Pandemics do not treat disagreements, they reveal them

Image obtained by transmission electron microscope, Zika virus (red) strain Fortaleza, stained in negative color, isolated from a case of microcephaly in Brazil. The virus is bound to the cell membranes in the center. Credit: NIAID

Some in the world predict that COVID-19 will cure differences and narrow inequalities. Pandemic, they approve, can remind us of our common humanity and the need to abandon prejudice. It can also emphasize inequality and injustice and encourage people in power to resolve them.

In Europe, some predict it I will highlight The plight of people in the "concert economy" who do not have guaranteed wages. In the US, there is hope that this will help people who cannot get to the voting booth,

In South Africa, some hope this will trigger action against conditions that make it difficult poor people to protect themselves,

The claim that pandemics motivate the rich and those in power to care more about social inequality is dubious. Those who believe in it like to quote the 2017 book by historian Walter Scheidel. Great Leveller who argue that they argued that pandemics can affect inequality, showing that human progress depends on solving the problem of inequality.

But Sheidel did not claim that epidemics showed the rich how much they had in common with the poor. According to him, they weakened the rich in ways that helped the poor, which is not at all what optimists think.

IN recent interviewFrank Snowden, an American epidemic historian, said he agreed with an official from the World Health Organization (WHO) that virus should teach us that "the health of the most vulnerable people among us is a determining factor for the health of us all."

But he was not optimistic that the lesson would be learned.

Snowden believes pandemics may reinforce prejudice against the poor, In Paris, after the revolution of 1848 or the Paris Commune (1871), people were "killed" because "the people under command saw that the working classes were politically dangerous, but they were also very dangerous from a medical point of view."

Thus, relationships that support inequality and separation can actually deteriorate under the pressure of the epidemic. It is logical to expect that those who are threatened by their fellow citizens will feel even stronger prejudice when they face a medical threat.

The reaction in South Africa today may not show that prejudice against the poor is getting worse. But they are very lively and give little reason to hope that the virus will bring South Africans closer together or cause more vigorous action against poverty.

Irrational answers

The first evidence was obtained before the virus reached the country. Radio broadcasts were littered with callers warning that “porous borders” put the country at risk. This expressed a widespread prejudice in South Africa: immigrants from other African countries pose a threat to the disease.

It was irrational – poor people do not visit China or the European countries where the virus spreads. But prejudice is irrational.

As the virus appeared, new prejudices arose. Control requirements are increased: South Africans will be safe only if the borders are closed and everyone’s movement is controlled. President Cyril Ramafos was convicted of not locking everyone.

Snowden's work shows that severe locks does not workThere is control over the "social distance", but only if people are treated with sympathy. Otherwise, they do not trust the authorities and will not report cases.

But the middle classes, accustomed to living far from the poor, see control as the solution to all problems. The focus on Ramaphos showed a deep point of view – it is assumed that the "leaders" require supernatural abilities, and therefore they are accused of everything that goes wrong. This is an anti-democratic point of view that does not demonstrate faith in the ability of citizens at the grassroots level (or most of the understanding of reality: presidents do not control the epidemic alone).

He also judges political leaders about how “tough” they become, which is unlikely to cure any differences.


The attitude to poor blacks living in huts and urban settlements is more complex.

It is often said that the virus will surely destroy these areas. This partially confirms the view that eyes are open to poverty, because it is based on real concern: it is more difficult for people to have access to clean water, to live in crowded conditions, to rely on public transport and not have quality medical care to protect themselves. People in these areas who have work are unlikely to enjoy the luxury of working at home.

But most of the “concern” expresses the prejudices that fuel separation and inequality. Many middle-class people see places where poor people live dangerously and are susceptible to disease, just as upper-class Europeans saw slums in their own countries. It is assumed that their inhabitants are ignorant and dirty, although in fact they are knowledgeable about the virus and often care more about personal hygiene than the middle class.

It also expresses general prejudices about majority rule – it is assumed that it will always lead to disaster, even if the government seems to be doing what it should. On some radio channels, the government is condemned by callers for not informing the public, although it constantly does just that: many in racial minorities believe that nothing the majority of the black government says can be trusted.

Given the racial divisions in South Africa, it is perhaps not surprising that some black people answered with their own myth: that the virus cannot affect you if you are black. Perhaps the fact that the virus started with people returning from ski holidays it was too good to abandon people who were accustomed to enduring the myth that some South Africans are by nature better than others.

Another answer – although it was not purely South African – there was a purchase of panic There are many interpretations of why this happens, but the people doing it were rich enough to allow themselves massive purchases, their first instinctive desire was to seize what they could, and they could stock up so they could abandon society instead of joining others to fight the virus, Ramaphosa suggested a response when he announced government measures.

None of these answers indicate that units are narrowing. Also, despite some concerns from people living in poverty, they do not suggest that the threat of an epidemic has sparked a new desire to change the conditions in which poor people live.

So South African relations may not express a desire to do poor people they didn’t pay for the virus. But they also do little to please those who expect a new era of solidarity and social concern.

S.Africa closes borders for all citizens from high-risk countries

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Pandemics do not treat disagreements, they reveal them (March 20, 2020)
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