Opinionista Saul Musker 28 September 2020

View from Up Close: What the Covid-19 crisis reveals about SA

The old adage suggests that a person’s true character is revealed in a crisis. The same could be said of a country.

It takes a crisis as severe as the one we are living through to realise just how much the society we live in matters. We are suddenly bound together, reminded of our fragility and our dependence on others. Our health and safety depend on the actions of strangers, and on the protection offered by the state.

For some, this is a source of frustration and anger. It isn’t easy to accept that the actions of others might determine our fate. The loss of control provokes resentment and rage.

For many, there is a sense of agency in being able to contribute to a greater effort, in being part of a collective with responsibility for others. 

These conflicting narratives have played out in South Africa since the start of our national state of disaster in March, as they have surfaced elsewhere in the world. Different national responses to the pandemic have revealed as much about each country’s values and beliefs as they have about the capacity of their health systems.

Some governments have done little to protect their citizens. Leaders have downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic, refusing to impose necessary restrictions and ignoring the advice of scientists. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is a case in point, along with many governors in the United States. If you live in a society like that, you are on your own.

Elsewhere, government interventions have provoked outrage and rebellion, viewed as infringements on freedom rather than protective measures.

In each case, the public response is determined by deep underlying factors that existed long before the pandemic, and by the society’s values. While the focus has been on its health impact, the pandemic has had an equally disruptive impact on our social and political fabric.

Individualist societies, unused to relying on government intervention and resistant to a paternalistic state, have struggled to pull together in the face of a crisis. Rather than protecting the weakest and most vulnerable, these societies have taken a nihilist approach: to “live and let die”.

The result has, in most cases, been an increase in deaths – but also a rise in social and political tension, a sense of rage against a society that refuses to help.

India offers a useful counterpoint. With more than five million confirmed cases and growing, the country has among the most severe epidemics in the world. The national lockdown which Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed without warning in March forced millions of migrant workers into exodus, and the Indian economy contracted by more than 25% in the second quarter of 2020 (significantly worse than South Africa’s decline).

Yet Modi remains enduringly popular in India, despite an apparently calamitous response. Most Indians blame the coronavirus itself for the hardships they have experienced, and not the government. Strong social bonds – formed also, in India’s case, by a dangerous resurgence of Hindu nationalism – have remained intact, and stringent measures have been viewed as necessary despite their economic impact.

How has South Africa fared on these measures?

For all of the criticism of some regulations, one of the hallmarks of the South African response has been widespread social solidarity and collective action.

Most South Africans have willingly followed basic precautions and taken care to protect others. From the beginning, our government has implemented a range of measures to save lives and provide care to those who need it. There has been a powerful determination to bring the epidemic under control – indeed, the most frequent criticism is that too much was done.

This is not to say that our response has been perfect. The crisis has revealed more starkly than before the weaknesses of the state, and the capability that was lost over the past decade.

But it has also revealed a strong undercurrent of solidarity, and a willingness to act in favour of others. This might not be obvious on social media, where cynicism is a powerful currency. But it is clear in our workplaces, supermarkets, taxis and schools. We are not an individualist society after all, and we have been spared the worst effects of the pandemic as a result.

This is remarkable for a country which, by all accounts, should have very little trust left. And yet, trust and hope endure.

The past six months have reminded us how vulnerable we all are, in so many ways. We have learnt again how deeply we depend on others. We have come to recognise the necessity of a state that works, and of a society that sees value in protecting life.

Luckily, the ingredients are still there. DM

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All Comments 8

  • More inconsequential brown nosing from Saul Musker. Millions in South Africa starving and destitute from the draconian and frankly idiotic response to Covid and the best he can manage is ” – indeed, the most frequent criticism is that too much was done.”

  • I agree with Saul Musker. The pandemic has largely been well managed by the authorities in SA. In the key critical areas (where possible) all the recommendations have been complied with: Early lockdown; social distancing; mask wearing; hand sanitising; self isolating after exposure; early medical consultation when symptomatic, and so on. The numbers don’t lie. So far we have come through this better than most large western democracies like the USA and the UK. We were favourably compared with the latter countries on a BBC radio program last evening. The interviewees were foreign medical personnel who had been, or still are here helping with the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m a medical professional and most of my colleagues have this view as well.

  • Looking at the numbers our government didn’t do so bad, just wonder how accurate the information is. Looking at the performance of some of the members of cabinet tell a different story not to mention the wholesale looting by mostly cadres. A hard look the attitude of some individuals might just do the trick.

  • Two big problems here. First, this article appears to equate less restrictive anti-COVID measures with cultural individualism. But there are several prominent counter-examples: Sweden and the Netherlands are two. It seems that the association between libertarian politics and light-touch COVID regulation is a relatively loose one. Second, the article assumes that the measures implemented by the South African government since March are the reason for the country’s relatively low mortality rate. But this is wrong, for two reasons. First, SA’s ‘excess deaths’ since March are now hovering around the 45 000 mark, which puts the mortality rate from COVID on a par with that in e.g. the UK and France, whatever SA’s official COVID mortality figures suggest. Second, the fact that 40% of the population in densely populated areas have been found to have COVID antibodies shows that the infection rate in SA has probably been far higher than in e.g. Europe, despite the draconian lockdown. What appears to have saved us is the relative youth of our population, partial immunity owing to widespread infection with other coronaviruses, and the fact that HIV-positive status does not after all appear to have been a risk factor for serious illness from COVID. It seems that Musker approaches this issue from the perspective of someone educated exclusively in the Humanities. The almost complete lack of attention to the evidence makes his analysis essentially worthless.

    • Surely someone working in the President’s office should refrain from commenting. It’s like marking your own work and lo and behold, you give yourself an A.
      I notice you have have chosen not to mention the abrupt dismissal of the advisory committee of scientists with no explanation whatsoever. Rather destructive of the trust you claim to see everywhere.

  • In a real disaster, you stand together, rope in the best brains, work as a team with the opposition parties. In a drummed-up media disaster, which will culminate soon in the World Economic forum’s “Great Reset meeting”, people will finally realise the world’s politicians cannot be trusted anylonger – our government was the best case to prove this. While a PCR test, which cannot confirm infections and is inaccurate is used everywhere to increase the number of cases at will and keep the status quo until the vaccine is available ( what happens with a virus a year later?) the Class Action court cases staring in Germany and the US will hopefully soon tell us who and what is really behind this catastrophic plandemic. Just glad the true colours of this rotten government are showing up.

  • Scientists Collective – Covid-19

    Anticipating a ‘Second Wave’ — and when and how South Africa should try to prevent or mitigate it

    By The Scientists Collective