The novel coronavirus pandemic has made crystal clear the consequences of public health cuts in Europe, and is harshly demonstrating what private healthcare actually means for the masses in the United States. But now there is a risk that Africa will become the new focus of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which would spell an even greater catastrophe than the one we are seeing in Europe and the US.

The health crisis in Africa

Africa is currently the second most populous continent in the world, with 1,3 billion (thousand millions) inhabitants, and the one with the fastest rate of urbanisation. Since 2018, 40% of Africans are living in cities, and it's estimated that the number will grow to 50% in 2030. Huge urban centres, with millions of residents, are growing and multiplying. Amongst the biggest and most important we can count Lagos (21 million), Cairo (20,4 million), Kinshasa (14,2 million), Johannesburg (10,5 million) and Nairobi (9,4 million).

The development of world capitalism in Africa has led not just to the maintenance of cash crop monoculture for export, which was imposed by colonialism, but also to the control of this agriculture by big biotechnological multinational businesses, such as Bayer-Monsanto.

These companies patent their genetically modified seeds and force the farmers to buy new seeds and pesticides from them every year, which pushes more and more small peasants to the brink of ruin. Together with the climate change induced disasters — droughts, floods and the locust plagues such as the one which is destroying the crops in East Africa — this aspect of predatory capitalism is one of the main forces which pushes an ever-increasing part of the peasantry to the cities. In the city, peasants, mainly young peasants, join the masses of poor which swing between precarious jobs and unemployment. Millions of lives thrown about by the chaos of capitalist production.

With public investment and urban planning almost absent in the African states, all aspects of social life are left to “private initiative”.
Health and wellbeing conditions in the cities are very insecure, with shanty-towns that spray for endless kilometres, small houses where dozens of people live together, wide areas without clean water, plumbing or sewage systems, street markets bustling with people, chaotic traffic and its subsequent severe air pollution. In Lagos, which presents itself as the destiny of other African cities, respiratory infections are already the main cause of death.

Another main issue in the fight against disease is the lack of access to drinking water, which is especially serious in rural areas. In the 35 countries classified as “sub-saharan Africa” only 20% of the population has access to potable water, according to WHO figures. The other 80% has to travel, sometimes for hours, to get drinking water, and a part of the population depends solely on contaminated water to live. Measures as simple as washing your hands are materially impossible.

Neither social distancing nor the lockdown can happen in Africa in the same way as in the european countries. The IMF estimates that 34% of the economy in Africa is “informal”, but this number rises to above 50% in Egypt, 65% in Nigeria and a flabbergasting 83% in Kenya. This means that in a lot of African countries the majority of workers receive their wages by the day, the week or the commodity, working without any labour rights. It makes an economic stoppage impossible without immediately creating generalised famine amongst the working-class. Worse still, poor families depend on the street markets to acquire food and essential goods. “Social Distancing” is completely impossible in these markets.

Lastly, in most countries the health system is terribly degraded. In the worst cases, they are barely more than the remaining colonial health infrastructure — built decades ago to cater for the small european colonial population. In the best case scenario, which is rare, there are private hospitals adequately equipped to face the pandemic, but which are only available to the small minority of the rich. It is not surprising that the African ruling class flies to Europe when they need access to healthcare.

For the overwhelming majority of the population, to see a doctor is an extraordinary event.

In fact, it is in Africa that we can find the biggest concentration of countries with the lowest number of doctors per thousand inhabitants. According to the WHO, Libya used to have the best number: 2.16 doctors per thousand inhabitants. But the country is now in ruins, due to a NATO military intervention, a civil war and sectarian conflicts which have drawn the 2011 revolution in blood. Even in the most industrialised country in the continent, South Africa, the number is only 0.91 doctors per thousand inhabitant, and in more than 20 countries it does not even reach 0.1. For comparison, in Italy and Spain, both ravaged by coronavirus, the number is 4.09 and 4.07 respectively.

The number of beds does not improve the situation. In more than 20 countries as well, amongst them Nigeria, the number does not reach one hospital bed for 1000 inhabitants. South Africa counts with 2.8 beds.

We should note that this happens in hospitals that work with outdated and insufficient equipment, suffer from frequent energy blackouts which make the conservation of medicine and the running of equipment like ventilators and infusor pumps very difficult — and these are essential to treat Covid-19 patients.
On top of all this, the fragile health systems are already overloaded by other diseases. Namely, malaria, which is responsible for an average of 3000 children dying every day in the whole of Africa; AIDS, which kills more than a million people every year in Africa; and ebola, with a current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is also cholera, measles, tuberculosis, the danger of zika outbreaks… an endless list.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Africa lives in a permanent health crisis. And it is in these horrendous conditions that the continent faces the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In mid-late April, when this article was written, the reported cases of infections were only about 30 000, but we have all the reasons to think that the situation will suddenly change and there is going to be a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. WHO forecasts 10 million infections in the next three to six months, and in the worst case scenario, up to 3.3 million deaths this year.

The African governments response

The actions by African governments to respond to this crisis on the ground are similar to the response of the european governments. From the big and industrial South Africa to the small and rural Guinea-Bissau, airports and borders are closed, quarantines are declared, together with various lockdown and movement control measures, states of emergency are imposed, only a clearly insufficient number of tests are undertaken and appeals to hand-washing are repeated… But nothing is done to provide adequate health and housing conditions to the majority of the population.

In Africa, as in Europe, the chiefs of state call for “national unity” and the “self-sacrifice” of the peoples whilst they ensure the interests of the imperialist capital, calmly waving through mass collective sackings, and taking advantage of the “exceptional measures” to brutally repress the workers and lead to a premature return to production.

In one of the countries with more cases until now, South Africa, the president Cyril Ramaphosa has added to the appeals to “national unity” a furious moral condemnation of the crime wave that afflicts the country. And whilst he sheds crocodile tears for the women who were and are being assaulted and raped during the pandemic, he takes advantage to simultaneously condemn crimes happening out of necessity such as food and electricity thefts and conveniently ignore the savage violence of the police.

On the 10th of April, Aljazeera reported that in another important country, Kenya, the police are being more deadly than the virus. In the capital, Nairobi, the violence reached macabre levels with shooting deaths, including of a 13 year-old child in a poor neighbourhood. In all major African cities we find a similar scenario: workers, street traders and all poor people, from elders to children, are violently assaulted by the police.

This State violence is not a coincidence, it is essential for worlds’ ruling class, as a way to provoke terror and fear in the opress and preventively crush the social and popular uprisings that the social and health crisis will cause.

A continent torn by the forces of revolution and counter-revolution

In Africa, as in most of the neocolonial world, a fundamental part of the petty-bourgeoisie are the functionaries of the “Non-Governmental Organisations” (NGOs), constituting a well-paid army of bureaucrats and mercenaries of “humanitarian aid”, very useful to the capitalists. These NGOs not only act as a substitute to mass organisations, acting as a social anaesthetic, but also fill the role of part and tasks of the states, which are not even able guarantee the infrastructure necessary to the private exploitation of the natural resources — such as roads. Financed with public money or philanthropic donations, they prepare several regions to receive imperialist capital. As the church was to colonialism, so the NGOs are to neocolonialism.

The ideology of these organisations, today totally interwoven with the reformist left, is taken from the script which the ideologues of the imperialist bourgeoisies have minutely written for decades, and which media companies everywhere have broadcasted. In their propaganda, Africa is worse than the biblical hell and the African workers and peasants are passive and helpless victims of corrupt governments.

The poverty element used in this propaganda is an undeniable reality, as we have made clear. But this image of a black, naked and helpless continent kneeling to the charity of the “developed” and white countries is an ideological attack against the workers of the world.

First of all, it is a lie about the origin of the underdevelopment of the African countries, which is not due to evil rulers, “cultural features” or any other explanation of the bourgeois ideologues. It is due to the position of these countries in the international division of labour, meaning, in the worlds’ capitalist system. What, when, how and for whom commodities are produced are decisions made in Washington, London, Brussels, and, increasingly, Beijing… according to the interests of imperialist capital.

The political control over the African states is done, in turn, under the noose of debt. The IMF loans, besides being unpayable, are granted conditional to agreements over “economic adjustments”: liberalisation of the whole economy, privatisations, cuts in public spending, etc.

In the last instance, evidently, the position of the African countries in the capitalist world is kept by force, resorting to the police and national armies, or, as a last resort, to the armies of the imperialist countries, the “blue helmets” and NATO.

We have witnessed an example of this during the August 2012 events in South Africa. A miners’ strike for better wages in Marikana ended with the police murdering more than 40 workers with machine gun fire, in order to defend the profits of Lonmin, the british multinational that exploits the mines in the area. And similar examples could be given for each of the remaining 53 countries.

Secondly, they lie when they present the African masses as passive victims. The African masses have been the protagonists of tremendous revolutions, and the continent is constantly torn by the forces of revolution and counter-revolution.

The “Arab Spring” exploded immediately after the 2008 Great Recession, quickly spreading to the Middle East and being an important focus for the class struggle in Europe. In Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, mass demonstrations and revolutionary crises took place which have toppled decades-old regimes in a matter of days. There were giant steps towards socialism, with workers and peasants committees sprouting in various countries. Moving southwards, this revolutionary wave toppled the Burkina Faso dictatorship in 2014.

From the “Arab Spring” through 2019, strikes — such as the Marikana strikes — and mass movements — such as the massive student movement against tuition fees in South Africa, the #FeesMustFall — have spread throughout the continent. The 8th of March, International Working Women’s Day has been marked by womens’ marches throughout various African cities. Finally, in 2019, massive demonstrations have led to the fall of the Algerian government and in Sudan a period of revolutionary crisis lead to the widespread occupation of squares and workplaces, toppling the 30-year rule of Omar al-Bashir.

We, Marxists, know that there are very many reasons to trust in the revolutionary and creative power of the working-class and poor peasant masses of Africa.

It is necessary to build the forces of international Marxism in Africa!

The African youth who lived through the Great Recession is now going to live through the biggest crisis in the history of capitalism so far. Apart from the size that the covid pandemic will assume in Africa, the economic crisis, “will not spare any country”, as the IMF has warned. The conclusions reached during the great shocks of the class struggle in Africa — such as the already mentioned “Arab Spring”, the revolutionary crisis in Burkina Faso and more recently in Algeria and Sudan —, will, in the next period, be solidified and deepened by and amongst the oppressed and exploited youth of the the youngest continent in the world, with six tenths (60%) of the population below 25 years of age.

Similarly to the revolutionary wave that has simultaneously crossed Latin America, the experiences of workers’ and peasants’ struggle have made clear that the oppressed masses have enough revolutionary determination and energy to conduct dozens of victorious revolutions. But it also made abundantly clear how the revolutionary party is essential for the triumph of the socialist revolution. Without the workers and oppressed organised in a party armed with a Marxist programme and mass influence, it is impossible for them to take power.

The ruling class has felt the power evading from its grasp in each of the revolutionary crises that happened in the past decade, and it's very conscious of the danger it suffers from a new capitalist crisis. If it was able to regain control until now, it has done it at the cost of huge imbalances and with ever-decreasing self-confidence. The next period is full of opportunities to transform society.

To achieve this, the most urgent task is to build a revolutionary party which, armed with a Marxist programme, can channel all the energy of the African masses to the overthrow of capitalism, an end to the barbarity that ravages the continent, and the building of a new world!