By Takura Zhangazha*
The government of Zimbabwe, in its reactions to the COVID-19 (corona virus) pandemic, as expected, has roped in domestic and international private capital. On the face of it, this is completely understandable. In times of a global pandemic, one can easily argue that we will always need all hands on deck. Especially if they contribute to critical lifesaving equipment such as ventilators or safety clothing.
Already, local businessmen with alleged links to President Emmerson Mnangagwa have purchased and begun refurbishing previously defunct private or church-owned hospitals to serve as COVID-19 testing or treatment centers. While social media swirled with allegations that such maneuvers were intended of the treatment of Zimbabwe’s elite, both government and representatives or supporters of the initiatives refuted this. But the tag will probably be difficult to shake off.
In similar fashion to when we recently had a cholera outbreak in 2018, again government is courting private solutions to a public health problem. The consistency of this is not surprising. After all, the government has consistently stated that its economic blue print is a free market and therefore ease of doing business one.
Except that these should not be times defined by philanthropic whims of those that are already rich. Because quite straightforwardly, they are not the Zimbabwean state. Neither do they intend to be. They have an eye on the feel good factor that comes with a messianic sleight of hand but more significantly a fortification of either already existent or new found relationships with the state power elite.
For some among us there is no particular problem with such a relationship. In fact some would even occasionally suggest various chief executives or founders of monopoly private companies as ideal candidates for the presidency of Zimbabwe. While at the same time not seeing the very fact that they would no longer need to be. Their business interests and those of the state/political elite, increasingly, on the face of it, would coincide. One cannot do without the other.
So it is not hard to imagine a convergence of interests of those that have the levers of political power of the state and those that control private capital. Even in a time of global crisis. Hence many cdes in the global north have been trying to rally against what they have referred to as Corona Capitalism or as outlined in Naomi Klein’s relevant analysis, disaster capitalism.
For many of us here in the global south, we may see it as abstract. What may be key is only the immediacy of survival. After all, particularly in Africa, we may be more used to philanthropy as the primary means through which we eventually either stabilize or overcome pandemics, famines or climate motivated natural disasters.
The dilemma with that is that we become willing players in the privatization of our well-being and an economic experimentation with our lives that goes well beyond accusations of Africa as a testing ground for vaccines.
In the context of COVID-19, Africans must ask the much more systematic questions on the solutions that their respective governments and international stakeholders are proposing. Even in receiving urgent help, and while understanding that we should try and avoid politicizing the pandemic that is COVID-19 before we find solutions to it, we must however most certainly seek to understand why it has spread so quickly, so fast. At least beyond demographics. And firmly within the ambit of the global ideological consensus of the politically powerful in tandem with private capital that have given it fertile ground to grow. It is called neoliberalism. And it has never been an historical or future friend of Africa.
But it is a reality that we have to deal with.
In doing so, even as we remain anxious about COVID-19, we need to reclaim what French economist Thomas Piketty refers to as a ‘social state for the 21st century.’ One that clearly understands the necessity of public services over and above their reliance on private capital for delivery. Even if for the purposes of finding a more cogent solution in the immediate where we know that the reactionary forces of neoliberalism are waiting for things to become either calmer or necessitate the need for an assumedly ‘inevitable’ global surveillance regime. All in the public-private (profit) partnership interest.
In Zimbabwe’s context, the lessons are apparent. We let our public health services succumb to the motivations of neoliberalism and private capital interests. But as argued elsewhere, the effects of COVID-19 transcend class and geographical location. Where we revert to a state that is caught in the revolving door of powerful political elites comfortably ‘trapped’ by private capital players we are not solving anything.
The Zimbabwean government must be made to pledge to a complete revitalization of the state as the primary guarantor of all social services as funded by a tax base that weighs heavily on those that would be referred to globally as the 1% (yes we also have them even in Zimbabwe). But all with a value system that makes access to health, even in a pandemic a right all can have equitable access to. Be they in rural or urban locations.
What is urgent is our reconfiguration of the role of the Zimbabwean state in being the base of social services for all. And ensuring that this happens in reality as opposed in the vague frameworks of private public partnerships and generally unsustainable claims of ‘resilient philanthropy’.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)