South Africa

Coronavirus: Analysis

Cape Town, if your weekend felt normal, you’re endangering us all

Cape Town, if your weekend felt normal, you’re endangering us all
Illustrative photo: People gather to cool off in the public swimming pools in Sea Point on 16 January 2016. Photo: Kim Ludbrook/(EPA)

The fact that South Africans could still be seen congregating on beaches and enjoying social outings with friends this weekend shows that the message is not getting through in many places.

I have a question for the thousands of Capetonians who flocked to the Atlantic seaboard on Sunday.

I saw these people with my very own eyes. Sunday was my birthday, you see, but on account of how we are in the midst of a global pandemic, my celebrations took the form of a drive along the seafront with my wife.

Here’s what I expected to see: Dead streets. Shuttered restaurants. Abandoned beaches. I imagined gazing darkly out at a coastal vista suddenly devoid of all trace of humanity, and morbidly speculating about just how badly our economy was going to tank.

Here’s what I actually saw: an Atlantic Seaboard for which I can find no description other than “buzzing”. Large groups of friends, picnicking. Families containing three generations, sprawled under shade tents. Youngsters huddled together in the back of bakkies, sharing hookah pipes. All races, all classes and all ages were represented in these festive scenes. Thousands of them!

This is what I want to ask these people. I’ve been agonising over a polite way to phrase this, and ultimately this is the best I can do: Are you fucking mad?

Are we living in the same world? Are we all on Planet Earth in 2020?

You know, the ol’ gass-ball where societies globally are being locked down on a scale not even seen in World War II? The place where doctors in some countries have started to assess who to treat for Covid-19 based on criteria like “who has more to offer to society”, because there are no more hospital beds and no more ventilators and ever fewer healthy doctors?

I am generally a believer in extending empathy to even the sociopathically reckless, so I have been trying to think my way into the heads of these folk.

Perhaps they have looked at South Africa’s coronavirus stats so far – fewer than 300 confirmed cases, and 0 recorded deaths – and thought: Fuss about nothing. Typical media over-hyping things. We’ll be fine (all actual words I have heard come out of actual human mouths this week).

Perhaps they are aware of the imperative to practise “social distancing”, but are under the impression that it means “socialise with five friends, rather than 50”, or “socialise outdoors, rather than inside”, or “have a braai with your mates instead of going to a packed nightclub”.

Perhaps they reason that because they are young, or healthy, or lucky, or rich enough to pay for top-drawer health treatment, catching the virus would be no big dealio anyway, and they’ve never contemplated the possibility that they could be exhibiting no symptoms and still pass the virus along to someone who is not young, or healthy, or lucky, or rich.

Or perhaps they have literally never heard of the coronavirus or Covid-19. Perhaps they have never logged on to the internet, or seen a single news headline, or heard a minute of radio, or watched a second of TV, or heard any other person discuss this issue in any way whatsoever.

Perhaps they have just been released from a hostage situation which kept them imprisoned underground for three months, and upon being freed they headed directly to Camps Bay for cocktails, and none of the friends with whom they are currently clinking glasses has bothered to fill them in yet, and also they are now deaf and blind.

Or maybe they have heard of it, but absorbed only a jumbled or partial message about it, which led them to believe that sundowners on the beach with a large group of acquaintances would be a perfectly appropriate way to spend a sunny Sunday evening in the midst of a global pandemic.

These thought experiments have left me exhausted and headachey, and still confused.

But here’s another thing I find almost equally confounding: that I live in a city where I have yet to see a scrap of public messaging about the coronavirus produced by either the municipality, the provincial government, or the national government. Every notice to this effect I have spotted so far has been produced by one of the private businesses probably about to go bankrupt. But in public spaces? Not a billboard, not a poster, not a flyer pushed into my mailbox or left on my car windscreen.

The City of Cape Town has my cellphone number: they send me monthly reminders to pay my bills. So does the DA, which runs the government in this province: before every election they shoot me ransom notes reminding me to vote blue or wake up in Venezuela. Why are they not currently blowing up my phone telling me to please, for the love of God, stay at home?

Why are they not using the sophisticated communication machinery they harnessed to scare the shit out of all Capetonians about Day Zero? Why are they not driving down the roads with loudhailers telling people to wash their hands, avoid public spaces, and keep a metre and a half’s distance from anybody you don’t live with?

Why can’t they, at an absolutely bare minimum, erect a single sign on a beach with these reminders?

As a journalist covering the pandemic right now, I have no specialised medical knowledge or epidemiological expertise. But over the last fortnight I have spoken to almost nobody except the South African experts who have devoted their lives to the study of situations like the one we find ourselves in. And they are deeply, overwhelmingly, unanimously, scared.

If my tone seems alarmist, that’s the idea. Because how else do you jolt people out of complacency except with alarm?

“Life shouldn’t feel normal right now. So if your life still feels entirely normal, ask yourself if you are doing the right things.”

That’s what Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told her country on Sunday. And by the looks of things this weekend, far too many South Africans still need to hear this message. DM

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