Evelyn Groenink

The Eyes of Melinda Gates

It’s going to be terrible, she says. People will be dying in the streets. Have you seen the images from Ecuador? Piles of bodies. It will be like that in Africa. These vulnerable people in their small shacks cannot protect themselves. They don’t even have water. The disease will strike poor people in Africa more than anywhere.

It is the eyes that annoy most. Those big, concerned, white saviour eyes. ‘It is as if she actually hopes for disaster, so she can come to save us from ourselves again’,  twitterati say. Black twitterati that is, and general leftie twitterati of all colours. The way such eyes with their patronising concern give one goosebumps. You’d almost punch that face.  Go away Melinda Gates with your billionaire husband Bill and your stupid health charity. Africa hasn’t even got that many coronavirus infections. Go help your own people in Trumpland.

There are slow infections, a few dozen deaths, but for a while Africa seems to do fine indeed.  Except for Tanzania’s strongman Magufuli, who calls people to congregate and pray at the virus, the continent’s leaders say all the right things.  Emergency plans – sensible emergency plans – are announced in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda. Sage presentations by experts assisting very rational and gravely concerned ministers of health are aired to the public. There are projects for field hospitals and ventilator deliveries. Lockdown is everywhere. Yes, lockdowns are terrible when you live with eight in a shack and you can’t get to shops, or even get to water, and soldiers beat you up if you try, but they work to keep curves flattish for a while, buying time for a dreaded peak.

Civil society is prepared. Health workers and activists organise hand sanitiser, protective masks, food parcels, permits for spaza shops. They campaign for shelters for the homeless, help at food kitchens; get connected with social justice lawyers to take legal action against abusive soldiers and policemen. In South Africa, freedom struggle veterans help mobilise. Supermarket staff, electricity workers and other essentials brave infection rates. Nurses, doctors and cleaners prepare hospitals for the first few hundred sick. People make their own masks, wash hands, distribute health information, shop for elderly.

Resilience, creativity. It is how Liberian nurses beat Ebola, by making masks and gloves out of rubbish bags. Take that, Melinda Gates.

Then, in South Africa, a doctor’s desperate calls for help with testing a set of probably infected persons go unanswered. A prison’s corona strategy turns out to be fake, with wardens only wearing masks when a minister visits and hand sanitiser dispensers found to contain plain water. In another prison, wardens and inmates start getting sick. A national government minister in the same country calls a mass meeting at a taxi rank, with the masses expected to enter crowded minibuses on their return home while the minister leaves in a disinfected private limousine. Another minister visits a friends’ mansion for lunch, then lies about how she was there ‘to pick up health supplies’.

The police minister, for his part, seems to relish the oppression in the townships: ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’, he says, grinning under his cowboy hat, when asked about sjambok beatings and assaults on people looking for food.  

‘I hope for the best’, says an activist of my acquaintance despondently. ‘But I just don’t trust any of these people’.

As stories about the infected and dead start accumulating next to the accounts of desperate township families who can’t get to chemists, can’t get paracetamol or baby clothes, a ruling party official — the one who offered the above minister a ‘pick up of health supplies’ lunch — posts a video of his enormous house. Full of crystal chandeliers and crystal stairways it is, the house and the video, with himself first descending solemnly down them, then exercising in his private gym, then showing a maid with feather duster busy in his shoe cupboard.

Meanwhile in Kenya, parliament stops a debate on much-expected relief for locked down people in shanty towns to rather move through extra budget for itself. Ugandan health workers walk for kilometres to get to patients and are applauded for their selflessness, but puzzled Ugandan citizens ask why there are no ambulances. There was a budget for such vehicles, wasn’t there? Prisoners in Cameroon start dying.

Back in South Africa, a Solidarity Fund, filled with generous donations from the better-off,  and even more generous ones from citizens with modest incomes, has been allocated a board of individuals whose names are unknown, a fact that by itself sows fear in kleptocracy country. ‘Can we audit this already please’, ask many, and one anonymous response come to say that that would be a good idea ‘because I saw the names’. ‘For every politician, official, business etcetera, who looted money for health, water, housing, education, for everyone of you who mismanaged, you are the reason the poor are more vulnerable to the effects of coronavirus’, tweets broadcaster and author Redi Tlhabi. ‘And you are trash’.

Interestingly, the kleptocrat political elites are the partners of Bill and Melinda Gates. Bill, who transfers large sums of money to African governments, doesn’t think corruption is a big problem. He has said it’s just a ‘small tax’ to pay on top of his health projects. So, while fighting disease-causing parasites, they feed quite a few too — of the kind that drives around in limousines, that is.

Maybe that is why Melinda Gates expects lots of deaths in Africa now.

Still, even among Africa’s politicians, there are some who sound at least momentarily good. South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa gives sterling performances of leadership. Also in South Africa, the water minister seems full of new elan, posting pictures of rows and rows of water tanks meant for the poor.  Not to be outdone, a provincial education minister presents selfies with food parcels and shelters. ‘How come you do all this for us now’, someone asks, ‘when you did not do that ever since you came to power twenty-six years ago?’ ‘Better late than never’, the minister tweets back.

We don’t know how this ends. Will the water tanks and food parcels make it from the pictures to those they are meant for?  And will there be food and water again tomorrow, or was it just the once? Will ten thousand intensive care beds and ten thousand ventilators be installed in field hospitals, as one of the plans will have it? Very few of those in charge of the plans have a record of achieving anything ever before. Most have risen to power because of backstabbing and politicking; often at the expense of more capable professionals. Still, they might just rise to the occasion.

It would be great if, as we at ZAM hope, in the drama of today the foundations could be laid for a more just tomorrow. If those who were until now mainly concerned with politicking and crystal chandeliers and budgets for themselves would now indeed, perhaps for the first time, look at the public health sector and see the clinics with more broken windows than medicines and the passages where patients lie on floors among dirty sheets. It would be great if the pandemic would shock the kleptocrats into realising that they might not always be able to fly to Paris, London, Havana or Moscow to treat their own little coughs and ulcers; that they might need a local hospital at some point, too.

So maybe they will deliver ten thousand ventilators to the hospitals where they are awaited. Maybe my fear that someone will pocket the money and, in the end, only present a couple of desk fans will be proven incorrect. Maybe even the party leader with the crystal stairway and chandeliers will suddenly do the right thing. Miracles do happen.

I hope for such miracles. I hope that citizen’s resilience, creativity and sacrifice will be supported and rewarded by leaders who rise to the occasion. I hope that nature helps, too: the average youthful age of Africa’s peoples may help mitigate a virus threat that seems to disproportionately target the elderly. The gods know that Africa can use some advantage for a change.

But if not, I hope very fervently that the leaders who spent their country’s health care, donor money and other budgets on chandeliers, lavish lunches and limousines for themselves, will die first. And that they are then condemned to spend eternity under the gaze of the eyes of Melinda Gates.