The right-wing turn came with the conditionality that the State had no business in the provision of social services to the people – health, education, potable water and jobs for the youth. This led to extreme social distancing becoming the purpose of statecraft, in addition to not providing for the needs of the people…
(Post Covid-19) A world revolution to a higher social order, a world order, or utter downfall lies before us all. – H. G. Wells.
The Cambridge dictionary defines ‘social distancing’ as the practice of keeping away from other people as much as possible. In sociological literature, it is understood as the extent to which individuals or groups are removed from or excluded from participating in one another’s lives. Most sociological analysis of social distancing are about how class, race and caste have evolved to exclude social groups from interaction with one another. Slavery, caste differentiation in societies such as India, apartheid in South Africa, racism is southern United States and class division in the United Kingdom are enduring examples of social distancing that have been studied extensively.
Of course, the meaning of the phrase has been reduced to a very peculiar one over the past six months. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the definition of ‘social distancing’ was changed to a public health safety intervention that is used to reduce the likelihood of transmitting a communicable disease. Social distancing has therefore become the art of minimising exposure to potentially infected individuals by avoiding large public gathering venues, and adhering to spacing requirements in the workplace, school and other places, which is enhanced by following proper personal hygiene practices. Today, I am interested in the interstices and connections between the two different ways in which the concept is used.
First the history. Over the past forty years, right wing extremism emanating from the Chicago School of Economics evolved and imposed itself as orthodoxy in policy making and implementation. Starting from the premise that government has no business in business, it quickly moved to its strategic goal of compelling government to move away from social provisioning, which had characterised the Post-World War II economic boom. The United States has had the most extreme form of social distancing that has been recently dramatised by the COVID-19 pandemic currently devastating the country. It has by far the largest health expenditure in the world, which could easily provide effective cover for the entire population of the country. However, because of the deep commitment of its ruling class to social distancing, it ensures that 30 per cent of its population, most of whom are blacks and other minorities, have no access to health care and developed a brutal system of policing to kill, persecute and incarcerate them so as to maintain the social distance.
For Africa, the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, imposed Structural Adjustment Policies (SAP) in the 1980s to end the “pursuit of social welfare” policy commitments that had accompanied the nationalist movement and independence. The right-wing turn came with the conditionality that the State had no business in the provision of social services to the people – health, education, potable water and jobs for the youth. This led to extreme social distancing becoming the purpose of statecraft, in addition to not providing for the needs of the people but facilitating the export of human and financial resources. Henceforth, African governments were directed to accept market forces as the driving force for underdevelopment of the economy and society.
The time has come for them to rise up to the social contract between the government and the people as spelt out in the Nigerian Constitution. In Chapter 2, Fundamental Objectives and Principles of State Policy, Article 14, 2 (b) states that “The security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.”
The African state was forced to turn its back on the people and the greatest evidence of this policy outcome has been seen in healthcare. With constantly reducing public investment in healthcare, a massive class bifurcation occurred. The rich and the upper echelons of public servants travelled abroad for their health care needs, thereby transferring significant portions of national resources abroad in the process. The upper crust of the society was going to Europe and the United States, while the lower ones were going to countries such as India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. As public health facilities crumbled, the masses became trapped in self-medication, essentially having access only to fake and sub-standard drugs, which is all they could afford. For the most part, the available drugs did not work and morbidity deepened, while mortality exploded. Frightened at their wretched and disappearing lives, the poor had no option but to revert to religious healing houses and herbalists, most of which are run by charlatans. The result has been the persistence of the high degree of morbidity and mortality among the poor.
The masses are very aware of this class divide imposed by social distancing and were excited, if not happy, with one element of the COVID-19 pandemic. As borders closed, following the spread of the pandemic, the rich and powerful could no longer travel abroad for their health care. They had to stay in the country and die almost the way the poor had been dying regularly. There can be co clearer message to Nigeria’s ruling classes that they must seek pathways out of the extreme social distancing practices they have imposed on society.
The time has come for them to rise up to the social contract between the government and the people as spelt out in the Nigerian Constitution. In Chapter 2, Fundamental Objectives and Principles of State Policy, Article 14, 2 (b) states that “The security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.” Article 17 clearly states that government must provide:
• Adequate means of livelihood for all citizens
• Health and adequate medical facilities for all citizens
Health care is one of the most important services every nation needs and when societies are unable to respond adequately to a major health challenge, it is an indication that their governance system is not doing its job of creating the greatest good for the greatest number in society.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatised the fact that government operates in complete breach of the Constitution and the social contract it bequeathed to citizens.
When the international medical authorities introduced the policy of physical distancing, which they mistakenly called ‘social distancing’ as a management tool to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, so that health systems are not swamped, it encountered a huge challenge. The policy could work for the rich but not for the poor. The poor live in cramped overcrowded urban slums, with many people sharing one small room and dozens sharing a toilet. Literally, they could not physically distance themselves from their poor neighbours BUT they had always been very socially distant from the rich, who live on the other side of town. The problem of livelihoods presented a serious class problem. Most of the urban poor survive on the basis of the daily labour they engage in, in commerce, construction and all types of odd jobs. Lockdowns to promote physical distancing make sense medically but for the urban poor, it meant no income and therefore no food and other essentials. It brought untold suffering to the masses and made its enforcement for long periods basically impossible. All over the country, the masses were telling government that starvation induced by physical distancing will kill them before they get the COVID-19 virus. They had no money to buy food, the markets are closed most days in any case and they could not buy food, even if they were given money. Yes, governments sought to provide palliative measures to address the crisis but most people did not receive the help they needed so badly.
The important point to make is that every public health crisis is in reality a governance challenge about how best to plan and use resources to address health care. Health care is one of the most important services every nation needs and when societies are unable to respond adequately to a major health challenge, it is an indication that their governance system is not doing its job of creating the greatest good for the greatest number in society. COVID-19 has hit the world with a bang and it has one clear message: It is here to teach the world about ideology and governance. Its core message is universal and simple. The best form of governance is the one that places the interest of the masses as its core agenda. Governance systems that are focused mainly on providing for the rich and powerful are exposed in pandemics as being engaged in irresponsible management of the common good, which produces mass death and social crisis. We can all see clearly today how in the United States, Burundi, United Kingdom, India, Brazil and Tanzania, right-wing populism is creating a world that is hell on earth.