Maverick Citizen Op-ed

The voices we should be listening to: Informal settlement residents on Covid-19

By Warren Parker & Mandla Hlatshwayo 14 May 2020

Orange Farm: Social distancing and separate queues for dispensing medicine reduces exposure to the coronavirus. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

We hear the voices of four men and four women from Orange Farm, an informal settlement near Johannesburg, who were brought together to share their perspectives on Covid-19.

As Covid-19 traces its path across our lives there has been no shortage of ideas lifting to the surface in a distinct pattern. Those with authority to speak, conferred through power of various kinds, speak louder than those who do not have that power.

It’s time for us to explore the lived experience of Covid-19 away from the conventions of social media and assumed or conferred expertise that is overwhelmingly contradictory.

Giving attention to wearing face masks and adequately distancing participants, the discussion explored concerns about Covid-19, ways of preventing Covid-19, and exploration of the meaning of Covid-19, and experiences of the challenges related to the disease.

What worries you about Covid-19?

Concerns about Covid-19 follow two main threads – worries about the present and worries about the future.

Concerns about children are foremost – especially losing out on schooling, going hungry, becoming orphans:

“Innocent children will turn against us thinking we don’t care about them, and of which it is not our fault.” Some cannot access food parcels because they are “not registered”.

Being self-employed was challenging, incomes are much reduced, and police harassment complicates matters:

“I am no longer making profit, the money I used these days it is only for food, I can’t even stock enough, and also police harassment it is a big challenge”. The latter concern is also seen as having longer-term dimensions as “it will end up that the police and the community will be greater enemies”.

Cultural practices are also being impinged upon – “we cannot perform our ceremonies, which are being called by our ancestors, it is painful” – and funerals are not readily undertaken. As one participant outlines:

“When we bury our loved ones we must have a certain number and we must be as quick as possible, in such a way that we cannot perform our rituals as we use to do, and it hurts… It really affects the family and our culture. It will mean after lockdown we must go back to the grave and start again to talk to our ancestors.”

Unemployment flowing from the lockdown is seen to be potentially long-term, and the ensuing poverty “will make us eat each other, in such a way that when you see someone with grocery they will rob them because they will be few people will be having food in their home, and to find that we are no longer living in peace and the lack of trust amongst ourselves will be very high”.

The future is unclear regarding when “Covid-19 will end, and how many people will be left, because it seems government it is losing control”. In this context it is very difficult to find hope for the future:

“It seems we are not going anywhere to find a solution to deal with this problem, it is really scary.”

For some, HIV in contrast to Covid-19 at least does not limit movement “because people use to go out and pray for it, but this disease closes even the churches” – yet it also appears to provide an opportunity to express altruism and common humanity:

“God has no discrimination among his children and the only thing is to show us the way of being human and kind amongst ourselves.”

What is your understanding of Covid-19?

Covid-19 communication occurs through multiple channels and produces a confusing mess of ideas that are not readily interpreted. No single voice is authentic and misinformation is everywhere:

“I am so scared, because some information in social media is scary, some images I don’t know whether they are true or false. Some information allows me to relax, and some makes me even fear to go to the toilet. I am not real sure what to do in times like this. What to really believe”. In this regard, there is a lack of education to explain Covid-19 in a clear way.

In general, there is a good understanding that Covid-19 is spread by close contact and coughing and sneezing. Wearing a face mask all the time prevents spread, as does avoiding close contact with others, taking care on public transport, avoiding kissing and hugging, avoiding sharing utensils, yet there is uncertainty – “what if it is on our clothes?”, “what about my child who has been outside?”

There were also concerns that sexual relationships and secret liaisons would contribute to the spread. There was laughter when one participant asked if he should wear a mask, gloves and a condom when having sex, while another said he felt it necessary to “totally suspend romantic life until the cure, it’s because mistakes are happening, and it is better to be on the safe side”.

What can be done better?

Participants have practical suggestions for moving away from a lockdown. For example:

“I would say instead of messing up the economy, each household must have masks, gloves* and sanitiser and also in the workplace so that people could continue working because now is the mess people with losing their jobs.”

*Gloves are not necessary for Covid-19 prevention in community settings.

It is also suggested that the lockdown be applied less unevenly by “targeting areas that are really affected” and there should be a specific focus on educating “police and soldiers that it is not war against the community, but it is a guidance, to save lives. We feel oppressed in our own houses”. There is also a need for “proper education”, the need to address stigma and discrimination, the need to ensure that schooling is not left by the wayside, and a strategy for protecting communities in need. For example, food parcels can be better delivered door-to-door to avoid corruption.

The loss of spiritual connection is also a concern:

“I would say that the government must not close churches because in all problems we have in our country we depend on churches for solutions. Only God can help through combined prayers as the community.”

Rounding off

So there you have it. Covid-19 from another point of view. And we certainly need such insights and connection to more voices in the settings where the risks and impacts of Covid-19 are potentially the highest. And perhaps this points to a particular need – for sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and others in the humanities to be better represented in the Covid-19 response so that we can better understand our society and the insights and solutions that can be found at all levels. DM

Warren Parker and Mandla Hlatshwayo have collaborated on the HIV response in South Africa since the early 1990s. Hlatshwayo is a long-time resident of Orange Farm and Parker works in public health, currently with a strong focus on Covid-19.

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