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The walking dead undermine the Covid-19 lockdown at our collective peril


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

When we look around the world at who are the ones dying en masse, it is of course the poor and vulnerable, and therefore not us, the middle class, and the rich. So, what’s a few hundred thousand predominantly black people for the greater good? Whatever the greater good means to some of us.

As I observed in horror the Sea Point Promenade in Cape Town a few days ago, where hundreds of people flocked to exercise their democratic right to free movement and getting a bit of fresh air, I couldn’t help but think what a disaster this will spell for us all from a health perspective. 

No physical distancing was being practised or adhered to and it was just a free for all. And in wanting to understand this phenomenon and why people would react like this in the face of a serious health pandemic globally, I had to think very hard to make sense of it. While also attempting to understand another thing that bothered me which was, why so many also compare our lockdown restrictions with apartheid or Nazi Germany? 

So, Thomas Sowell, the American economist reminds us aptly I think, “when people get used to preferential treatment, equal treatment seems like discrimination”. Surely this holds true for most white South Africans, how else does one explain these outrageous comparisons to the Stasi and our supposed descent into a dictatorship? 

The idea of being controlled is repugnant to whites while some of us come from our recent history of being regimented in our townships and having to produce “dompasse” or identification booklets at every turn, or having our movements watched at all times. Placed under house arrest and being classified as banned or restricted persons. We blacks are used to it all. 

And therefore, I have to agree, while some of the lockdown restrictions certainly require rethinking and reformulation, these measures are surely not signs of totalitarian tendencies?

As someone said on social media recently, “there’s some kind of bizarre sense that we should be business as usual. There’s a typical focus on the detail which fails to see the big picture. There’s a view that we should ignore much or all of what’s unfolding, and carry on regardless, letting our already struggling medical system be swamped into collapse. Letting broken systems of social support break still further. Letting our embattled economy push on in some weird vacuum while global markets collapse.”

The walking dead somehow fail to fully appreciate the delicate balancing act required between getting our economy going again and ensuring the minimum loss of life due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Or if they do, they simply don’t care about the latter.

And yet another social media observer states rather correctly, I think, with regards to the smoking matter that: “When you say that rights are rights, I know that you are not inferring that the right to smoke is equivalent to the right to life or the right to freedom from bodily harm. However, there are a lot of people whose sincerity I would question here, for the reason that they started warning of a slippery slope to dictatorship not when the police were torturing people in Alex, but when middle-class pleasures came under threat. Hence, I would hesitate to agree with you that the government is responsible for creating the noise around cigarettes and alcohol. If that noise is justified, then it should have started a month ago, not on Wednesday evening.”

Now, I’m the first to agree with Freddie Sayers when he says that, “the expert that most resonates is unlikely to be entirely down to your assessment of the science — more likely a complex combination of your politics, your own life experience, your attitude to risk and mortality, and your relationship to authority. Perhaps each of us have elements of both instinct within us — but what do they really represent?” 

Steven Robins says, and I agree with him too, that, “such alarmist perspectives are perhaps to be expected from conservative whites locked down in the suburbs. This section of South African society lives in a bourgeois bubble where restrictions on their liberties (ie to exercise, cycle and walk their dogs), are increasingly being perceived as signs of totalitarianism, even if these are motivated by legitimate public health concerns to protect the vulnerable from a deadly disease. 

These “libertarians” also typically have very little understanding or empathy for the plight of the poor and marginalised, who now more than ever urgently need any protection they can get from the government. But to compare the lockdown measures of the Cyril Ramaphosa administration with these cases of authoritarian creep seems both inaccurate and alarmist. 

What is becoming increasingly clear is that Covid-19 has once again revealed that South African society is deeply divided. It is not going to be easy for a government to balance individual liberties with the needs of the economy and public health. It will require both a “listening government” and citizens who are prepared to make sacrifices to protect millions of vulnerable South Africans”.

So how did we get here? What did the government do to facilitate this dissenting atmosphere? We started out with the central government commanding a level of authority. They said “lockdown” and we all obeyed and followed the rules. The trust levels were high between the citizenry and its government. The president and minister of health took us all into their confidence and spoke to us as equals. Outlining plans and approaches that made sense and was informed by science. 

So, why has the process now revealed weaknesses in our make-up? Trust levels are down supposedly, and there is an undercurrent of discontent brewing. People are increasingly hungry and the South Africa Social Security Agency (SASSA) is simply not coming to the party with regards to relief efforts for the most vulnerable. 

Once this phenomenon is observed by our government, they solicit the assistance of more army personnel. This is how it is viewed out there, Mr President. As the trust deficit grows and more and more of our people are on the streets in very long queues for food handouts, the police services and the military step in to maintain law and order, not safety and security. Right or wrong, this is the perception. Where did it go wrong you might ask?

Well, the president communicates the broad issues and leaves the details to his respective ministers, who in turn leave us, the public, in certain instances in confusion and doubt. Let’s take the cigarette matter as an example. Even if we assume it was a collective decision, why communicate to us that sales would be permitted again, while knowing the matter had not as yet been resolved? After all, we as citizens know that what you say is usually final and is already policy, Mr President, and yet this time around this was supposedly not the case. You must appreciate our dilemma, Mr President, and why we simply cannot believe you when you say that it was a collective decision. Collective, after the fact yes.

And so, these communication mishaps that we are experiencing are contributing to the situation sketched above. This is what is irritating to our people. In addition, I assume, what fuels further fear and anxiety is the fact that we are faced with an indefinite timeline as to Level 4. I mean, at this point in time, Level 2 seems very distant if at all attainable and this creates further animosity. 

I wouldn’t want to suggest that a further complication might also be the competitive edge between ministers. After all, both Minister of Health  Zweli Mkhize and Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, are doing such a sterling job, other ministers are bound to feel left out and want their time in the sun. Hence, we observe communication mishaps now. Just a thought. Best to keep the circle small.

As to the attitudes we observe on social media and the inconsiderate blasé remarks made towards others as outlined above, and why we cannot simply return to normal, are we to conclude, in keeping with our racist past, that actually, black lives don’t matter? For when we look around the world at who are the ones dying en masse, it is, of course, the poor and vulnerable and therefore not us, the middle class and the rich. So, what’s a few hundred thousand predominantly black people for the greater good? Whatever the greater good means to some of us.

So, to the walking dead I say, how far our humanity has fallen.

And dare I say again, those of us expecting a change post-Covid-19, a new normal, a global ubuntu (humanity), alas, I think not. Not in our divided country. DM


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