blinded from seeing the links between intensive capitalist agriculture and the disappearance of bees, and of many other animal and plant species. How many examples do we need to see the connection between the rapid extinction of species of animals and insects and the appearance of new uncontrollable pandemics on an unheard-of scale?
What the coronavirus reveals
In reality, Covid-19 reveals nothing that we didn’t already know. But this pandemic has the ‘benefit’ of obliging us to interrogate our lifestyles, our methods of production, consumption habits, our place in nature, and the role of the individual in relation to the collective, to the group, the community. It has taken the pandemic for us to start asking these questions. A few people have reacted individually or collectively to demand and imagine ‘another world’ but without any real impact on the way the world actually works. Covid-19 reminds us today, at great cost, that we cannot continue to live as before.
But what does Covid-19 tell us about the insufficiencies, injustices, and deconstructive processes in our world? What does Covid-19 tell us about institutions and their roles, about our health systems, and of social exclusion and marginalisation in society? More generally, Covid-19 lays bare our incapacity – on an individual, collective and institutional level – to deal with such a catastrophe the result of which are frighteningly accelerated levels of inequality, injustice and irresponsibility of the world’s one percent.
Health for the rich, sickness and death for the poor
The Global North has a monopoly over medical research and industry, which guarantees both monopoly rents and the immediate profit from scientific discoveries that allows almost exclusive control over the global market. Since the beginning of the pandemic, France and Germany came to an agreement to limit the export of medical equipment, thus preventing other countries from acquiring vital materials. Testing kits, ventilators, intensive care equipment are indispensable but the problem for countries in the Global South (with the exception of a few, such as China, Cuba, India, Brazil and South Korea) is that they have neither the skills nor the technologies, and least of all the financial means, to produce equipment of the required quality themselves. These countries remain incapable of acting against the virus while waiting for help from ‘friends’ in the North, who are too busy with their own problems to bother.
However, northern states, believing themselves to be ‘naturally’ protected by their economic and military power, were also taken by surprise and quickly deluged by the Covid-19 crisis. In just a few days, Italy had the most cases of the virus in the world, overtaking China, while France still has not acquired the necessary masks for their medical professionals, let alone the population in general.
On the national level in Tunisia and elsewhere, Covid-19 reveals a stratified system where healthcare is a privilege of the well-off, even in cases when there is a more or less well-functioning social security system. Tunisia’s public hospitals – with the exception of a few, notably located in the well-off neighborhoods and regions – lack equipment and medical staff. They offer a mediocre level of care and are constrained by draconian austerity measures. Generally, only poor patients – and especially those without ‘connections’- rely on these hospitals, without much hope of recovery. A large number of the specialist doctors who work in the public sector also work in private clinics, to which they direct their own patients. Some of them continue to work in public hospitals where they identify and direct patients towards the private sector, with the promise of better and quicker treatment in return for a fee.
As such, the Tunisian patient is generally confronted with a system of marketized healthcare, summarized simply: the more you can pay, the better chances you have of receiving an acceptable level of care. Thanks to Covid-19, we discover that there are many more intensive care units (ICU) -indispensable for those taken ill with the virus – in private hospitals than in the public sector. We already knew that this was the case with regards to scans, MRI or laboratory tests, yet for intensive care equipment we had assumed that this would be sufficiently provided for by the public medical structures. With a pandemic that requires an immediate provision of skill sets, certain indispensable materials, and the hospitalization of an unusually high number of people, such inequalities are brought sharply to light.
Moreover, it is not just the privilege of certain social groups who can access better care in private hospitals, in the map below, another injustice in the fight against Covid-19 is revealed: there are 331 ICU beds in Tunisia, across 7 coastal regions between Bizerte and Sfax; Tunis has 184, more than half of the national total. It is difficult to imagine a more flagrant socio-spatial inequality.
This map was published by Otjm Young Doctors Monastir. The regions which were equipped with intensive care units before the pandemic are marked in green.
When the pandemic is over, it will be necessary to think of radically reforming the healthcare system, which must be organized around a solid and competent public service, well-provisioned with material and human resources. The Cuban model is certainly the best adapted to our local reality of a dependent country without many resources. Without such essential preemptive measures, built around a strong system of public health, the consequence of a new pandemic could be even more catastrophic than the one we are currently living through.
Contempt and stigmatization
The absence of precise and detailed information on the scale, progression and consequences – recorded or real, which are not necessarily the same – of Covid-19 aggravate the yawning gap that already existed between a large part of the population and the state and its representatives. A lack of confidence, the proliferation of rumors and conspiracy theories about the pandemic and its origins are signs of just such a gap. So, the population grudgingly resign themselves to respect the rules and measures put in place by the government to avoid being sanctioned. The necessity for sanctions demonstrates a lack of trust in the people and shows the extent to which the elite are disconnected from the governed.
To explain the necessity of a curfew in peacetime – which was initially in place in Tunisia from 6pm to 6am, and was only later changed to start at 8pm – the authorities detailed the risks of overwhelming the capacity of the health system and the impossibility of hospitalizing such a huge number of patients at once. Though coherent, people naturally asked why hadn’t the government increased the capacity of the public hospitals, even if this required requisitioning the equipment from private hospitals? There is a mutual lack of trust between the state and the people and this goes back a long way, worsening with the amateurism of the new political class that have led the country since 2011, and exacerbated by the panic that has taken hold of the country.
When the pandemic ends
For years we have watched extraordinary ‘natural’ events occur one after the other, at an increasingly frequent rate, in close connection with global processes of climatic imbalance: destructive floods, droughts, storms, flu pandemics and currently, the coronavirus. At each of these ‘events’, we find a direct link back to capitalism and the process of accumulation.
The current pandemic has had an explosive effect on the world in record time. The scale is unprecedented – it may be the first time in recent history that a pandemic touched almost all of the world’s population, generating a global panic that is sure to produce consequences that are more serious than the impact of the virus on our physical health.
The rapid spread of the virus has been made possible by the extraordinary development of global travel and transportation. At the same time, the increased, almost ubiquitous, use of the internet and social media around the world has contributed to the development and amplification of rumors – bordering on international psychosis – that surrounds the pandemic. The accumulation of these two processes is the basis for the widespread panic animating our individual and collective behaviour.
When the pandemic ends, as it will, it will be necessary to push with more force than ever before for radical political change that calls into question the dominant development models. Now that nature has reminded us of its resilience and its capacity to react in an extremely violent manner, it would be suicidal to think that we can go back to business as usual, as if the pandemic was just an unfortunate natural catastrophe like an earthquake or a tsunami. It would be criminal to restart as if nothing happened.
The capitalist system, which is currently trying to limit the damage, will try to take everything back, by integrating current ‘losses’ as accidental costs, and to relaunch the processes of accumulation. This is what we need to prevent by drawing on the example of Covid-19 to argue and mobilize in favor of a revolutionary new model of global development based a new green alternative – one that is radical, social, ecological and feminist. Covid-19 has sounded a deafening alarm.
The devastating near extinction of the bee has not mobilized the world to change, but the appearance of a new coronavirus, this invisible and unknown enemy, should impose a total change on our lifestyle and push us to act with, not against, nature. In two or three months, a ‘simple’ virus has created one of the biggest crises of capitalism threatening its very foundations. Billions of dollars have been mobilized by countries around the world to save the prevailing capitalist system. But this will only succeed if tomorrow, everyone will have forgotten that the system being saved is one that created the crisis.
Habib Ayeb is a Geographer and filmmaker. He is president and founder of the Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment (OSAE) and a contributor to ROAPE.
Featured Photograph: The Tunisian Minister of the Interior visiting the Special Division of the National Guard in Bir Bouregba (9 April 2020).
A version of this blogpost was published in French on 26 March is available at OSAE website here (translated from French by Layli Foroudi).