By Toby Green, author of The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality
From the start, it has been clear that lockdowns are a policy which have devastating impacts on the poor. In the West, the poor have been on the receiving end of the suppression of rights to education, work, and a dignified life.
Yet according to the Resolution Foundation, the wealth of the richest quintile has increased significantly . Those in favour of lockdowns say that this is a collective price that everyone must pay, but those able to work remotely and reduce costs from commuting and work-associated socializing are not paying the economic cost at all, even though of course the social impacts are catastrophic.
As a historian of West Africa, for me the location where this has been most abundantly clear has been in the Global South. From the start, the UN and the World Food Programme warned that lockdowns risked starvation for literally hundreds of millions of people. This estimate has recently been revised upwards by the Director of the World Food programme, who says that 270 million people are at risk of starvation in the Global South in 2021 . Still, apparently lockdowns save lives: just not the lives of the poor and marginalised people who live in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
During the early months of the lockdown policies, I was in constant touch with colleagues in many different African countries, who told me a very different picture to that available in the mainstream media. While Western media outlets rushed to project horrifying Covid-mortality in Africa, and worked in cahoots with the World Health Organization to applaud the rigour with which African countries imposed lockdowns and shut down the informal economies on which over 80% of their populations depend, a very different reality was emerging. This was one in which, as a friend in Senegal told me, people could only eat once a day because of the enforced shutdown of their livelihoods, where police beat them if they ventured out. This drove many to risk their lives in making the sea crossing to the Canaries, where migrants began to arrive in October in numbers not seen for well over a decade .
Meanwhile, the alarmist projections of Covid-19 never materialized. By the end of 2020, recorded Covid-19 mortality in Africa was less than 70,000 – and only just over 13,000 if the cooler Mediterranean and South Africa are excluded . The heat (in which Covid-19 does not thrive), the youth of the population, and existing exposure to viruses meant that the population was just not as at risk as was the case in other parts of the world. Several studies confirm that antibodies are present in a relatively large proportion of the population, and yet Covid mortality has been low. There have certainly been unreported cases, and the death Covid rate is higher than this, but there is no question that malaria, tuberculosis and other endemic diseases remain far and away the most lethal for the continent. And yet in spite of this the WHO and donors are turning their attentions to the financing of a mass vaccine programme, and turning away from malaria and other vaccination programmes which are far more urgent.
No doubt those in favour of lockdowns will claim that all of this is necessary to “defeat the virus” and obtain “Zero covid”. They are lucky enough to live in a world in which Covid is the only risk they seem to feel aware of. I asked colleagues in countries from Mozambique and Angola to Guinea-Bissau and Senegal what the situation as like: in Mozambique and Angola, it was compared to the appalling civil wars which decimated the countries for 20 years from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s, and in Guinea-Bissau and Senegal I was told that the situation had never been as bad as it was now for the urban poor. With Guinea-Bissau the 14th poorest country on earth according to latest figures, this gives a sense of how stark the situation is.
According to the WHO, malnutrition is the leading cause of mortality in children under 5 worldwide. So there can be no doubt that the impacts of all of this will far outweigh those of Covid. The real Covid deniers are those who refuse to see the impacts of the lockdown policies – who promote a policy in which some lives are worth more than others.