Debilitating capitalism, Covid-19 and the tragedy of essential work

Economies built on infinite growth – capitalism, more specifically – fundamentally treat people and things as disposable. If it breaks and you break it, you move on and use up new labourers, break new ground, break new bodies to perform back-breaking labour.

Growth economies use plantation logics that destroy people and the environment to extract resources.

This is premised on the subjugation of numerous disposable others, the enslaved, the indentured, the unprotected farm labourer, the miner, the cubicle workers with no union protection, who are all used like instruments to produce value for a small class of plantation owners.

Breaking the bodies of subjugated and disposable others to extract as much labour as possible, with very little responsibility to care for the wellbeing of those who create value, is the norm, rather than the exception.

Debilitating political economies wear down bodies and psyches as an ordinary consequence of denigrated labour and structural violence. The massification of debility is the deliberate or negligent wearing down of devalued populations, through varying forms of slow violence which lead to chronic illness.

Debility then is more than just physical fragility or ill health. The concept indicates a state of being where external constraints and structural discrimination exert a kind of durable debilitating force on people’s lives.

In the book The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, gender studies scholar Jasbir Puar informs us that the routine injuring and violent debilitation endured by some populations are an accepted part of racial capitalism. The possibility of becoming debilitated is frequently the only value that disposable others have.

In unequal countries like South Africa, where settler colonialism normalised the massification of debility for black people, we are not astonished at the high rates of injury and illness experienced by black people. The value of poor, black people is in their disposability and the vastness of the reserves of black labour that can be used up and discarded.

Not only can their bodies be broken when they labour to produce value, they are also not provided with the very basics required to support a flourishing life. Not enough food, substandard housing, limited access to healthcare and education.

And when they protest at their subjugation, they can be targeted to be maimed. The beatings endured, the tear gas, the rubber bullets, the water cannons are signal lessons deployed by police and the military on their unruly bodies to coach them back to obedience. It is a constant, persistent war. The injured, the maimed, the debilitated are all around us.

Those of us who are inured from structural violence, rarely see them. Their protests are sometimes inconveniences blocking the roads we need to rush here or there. Or so far removed from some of our securitised bubbles that it is mere background noise. It is a war where the markets continue with business as usual, a war that enables the markets to continue.

So, war is not an appropriate metaphor to talk about underfunded healthcare systems and exploited labourers during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not a war. Healthcare workers and essential workers are not heroes in some mythic battle.

This is not a war against a virus. The war for a just political economy however, was fought and lost so long ago, that we think it is okay to send people to face a virus without the necessary equipment to protect their lives.

This war is an assault on all classes of workers, and demands their labour without the necessity for equivalent reciprocity. In countries like the US, the majority of higher education educators are adjunct lecturers who supplement their meagre incomes with food stamps. And if you work them to death or disillusion, there are many more disposable others to take their place.

For decades, structural adjustment programmes and neoliberal reforms have hollowed out institutions and taken the logic of the plantation into the larger economy. A politics of cruelty has become normalised. In almost every industry, debilitating demands are made on workers, with little reciprocal responsibility from the institutions they are expected to sacrifice themselves for.

This callousness is revealed in our healthcare system. We are called to witness and mythologise a sacrificial politics where noble medical staff in their battle to save lives are expected to do so without the proper equipment. Collateral damage in a war against this novel coronavirus.

We applaud and share and like and heart and cry with our screens clutched in our hands, wondering, should it be our turn, whether it will be an acceptable exchange.

Except medical staff are actually not a renewable resource and they have never been. Scarcity of medical equipment and medical workers makes privatised healthcare economically viable in normal times, with very bad effects for large sectors of the population who cannot afford to pay. In a pandemic, the same scarcity threatens the health of every single member of a population.

When we see images of healthcare workers working without adequate protective equipment due to lack of medical supplies, we should be furious.

Think about the implications of losing so many experienced healthcare workers and what that entails for our health systems for the next generation. Every person lost is countless future medical treatments that will not happen in a post-Covid world.

Fewer immunisations, less specialists, less routine medical care. All of which increases healthcare burdens.

Every healthcare worker lost in a teaching hospital is also a loss to future students who will not receive the accumulated knowledge that is now disappearing across the globe.

Why do so many countries have so few healthcare workers and so many soldiers, so little medical equipment and so many more arms? And in case you forget, expensive warfare creates people who need to be treated in the same underfunded hospitals.

Countries such as the US, that have spent more on military expenditure to destroy lives than on their healthcare systems to support lives, do not care about actual people.

And if you think the people who staff the stores and care for all the moving parts of our food supplies are less valuable than healthcare workers, then think twice. That is the kind of hierarchical, capitalist thinking that got us here in the first place. People who are working in stores and as essential workers who are not adequately protected, physically and psychologically, are not replaceable. They never ever were.

The people who are worked to their deaths on farms, in mines, and now in stores and hospitals are also not replaceable. Not to their families, not to their communities.

Worked to ill-health and debilitation, and then disposed of to be taken care of by austere nation-states and inequitable healthcare systems, their loss is permanent. Our long, long histories of inequality and subjugation have normalised these unfair exchanges.

I keep thinking, every war has cannon fodder. Who is being treated as such? And why?

What makes it possible? Exploitative labour practices.

Let me say it once more: the efforts against Covid-19 are not a war. The war is inequality, chauvinist leadership that glorifies war, and capitalist systems that treat people as disposable. If this were actually a war, there would be lots and lots of weapons, that is medical equipment, and lots and lots of soldiers, that is healthcare workers.

In the months and perhaps even years ahead, in our efforts to secure a humane future post-Covid-19, we will be called repeatedly to witness the sacrifices human beings are called to make for an inhumane economy. We are also yet to learn what kinds of debilitation will be part of a post-corona world.

In due time, we may respond in much the same way we have to the sacrifices of innumerable disposable others across centuries. We are accustomed to and have normalised the massification of debilitation; using race, class, gender, able-bodiedness, nationality, caste and whatever identity we could map inequality onto.

The moral charge we have to undertake as we witness the suffering caused by our inequitable political economies, is to forego sacrificial politics, and to demand forms of governance that are life-giving and life-supporting. Our futures may all depend on it.

Kharnita Mohamed lectures in social anthropology at the University of Cape Town. She is working on a PhD in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of the Western Cape, focused on a decolonial feminist approach to disability. Her debut novel Called To Song was published by Kwela in 2018.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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