“It can be seen” – COVID-19’s Disasters for Workers

This article is part of the following series:

Ethiopia, where I am currently doing dissertation fieldwork, reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 13, 2020. But for runners who work in transnational sport, COVID-19 had entered the country two months earlier. 

In January, long before the Olympics, the Boston Marathon, the NBA season, and many other major sporting events were cancelled or postponed, a number of sub-elite runners training in Addis Ababa were falling into panicked frenzy. Their races in China, and their only source of steady income for the year, were cancelled. Many people do not view athletes as workers, in part because some of them make gratuitous amounts of money (it’s hard to worry about Lebron James, who makes almost 40 million per year) and in part because for most people, sport and fitness exists as leisure-escape from their working lives. But for Ethiopian athletes, amid mass cancellations and postponements, the notion that their running is work – and dependent on economic stability outside of their control – quickly crystalized.

A number of them called the management office in Addis Ababa, scared.

Would they get new races? When? When would they know?

If this was the end of their careers, they wanted to know so they could invest some meager savings in new endeavors. Most Ethiopian athletes do not have extensive educations and are well aware that opportunities might not be abundant. One suggested he might try and start a taxi service. 

Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes have a reputation for being the world’s greatest distance runners. Among racist and pseudo-scientific writings that attribute their success to genetics, environment, and natural ability, others also cite the ways in which they transform their lives through running – they “run away from poverty.”

True, those who were slated to run the Boston and London Marathons that were cancelled a few months later, are doing quite well. But for the scores of others who work in this transnational athletics market, COVID-19 has exposed similar shortcomings as it has come to show for a great deal of masses of workers: capitalism is utterly incapable of caring for people in a pandemic.

In the same way that some of the perilous working conditions of Ethiopian athletes have been highlighted by the spread of a deadly and contagious virus, COVID-19 has exposed a lack of worker protections worldwide and unmasked the ways in which private capital attempts to save itself at the expense of those who make it run. 

The pandemic has exposed two linked realities about the lives of workers around the world. First, as Tithti Bhattacharya explains, those doing the low-waged work of social reproduction – nurses, cleaners, sanitation workers – are clearly highly skilled and essential people making the world run. Second, it has also uncovered how capitalism’s intent on maximizing profits can cast aside a range of other workers who cannot be productive for capital at this time. 

As anthropologists, we turn to our theoretical and empirical toolkits to make sense of this. Vincanne Adams considered whether or not this was an example of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism“– where responses to disasters promote free market rationality and corporate capital interests. Adams posits the idea of a pandemic industrial complex (akin to a military industrial complex) asking if it operates like a biopolitical machine, “orchestrating our neoliberal geopolitical investments and responses?”

Even though spending during war-time usually accompanies a moral imperative that consumers continue to spend to fuel the economy, and the technologies of production in war-time are usually geared toward destroying, not saving lives, Adams’ notion of the pandemic industrial complex is productive to think with. However, instead of it being an orchestration of investments and responses, it may just be a continuation of them, which for the moment are being laid bare. It might just be that we have been living in a disaster, but people can see it now. 

One friend and athlete recently asked me what I thought about all of the races being cancelled. 

“It’s difficult. It’s a difficult time for athletes because it started for them long before the virus even reached most countries, and we have no idea how long it will last,” I said. 

A seasoned athlete herself who has worked in sport for over ten years, she replied, “For young athletes, it’s always very hard. But it’s very hard now. It’s always hard, but now mayet yichalal (it can be seen).”

As marathons were being cancelled around the world, many recreational runners took to twitter to complain about how their training would not be put to good use. Meanwhile, others have been making it through their quarantines in the U.S. and Europe by escaping the confines of the indoors and going for runs outside. 

Anthropologist Keisha-Khan Y. Perry even posted on Twitter that more marathoners are going to come out of the quarantine than there were before. 

Meanwhile, here in Ethiopia, where athletes in the elite fields of the same marathons have been cancelled, nearly all athletes have ceased training. Without wage-oriented sport, running for “fun” is the farthest thing from most athlete’s minds. “Morale is low right now,” my friend told me last week when we showed up to an empty dirt track, which at other times would be filled with dozens of athletes training, “No one is training. Wudeder yellem there are no competitions)” she shrugged. 

Despite their excellence, most Ethiopian athletes do not make very much money. And unlike some other sports with unions and stronger federations, runners are not guaranteed any base pay. Top-tier athletes may have one-year contracts with Nike or Adidas, but they are always year-to-year, filled with reduction clauses (their pay can be taken away if they do not compete or do not compete to a certain standard, and have no exceptions for injuries or pandemics), and all of the prize-earning competitions are outside– international. Much like the movement of athletes, workers, and corporations, COVID-19 has shed light on the migratory dimensions of people and capital. As Adia Benton noted also in this series “the inevitable spread within Africa,” was and is dependent inequitable visa regimes that allow foreigners into African ports of entry. 

In the same way that mayet yichalal – people can see the contradictions of capitalism and how ill-equipped it is to deal with crisis – a global pandemic also makes clear how previous spatial fixes to capitalism’s crises have produced geopolitical tension and awareness. 

As COVID-19 has made its way into Ethiopia, Ethiopians are unable to leave, and workers here have been feeling the effects of slowed economies, told to be “elsewhere” for some time. To passersby I have become a walking personification of the disease; instead of being called “ferenji” (“foreigner”) or China people have started to call me Corona. Though I have not yet tested positive for the virus, as a white person walking around in an African country where people’s live have already been affected by the disease, my presence is off-putting. 

The stakes for average people have no doubt increased substantially here. Before COVID-19 cases were reported, several friends worried about its arrival in Ethiopia, noting that the government will not be able to handle it. As I recently was explaining how the governor of New York was requesting increases of ventilators in the thousands, a friend noted that they only have a few hundred in Ethiopia. Unlike in the U.S., where people are upset and infuriated that the government has not come even close in provided necessary care for people, here the expectations are different. 

Access to information in Ethiopia is complicated by the fact that the state-owned telecommunications is notoriously bad. Not only is network spotty on a regular basis, government sanctioned internet shutoffs can happen at a moment’s notice. I was proud to earn an array of laughter when I joked on the first day that “If the Ethiopian government is half as good as getting rid of Corona as they are of shutting down the internet, this will be over in no time.”

But despite the fact that people are more realistic about what the state will provide, for athletes and other workers in the transnational economy the material fall out will still hit hard. The opportunities to get work depends on economies opening up beyond the boundaries of Ethiopia. 

While fears of family members contracting the disease and getting treatment have risen, the inequalities inherent in this pandemic make one thing clear – it was global long before it spread around the world. It is global because the spatial fixes of global capitalism are completely unprepared at handling a disaster – biological or otherwise.

Hannah Borenstein is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. She is currently doing dissertation fieldwork in Ethiopia. Her dissertation “A New Running Economy: Ethiopian Women Distance Runners in Networks of Capital” explores how women athletes in Ethiopia navigate networks of people, corporations, and capital.