Lockdowns and starvation
Updated: May 16
'The question was whether to die of hunger or coronavirus.'
All around the world, the leaders of the business world want to get their populations out of lockdown so they can get back to work and ‘rescue the economy’. So far, in the United States and most of Europe, angry and frightened populations are forcing our governments to hold the line.
But hunger will break a lockdown. The garment factories in Haiti have just been reopened. Factory owner Georges Sassine justified it this way: "The question was whether to die of hunger or coronavirus."
Mark Heywood writes in the Daily Maverick in South Africa: "After 24 days of lockdown, the social toll on the poor is now manifest; the most visible sign is in hunger and in hunger 'riots'. But unmeasured and below the radar line are tectonic levels of anxiety, fear, stress and probably interpersonal violence."
Heywood says this cruelty cannot continue. He is right.
Even in the United States, 23 million people have singed on for unemployment benefit in the last four weeks. Those are the ones who could get through on the crowded phonelines.
At least ten million, probably more, are hungry, without benefits of any kind. The lines for food banks can be 10,000 cars long. This, in one of the richest countries in the world.
In India migrant workers, walking home, die of hunger by the side of the road.
Hungry people with starving children will break any lockdown. In South Africa, for example, many people say that the rich are leading decent lives in isolation.
The poor, crammed with so many to a room, so many tiny houses to a plot of land, so many forced to leave home even to get water – they will not survive an isolation that is no isolation.
At least let them go to work, many people say. Then we can protect them with testing and tracing.
If only that were true. When people are poor their bodies are weak and often full of ‘underlying conditions’ - comorbidities like TB and HIV.
If they live crowded in with relatives and neighbours, all those people will get their covid too. The hospitals will be unable to cope. The scenes can barely be imagined.
It does not have to be that way. The US is a rich country that can afford to feed, clothe, house and give free medical treatment to everyone, with internet and diapers thrown in.
South Africa is a poor country. But the average income in South Africa is the same as in China, where people in the lockdown did not starve.
The government of South Africa only has to take the money from the people who have it and give it to the people who need it. And the temporary grants that the C-19 People’s Coalition is fighting for are small amounts of money.
Testing and tracing alone will leave hundreds of thousands to die. One reason is that governments are not prepared to buy or make make enough tests for everyone who needs them. How do we know that? Look. They are not doing it.
But what if you are tested, and then sent home to give it to your child, and your mother, and your auntie, and the family down the lane? What if you are tested and sent home to die because there are no hospital beds? And this while the rich are still isolated with someone bringing them their food.
Testing and tracing can work if a lockdown has brought the incidence of the virus down low enough.
And when everyone who wants a test, and everyone who goes out to work, gets a test every week. And when everyone who tests positive gets a room of their own, in a hospital or a hotel, with all the medical care and medicine they need. And when their families have enough to eat while they are isolated.
That’s the minimum. Those are things any society and any government can provide. It is only necessary to make the rich share.
My fear is that the rich will lockdown and keep people hungry until they beg and rage to go back to work.
Meanwhile, we get lies about how governments can solve the problem with the right magic app, without spending any money, or hiring any rooms, hiring any care staff, hiring any tracing staff or feeding anyone.
In Boston, Paul Farmer at Harvard has hired and trained 100 contact tracers who talk to people on the phone. It takes them about 45 minutes per person, because they have so many questions, fears and needs.
This is not a luxury for rich countries. Farmer learned contact tracing as a doctor dealing with AIDS in Haiti. I am not saying don’t use apps. But they will not solve the problem without the contact.
Even in the US, you can see Trump and many business leaders trying to leverage the desperation of many people to break the lockdowns. If the mass movement growing now in the US cannot make sure people are fed and safely housed, the lockdowns there will break.
We need lockdowns, testing for everyone every week, and proper food and proper care. That way we avoid horror.
There will be countries where the people cannot force their governments to help them. There will be many more countries where the international banks and the hedge funds and the rich governments force the local government to desert their people – unless we can stop the banks.
When people cannot be fed, they will go back to work and to school, and many will die. In that situation, it would be cruel to insist on holding onto the lockdown. But far, far better to force the government feed the people and keep them safe until everything needed to end a lockdown is ready.
For better and for worse, in this pandemic the struggles for medical safety and for economic equality are fused into one.
Jonathan Neale is a writer and climate jobs activist. He tweets at @NealeSayles. This article first appeared on The Ecologist website. Reproduced with permission.