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
"You know you're in trouble when your own imagination starts punishing you." ~ Eoin Colfer