The Militarisation of the COVID-19 Response in South Africa (#WitnessingCorona)
By: Susan Levine, Lenore Manderson
As medical anthropologists well versed in the social grammar of infectious disease, the global spread of the coronavirus has pressed us to the edges of history. Writing from the centre, the ground keeps shifting as we try to hold the scale of the pandemic in conversation with the unfolding global escalation of police violence and racism, gross economic inequality and dehumanisation, the hardening of national borders and the rise of xenophobia. The heightened presence of private security forces, citizen arrests and the police, and the massification of military response to enforce COVID-19 lockdown regulations, contribute to a highly differentiated experience of harm along the lines of ‘separate development’ that underpinned apartheid’s spatialization of race inequality in South Africa (Mbeki 1964). The deepening of structural violence and systemic hunger associated with the closure of formal and informal businesses is visible in the densification of homelessness in city centers. Cardboard boxes, plastic sheets, scrap metals, wooden planks, grocery carts, rubbish bags, and discarded tyres are assembled into makeshift shelters under bridges, on the steps of churches, and near police and fire stations, empty hotels, lodges, and backpacker hostels. Makeshift tents are popping up in public parks, especially those with access to springs and rivers. Meanwhile, on the edge of the city, an even larger population struggles with precarious housing and few services. Here, defence forces have actively torn down illegal structures, and shot and killed people who are unable to adhere to curfew regulations or to find legal shelter (Image 1). COVID-19 response has heightened – not produced – the criminalisation of poverty in South Africa.