La pandemia: uno sguardo dall’Africa e sull’Africa – Hamza Hamouchene

Riceviamo e volentieri pubblichiamo questa analisi-denuncia a tutto tondo dell’impatto devastante che la combinazione tra crisi pandemica e crisi economica sta avendo sull’Africa del Nord e sull’Africa nera in termini di disoccupazione e impoverimento di massa, specie sull’enorme massa del lavoro informale (pari ad almeno il 50% del totale delle forze di lavoro).

Emergono in tutta la loro estrema violenza i meccanismi della dominazione coloniale, primo tra tutti il cappio del debito estero che ha già portato al default in questi mesi il Libano e lo Zambia, mentre il FMI si appresta a porre nuove condizionalità-capestro a un numero crescente di paesi in difficoltà. Il solo servizio del debito estero dei singoli paesi, ricorda Hamouchene, è pari a 10 volte la spesa sanitaria in Marocco, 7 volte la spesa sanitaria in Egitto, 4 volte la spesa sanitaria in Tunisia. La caduta del prezzo del petrolio e, al polo opposto, la crescente dipendenza alimentare dei paesi arabi e medio-orientali (innanzitutto di Egitto e Algeria, tra i primi importatori di grano al mondo) nei confronti dei paesi imperialisti esportatori (Stati Uniti, Europa, Russia) contribuiscono ad aggravare i contorni di una crisi sociale che prima dello scoppio della pandemia (nel 2018-2019) aveva visto le piazze del Sudan, dell’Algeria, del Libano, dell’Iraq riempirsi di grandissime manifestazioni. La seconda fase della pandemia si sta rivelando più terribile della prima, con un gran numero di piccoli produttori di cibo letteralmente schiantati dalle misure anti-covid. E sebbene i governi dei paesi arabi e africani ne stiano approfittando alla grande per cercare di frenare i moti di massa per un periodo di tempo indeterminato, per la ripresa delle sollevazioni arabe e dell’Africa sub-sahariana è già partito il conto alla rovescia.

Il testo mette capo, come vedrete, alla rivendicazione della incondizionata cancellazione del debito non solo dell’Africa e del Medio Oriente, ma anche per i paesi dipendenti dell’Asia e dell’America del Sud – una rivendicazione che da sempre abbiamo fatto nostra, e che ci impegniamo a rilanciare.

Di questo stesso autore e di Layla Rihai segnaliamo anche uno scritto sull’accordo in tutto e per tutto strangolatorio che l’Unione Europa sta cercando di imporre alla Tunisia, che è intitolato: Deep and Comprehensive Dependency: How a trade agreement with the EU could devastate the Tunisian economy. Il titolo dice già il suo contenuto – è vero, sarà anche un po’ vaga la sua conclusione politica (lo diciamo per i maestrini con la penna rossa e blu che ogni tanto perdono il loro tempo prezioso a visitare questo blog), ma la sua analisi-denuncia di questo nuovo crimine coloniale in gestazione da parte del grande capitale europeo, dell’UE, in cui l’Italia è in primissima fila, andrebbe fatta circolare. Segnaliamo anche un breve video:  e una versione ridotta dello scritto sulla Tunisia.

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1. Decolonising pandemic politics

Before I delve into some details from North Africa, I would like to make a few preliminary points:

My understanding of the title of this webinar, especially the ‘decolonising’ part is two-fold:

  1. To decentre our discussion from Eurocentric hegemonic discourses around the pandemic in order to see how other parts of the world are living through it, especially in the global South.
  2. Look at the fundamental root causes of the current crisis which find their origins on the capitalist exploitation of humanity and nature as well as the imperial economic recolonisation of large parts of the world in the last 3 to 4 decades.

I will argue that this kind of radical systemic analysis and interpretation of our predicaments would help us understand the various forms of resistance that emerge and assist us in imagining and building alternatives.

2. A multi-dimensional crisis

The coronavirus pandemic coincides with and exacerbates a multifaceted global crisis: political, economic, social, environmental and climatic. In other words, we are currently experiencing a crisis of a patriarchal, racial capitalist system, which will have grave and disproportionate impacts on the vulnerable and marginalized groups, especially in countries of the Global South.

3. The Pandemic and the Ecological Crisis

COVID19 pandemic is not merely a health issue; it is also an environmental one. The emergence of the coronavirus is linked to the capitalist destruction of eco-systems through intensive agribusiness and industrial animal farming as well as the commodification of nature through extractivism, land grabbing, deforestation and loss of habitat.

Basically, we can’t consider this pandemic as an isolated event unrelated to the global ecological crisis. What we are living now is a taster of worst things to come if we don’t take the necessary measures and implement just solutions to the unfolding climate crisis.

4. Pandemic and economic crisis in North Africa

  • Catastrophic on poverty and unemployment levels (especially for the youth).
  • Impact on tourism and foreign remittances

In North Africa as in other parts of the continent and beyond, the crisis has been mainly economic so far but the second wave is proving much worse than the first one. In terms of number of infections and fatalities, Morocco and Egypt alongside South Africa have been the worst hit in the continent according to official numbers.

The economic consequences in Northern African countries have been catastrophic on poverty and unemployment levels. These countries simply do not have the financial means to implement economic measures and packages like the ones we’ve seen in the global North. Also, the countries that rely on tourism and foreign currency remittances are even more affected.

5. Impact on the informal sector

  • Almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers are significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a 60 per cent decline in their earnings.
  • More than half of North Africa’s labour force is employed in the informal economy (more than 50 millions of people), typically working without contracts, unions, or access to social protection schemes.

One important point to bear in mind here is the informalisation of the economies of the global South.

According to the ILO, almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers are significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a 60 per cent decline in their earnings. More than half of North Africa’s labour force is employed in the informal economy, typically working without contracts, unions, or access to social protection schemes.

The region’s informal workers are a powerful symbol of social injustice around which protest movements have rallied. It is no minor detail that the incident that set the Arab uprisings into motion ten years ago was the self-immolation of an informal street fruit vendor: Mohamed Bouazizi.

6. Harga: a stronger push to migration

The informal economy as I understand it doesn’t only absorb part of the reserve army of labour but also subsidizes more predatory and exploitative forms of capital accumulation. The masses of the unemployed, the under-employed (Fanon’s lumpen-proletariat), the precariat, the surplus and disposable population are made to accept extremely low wages/incomes that are even cutting into what they need for social reproduction.

The pandemic will further dispossess these already marginalised sections of society and push some of them to risk their lives in the Mediterranean trying to reach Fortress Europe for a better life. Harga – undocumented migration – has increased lately even during the pandemic and the EU is escalating and strengthening its inhumane racist border imperialism.

7. The Pandemic and the oil shock

The start of 2020 has seen an unprecedented oil price crash. The plunge in the oil prices was unparallel as the escalating pandemic accelerated the profound shock to the fossil fuel industry. The impact was brutal among oil companies, especially in the high-cost US shale oil sector. As for oil-producing countries such as Algeria, Libya, Nigeria, and other, more economic strain was added to their economies with mounting budget deficits and a haemorrhaging of their financial reserves.

For example: according to the IMF, Algeria now needs an oil price of over $157 a barrel just to balance its budget as the current oil prices are around the $45 mark so you can imagine what that would entail economically: more painful austerity measures, more unemployment and poverty.

8. Extractivism and neocolonialism

Even before the crisis, this is not a natural state of affair. The extreme vulnerability of countries like Algeria to cyclical fluctuations of commodity prices is caused by an extractivist model of development that has been shaped since colonialism and consolidated in the neo-liberal era with the complicity of comprador classes. That model entrenches the subordinate insertion of these economies within a hierarchical global division of labour: on one hand as providers of cheap natural resources and cheap labour and on the other as a market for industrialised economies, maintaining relations of imperialist domination and neo-colonial hierarchies.

9. Debt crisis and the gutting of public services

These relations are also maintained by debt. The IFIs like the IMF and the world bank impose their dictates through loan conditionalities in order to open up economies for more plunder.

The pandemic also manifests itself in a debt crisis for so many countries in the global South, some of which are more affected than others. We saw the news how Lebanon and Zambia defaulted on the payment of their debts.

Let’s see what all these debts and neoliberal conditionalities achieved in North Africa in terms of public services:

  • The WHO recommends a threshold of 4.45 doctors/nurses/midwives per 1,000 inhabitants: it is 0,72 in Morocco and 0,79 in Egypt.
  • Debt servicing is 10 times the public health budget in Morocco, 7 times in Egypt and 4 times in Tunisia. It also absorbs a large part of the education budget and public investments.

IMF estimate that what is needed for the economic recovery in the whole MENA region amounts to about 170 billion dollars. But where would that money come from? The response of the IFIs and the ruling classes is more debts:

  • Egypt: already received around 8 billion from the IMF and WB and is trying to contract more from other lenders
  • Morocco: around 4 billion dollars and trying to get more

And it’s the same story in other countries like Tunisia, Sudan, Iraq and Mauritania. This will only add to people’s suffering and deterioration of livelihoods in these regions.

10. Pandemic and food sovereignty

The pandemic is also a food sovereignty issue for African countries and others in the Global South. At this particular moment, it is definitely worth remembering the powerful words of the Burkinabe revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara when he said: “Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn and millet – that is imperialism .. He who feeds you, controls you.”

The food dependency of most of the countries of the South has been intensified by the agricultural policies of the big capitalists who produce to export what the world markets require. This is ecological imperialism, which is broadly speaking the subjugation of the economic, political and/or social institutions of a peripheral country for the biophysical and metabolic needs of a core country with all the externalised and displaced social and environmental costs.

11. Egypt and Algeria among the biggest importers of wheat in the world

This is the reality experienced by the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, which have become one of the largest global importers of foodstuffs. Egypt and Algeria for example top the list of the biggest importers of wheat in the world. We saw how these two countries were extremely vulnerable during the pandemic as they struggled to purchase wheat in international markets, especially when countries such as Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and Russia have suspended their grain exports.

This just demonstrates the non-sustainability and fragility of those global value chains and reveals the lopsidedness of a global food system where North African countries export water and land-intensive produce such as tomatoes, citrus, strawberries and flowers in order to import basic food staples such as grains.

These countries live at the mercy of food markets, a reality which has subjected them to regular bread riots as food prices have risen during the last 40 years. The most recent are the protests (including in Egypt and Morocco) resulting from the food crisis in 2008.

12. Impact on small-scale food producers

Now, let’s see the impact of the pandemic in rural areas and specifically on small-scale food producers.

In Tunisia for example, confinement and curfew measures restricted the mobility of food producers like farmers, fishers and cattle breeders; paralyzing rural dynamics and having a negative impact on production and commercialization. Moreover, the decision to close down wholesale markets for four days a week undermined the distribution of commodities to markets and favoured speculators over farmers.

In Morocco and Egypt, small farmers, agricultural workers as well as fisherfolks carry out their work in the absence of any form of protection and there is no form of support directed specifically to them. Meanwhile, agricultural and fishing capitalists continue to show their disregard for the workers’ lives. They deny their right to preventive health measures both in transportation, inside production units and on boats while benefiting from state support, tax concessions, loan facilities and other benefits.

13. Global Resistance

On top of all these forms of dispossession and pauperisation, the pandemic has been a blessing to authoritarian regimes such as in Morocco, Algeria and Egypt. Before the pandemic, millions of Algerians were in the streets asking for radical democratic change and for the demilitarisation of their republic. However the regime took the opportunity of the halt of the massive protests to double down on its repressive measures to bury the Hirak.

In the midst of all this bleakness, people are not passive victims, they organise and resist, despite the huge challenges they face. Workers, farmers and fishers fight for their rights and build independent unions.

The uprisings we saw in 2019 and early 2020 in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon are part of the protracted revolutionary process that has been unleashed in the region a decade ago. Fundamentally, these revolts, alongside others in Chile, Bolivia, the BLM are expressions of a deep rejection of a global system that is not fit for purpose at the social, ecological and even biological level.

14. Building the alternatives

I’ll end with a few thought on the way forward. In the short term, I think some of the priorities in North Africa and more generally the global South are:

  1. Unconditional cancellation of debts: There are currently various citizen initiatives that go in that direction: from Africa, MENA region, Asia and Latin America.
  2. This needs to be linked to the rehabilitation and protection of public services such as education, health and transport.

In the medium to long run, what is needed is a complete overhaul of the current development model.

This won’t happen on its own or overnight but need to be achieved through collective class struggle, alliances and solidarity. In that respect, the rural-urban divide needs to become the rural-urban continuum. It’s not simply an alliance of the industrial working classes with the peasantry but a broader concept of the working people as Issa Shivji articulated it where the victims of neoliberal, racial and imperial capitalism are engaging collectively for popular sovereignty over their wealth, resources, food and livelihoods.

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