Maverick Citizen Newsletter Editorial
Let community leaders lead the Covid-19 response at grassroots
When the government, in deciding on imposing a hard lockdown on South Africans, perhaps inadvertently excluded the plan-makers, the make-doers, the eyes and ears of South Africa's communities, it created a fatal flaw in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
For weeks now, community leaders have watched while the police and the defence force patrol the streets. Stuck at home, as most want to obey the rules, they are turning to social media with their messaging – and it is on point.
For them the fight is about saving lives, not about a display of government power. They spread the word on hand washing, on masks and on physical distancing. Even in a fearful situation where the infection is spreading like wildfire, community leaders in townships outside Humansdorp put up their signs: “Lockdown. Moenie kuier nie.” (No visitors)
It is time to give them a chance to deal with this. And by “this” we mean providing community leaders with information and resources. As the informal command council of each little community in South Africa, they are more agile, have better intelligence and probably are less worried about stepping on toes than the current unwieldy structures fighting the pandemic.
They, more than anybody, know the fault lines of our communities. They are aware of the hunger, the daily scramble for water and the rising cases of domestic violence. They also know that there is a simmering trust deficit when it comes to government.
The Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, said this as long ago as the start of April when South Africans were still getting used to lockdown. “To defeat Covid-19 is no longer an issue of a nurse and a doctor; it is actually about society, it is actually about going into a combat zone and fighting this infection.”
Sadly, not a lot has been done yet to allow for community leaders to take the lead in fighting the infection. Theirs is a voice that needs amplifying as preventative measures are taking a back seat as communities are struggling with heartbreaking food shortages and a struggle to access water. They are the ones who can address fear and stigma.
This is not an open invitation to the government to abandon ship and let communities take over. It is a plea for a decision to channel resources and information to the right people.
Often community leaders are the ones who provide the community memory; the ones who can draw wisdom from the HIV-pandemic – the mistakes made and the lessons learned.
As the leadership of the Amadiba Crisis Committee puts it: “A few months ago we heard that there was a new virus coming. We knew it was in other countries already. The previous time we heard about HIV it was too late. We were waiting for government and the municipality to come with their awareness campaigns. If you look at us you would think we are a separate island, the way government treats us. Government never came. Then the HIV spread like hell.”
As Covid-19 takes its toll in communities, it is more important than ever that we give the right people the chance to speak and mobilise communities.
It is highly unlikely that they will do worse than the government. For one, they know their communities’ weak points and strengths.
During a mental health seminar last week, psychology professor Garth Stevens predicted large-scale civil disobedience as our slow-moving government continues to impose rules that conflict with people’s survival instincts. Only fools will believe that we have not reached this stage.
People need certainty, he said. And in an age of raging uncertainty, he added, there will be a voracious need for information. The sometimes unclear government communicators are not providing much. In fact, the often lengthy silences from the office of the President are providing ample fodder for fake news and conspiracy theories. Community leaders are not trained to spin, nor do they gain anything from it. If anything, we now need people who can say it as it is.
Government’s food and water distribution plans are not really taking off and have lost a lot of credibility as allegations of corruption increase.
A week or so ago after the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu, apologised that not all tanks sent to communities to provide water for hand hygiene had been set up, because bricks and cements were not available during lockdown. Her comments were met with derision by communities.
In Port Elizabeth, community groups were scathing. “We can solve this in 10 minutes,” they said. “We get three pallets from the spaza shop. Maybe four. What you must do first is measure the kids and see which one is the shortest. You use him because he will have to (be able to) reach the tap. You go fetch the pallets from the spaza shop. Maybe a few cable ties and we will have water by tonight.”
When people started running out of food it was again communities who activated their churches, informal food schemes, sharing and borrowing. Bringing, picking up and distributing. Drawing up lists and making sure there is a way for people to safely ask for help. All without the government interfering. Small community organisations were delivering hundreds of food parcels a week.
As masks became compulsory you saw women everywhere, repurposing old clothes, showing youngsters how to make something.
Infectious disease experts like Professor Shabir Mahdi have expressed an opinion, widely shared by many other doctors, that only communities can now save themselves. On Monday (11 May) President Cyril Ramaphosa said the same thing, but possibly in a more obfuscated, political way.
What Ramaphosa didn’t say, but really should be saying, is that the time has come for the government to empower and equip our community leaders to deal with this – and then let them to their job.
Government has had its fairly forceful chance that was successful in some respects. Now is the time to change tack.
Ordinary wisdom, not more regulations, will win the day. DM/MC
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