Pulverized: Capitalism, Africa and Covid-19

ROAPE’s Leo Zeilig and Hannah Cross ask if the experience of life with the Covid-19 outbreak is the common experience of life and death in the South. They argue that now is the moment to build unity behind an alternative social structure to capitalism in Africa and the Global North.

By Leo Zeilig and Hannah Cross

The Covid-19 pandemic is one of the greatest crises of our era – though the elements of the crisis, as they are now being experienced in the Global South and North, are not entirely unusual. State and military enforced restrictions on free movement, imposed isolation, curfews, with towns and cities locked down, are not unique in our lifetime, though they might be in the richest countries in the world.

As many of our readers know from direct experience, these aspects of state power, and the imposition of that power across society, is familiar to many countries and people – not least across Africa. The biggest crisis of our lives is not felt evenly across the globe (roape.net has posted contributions from activists and researchers on the continent, on the response to Covid-19 in their countries).

Millions on the continent have experienced real food crises, collapsed health systems and the terrible, and prolonged tragedy, of early and preventable deaths (remember that infectious diseases are common in many countries of the Global South). We have seen tragedies, of gigantic human proportions, unfold in rapid-fire succession in countries in which ROAPE has a long history.

Economic crisis hastened by restructuring advocated by the World Bank and IMF, in Zimbabwe, was initially followed eagerly by the ruling ZANU-PF in the 1990s, only to lead to a mass political crisis later that decade. The regime survived the popular uprisings, but the new century saw a deepening agricultural and economic depression, that cast millions into exile, and for those who stayed in the country, a life of bare existence.

As prices fluctuated, and the economic meltdown continued, food stores were empty of staple foods, and hospitals were inundated. Millions died. Today, 5.5 million people in the countryside and 2.2 million in urban areas remain in need of urgent assistance, and acute malnutrition continues to rise.

A similar story – though on an even deeper scale – impacted the Congo. Every aspect of society was transformed beyond recognition in the late 1990s as the combined ‘crisis’ crippled institutions, broke up flimsy health services, and overturned community support networks. In the wars supported and funded by multinational mining houses – big and small – hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes, as cities, towns and communities were either destroyed or abandoned as fighting spread from the east.

In 2014, in Burkina Faso, a popular movement – an insurrection, as activists there describe it – overthrew the country’s ‘democratic’ dictator, Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré’s project of ‘restructuring’ that began with his coup against his former comrade, the radical reformer, Thomas Sankara, in 1987, was supported, once more, by international donors, and companies – French, Canadian and Chinese, for example. The country also saw devastating deforestation, and landgrabs by mining companies backed by the government in Ouagadougou.

For years, the people of Burkina Faso suffered – a lamentable health care system bled by the state, severe repression against the country’s rich profusion of trade unions, protest groups and community organisations. Activists and demonstrators died in actions across decades. Others barely survived in the cities and rural areas (where water is often scarce), and food insecurity means chronic and widespread hunger. This in a country where climate change also undermines the livelihoods of 90 percent of inhabitants who rely on subsistence agriculture.

Recent years have seen flash floods and drought in Burkina Faso as elsewhere on the continent, which has destroyed crops, and have left thousands in a situation of acute undernourishment. Part of the disastrous impacts of climate change already being experienced across Africa.

Pulverized by decades of structural reform, the African continent will be affected by Covid-19 – it will likely rip through susceptible populations, particularly in urban and informal settlements, and could kill multitudes. But in populations already suffering grinding assault, typified by intermittent increases in intensity of deaths and illness, the unusualness of this wave of insult will only be fanned by a global narrative of a ‘novel threat’.

The examples, from across the continent, go on and on – the causes, long covered by ROAPE, are familiar ones: food production and the profitability of multinational corporations, land grabs, mining and the displacement of communities, class struggles and elite accumulation.

These elements of our collective analysis over years point clearly to the devastation – the ‘permanent’ crisis on the continent – and capital accumulation that lies at the heart of the Covid-19 outbreak, deadly and devastating as it is.

Is not the experience of life with the Covid-19 outbreak, now being felt for the first time in many generations in the Global North, the common experience of life and death in the South?

We want to draw attention to two aspects of the Covid-19 crisis and direct our readers and supporters to vital analysis for understanding what is happening. The first is how a marginal virus – or pathogen – was able to transit so quickly across the globe.

The causes are not simply the ‘negative’ aspects of globalisation, that many commentators, left and right, are keen and able to point to. We must also see the increase in the rates of viruses as intimately connected to food production and the profit margins of international businesses. As Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu has stated, ‘Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production.’ In a word, capitalism.

ROAPE had analysed how capital is directing land grabs into major forests and smallholder land across the Global South, and Africa in particular. As Wallace has shown, such land grabbing drives both deforestation and development which leads to the spread of disease. Once ‘contained’ viruses are now trickling into livestock and human populations.

Africa has spear-headed these developments, so, in Wallace’s words, ‘Ebola, Zika, the coronaviruses, yellow fever again, a variety of avian influenzas, and African swine fever in hog are among the many pathogens making their way out of the most remote hinterlands into peri-urban loops, regional capitals, and ultimately onto the global travel network.’

Secondly, in addition to these deep, structural sponsors of ‘remote’ pathogens, into the global economy, are other profound contradictions.

The most glaring is the response of governments in the Global North –  huge bailouts, in the UK totally £330 billion (in the first week of the crisis), of mostly big business, and with landlords prioritised over renters and old-fashioned scientific quackery to defend the state’s negligence of working people. Pressure however is building in some cases, and in some countries, for a fuller response that will include salary guarantees for workers already being laid off in their thousands and safety for those still in work. As ever, any progress will depend on the pressure applied, by workers themselves within and outside the trade union structure.

Already in the past fortnight in parts of the United States, there has been a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs and the Congress has passed emergency unemployment and paid sick leave. In other words, doing what was considered ‘too socialist’ and ‘politically impossible’ at the beginning of the outbreak.

We believe that this is a moment to build unity behind an alternative social structure to capitalism, which will continue to fail all, in Africa and the Global North, despite its ready adaptiveness. Since ROAPE was established in 1974, this remains our hope and project.

The opinions and arguments in this blogpost are ours and they do not, necessarily, reflect those of the entire Editorial Working Group. We are grateful to Nadine Ezard and Sarah Grey for their input into the piece.

Leo Zeilig is editor of roape.net and Hannah Cross is chair of the Editorial Working Group of ROAPE.

Featured Photograph: Hundreds of students leaving Kigali for rural homes (16 March 2020).


  1. Radical politics also requires radical honesty, openness and learning concerning matters of science and data (in the spirit of the Greta moment), especially in this phase of capitalist social restructuring

    Another insightful and moving analysis, after the two excellent interventions from last week. I would just like to complement the points made by extending this to the issue of the political economy of data and discourse in this emerging Covid-19 response. There is, for example, a considerable debate among medical experts about key issues – in this ‘navigating the uncharted’ – such as reliability and meaning of the Covid-19 tests, case statistics , mortality rates, death causality (e.g. dying off vs. dying with Covid19), comparability, the case of Italy , effectiveness of counter-measures, etc.

    One key figure in this fast evolving debate is Professor John P.A. Ioannidis (Stanford, Professor in Disease Prevention, of Medicine, of Health Research and Policy (Epidemiology), of Statistics, of Biomedical Data Science) who wrote a piece titled: ‘A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data’. His intervention is complemented by a lengthy interview and a journal article. Another key figure is Professor Emeritus Sucharit Bhakdi (Mainz, Medical Microbiology). He just published an open letter (see subtitled video here) to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, raising questions concerning the assessment of Covid-19 virus. A consistent point in such interventions is the call to collect more and better data on the situation, and for the state/media to better explain the meaning, nuances and limitations of existing data, testing and so on.

    What this shows, at a minimum level, is that there are different expert perspectives that require our attention; in other words, that there is much more than (i.e. many positions in-between) government/mainstream view and conventional wisdom vs. conspiracy theory. Radical political economy analysis and radical politics thus also require radical honesty, openness and learning concerning matters of science and data – in the spirit of the Greta moment – especially in this prolonged phase of capitalist crises and social restructuring. Should we thus also not demand a more extended and open public debate about the various medical dimensions of Covid-19? Our Covid-19 analysis and debate needs to include, of course, the political economy of (the network) of key actors in the current response constellation, such as the WHO, pharma industry, influential scientists/science clusters, foundations (Gates Foundation), etc. I appeal to roape.net and others to help give a platform and a voice to those currently on the margins of analysis and debate, especially given that so much is at stake in this (re-)assessment and debate about Covid-19 as the world is in lockdown and the popular classes are feeling the full force of the response of the state/ruling classes to the virus (see for insights from Kenya here, here, and here).

  2. A wonderful start to what will have to be an extended analysis of the changed world that we now inhabit. Capitalism with climate change was already having a detrimental effect on the peoples of many African countries. Covid-19 is going to push many over the edge. In parts of Nigeria, at least, the price of pure water (the only safe drinking water for most people) has already doubled. This and the coming collapse of the informal sector will lead to a huge increase in deaths probably exceeding that from the virus itself, especially if we include related deaths from lack of food and costly health care.
    But the fight back is already starting, the youth of Warri, a town in south Nigeria, fought back yesterday against security forces deployed to enforce the Sit-At-Home Order. Today they had larger demonstrations after a soldier shot and killed someone in the same town. One of the health unions is rightly demanding protective clothing for its members caring for covid-19 patients, an increase in the current miserly hazard allowance of less than £10 a month and the settlement of other long running grievances. Like the world war this pandemic is unlikely to be over by Christmas. Also as happened after the last world war, the labouring masses of the world will want to settle scores with their ruling classes. We have everything to play for and extended analysis by Roape and others will make our victory more certain.

  3. These are the demands of the Federation of Informal Workers of Nigeria (FIWON):
    1. Water and sanitation facilities should be provided by the government in high-density public areas, informal settlements, food markets, motor parks and other water deprived communities and rural areas in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This should be accompanied with campaigns for regular handwashing and maximum hygiene in these places.
    2. Food and Other Essential Commodities Supply Chains must remain open: As several states close their borders to other states, it is important for the federal government to coordinate these movement restrictions nationally to enable food and other essential commodities supply chain to remain open. Already prices of food have skyrocketed in the last 48 hours of the lock down mainly because food supply chains have been disrupted. This is dangerous!
    3. There is need for an urgent investment in capacities to rapidly test, treat and contain Covid-19 spread. We are concerned that few people have been tested so far while thousands of people that have been exposed to the virus through hundreds of international travelers that are now difficult to trace, remain anonymous. This is dangerous!
    4. Support for households and communities. As millions of households suffer loss of incomes at this period, universal income transfers via BVN enabled cash transfers can be explored while those lacking this facility can be requested to register for it through their trade and community and faith – based organizations. This will be more effective than attempts at food distribution by the Lagos State Government and the cash transfers by federal government which most urban poor are not receiving.
    5. Despite the lockdown, workers and transporters on essential services especially in the traditional food supply, processing and retail value chain and must be allowed to operate without restrictions while government should protect them with strict regulations that reflect the need for social distancing while basic protective clothing especially nose guards and gloves should be provided. All motor parks and garages must be provided with sanitizers, water and hand washing facilities.
    6. Harassment by law enforcement agents of those performing essential services in the food, drugs supply chains, sanitation workers, neighborhood retailers, transporters assisting in supply of food and other essential materials must stop. We also condemn in unequivocal terms the involvement of soldiers in effecting the lockdown with terrible human rights abuses being reported already. Those flouting lock down orders should be dealt with strictly in accordance with the law.
    7. Recent Victims of Violent Eviction, over 55,000 people in 24 Communities in Lagos state must be resettled immediately as they are homeless right now.
    8. Freeze Rents, loans and interest payments on mortgages, utilities, homes and business apartment rentage for a limited period, as has been done in various countries such as Italy, Egypt, Malaysia and the United States, Singapore, Thailand etc particularly for those struggling to keep up with payments due to a loss in income.
    9. Free health service must be provided at this time even if it means government taking over private hospitals as is the case in Spain. This is the only way sick people would be encouraged to report in hospitals rather than engage in self – medication which is the tradition in poor communities.
    10. The 2020 Budget must be revised to provide for more funding for public healthcare provision. Primary healthcare centers, state hospitals and the referral hospitals must be expanded and equipped.
    11. Safe childcare facilities for people who are sick, or in quarantine.
    12. Low-cost loans will be needed, particularly for micro and small businesses to be targeted through Cooperative Societies and coordinated by the Bank of Industry to enable business recovery in the informal sector from the after effects of the lockdown.


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