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Eyes wide shut: Tiptoeing through the dark hallway of uncertainty into 2021


James Blignaut is Professor extraordinaire attached to the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University and honorary research associate attached to the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the institutions he might be associated with.

Covid-19 has changed our world, probably forever, and 2020 was our annus horribilis, our Masada. As we tiptoe fearfully into 2021, can we escape the ghosts of 2020?

Drenched in fear, wave after wave, with eyes wide shut – seeing but not observing – I stood trembling. With a heart besieged and every sinew and muscle strung tight and rendered lame, I forced my way forward, tiptoeing into the dark and dreaded hallway. Every shadow home to an unbeknown dragon, or, heaven forbid, a daddy longlegs.

Filled with angst unsurpassed, toddler James made his way from the kitchen to the bedroom. The hallway, so familiar and soothing in the light of day, yet so intimidatingly fearsome at night, home to many ghosts. And thus, we tiptoe into the intimidating dark uncertainty of 2021. A year ominously called the Year of Peace and Trust, the Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, and the Year of Fruits and Vegetables, packed to the rafters with events of global significance – anticipated to be what is called a “superyear”.

In this, I am reminded of my trek up Masada — towering above the Dead Sea in the Judaean Desert. On the one side of the valley, a salty mass symbolic of lifelessness, the lowest point on Earth giving multiple meanings to the word ‘depression’, conjoint with such emotion. On the other side, an untold number of sun-baked millennia-old rocks that are strewn lavishly across the remote landscape. It is dry, bone-dry and swelteringly hot. It is here that the last remaining Jews, 967 in total, escaped to after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70AD. They teased the besieging Roman garrison of 5,000 soldiers, aided by a further 10,000 slaves, for more than a year. They had food supplies, access to plenty of water from the cisterns and it was easy to defend the single footpath leading up the mountain. They were invincible, or so they thought.

Behind a high wooden circumvallation wall, the Romans built a ramp with what they had in ample supply: rocks. For months the slaves toiled in the heat constructing it behind the safety of the wall, creeping ever so closer to the top. Then, one day, the wooden wall was let down to become a bridge connecting the ramp with the top of Masada. The bastion was breached and the fortress, once impregnable, became inescapable; all those trapped committed suicide before the Romans could get them. Neither the stores of food nor the cisterns filled with water were of any use. In the blink of an eye, that with which they nurtured their lives now lost its value.

Life used to be simple – unconquerable even. School, sport, work, friends, religious events, all had their pattern, all had their place. We were like those enjoying their freedom on top of Masada. We conquered the world financially, economically, technically and in all other facets. We became gods unto ourselves. Invincible. 

We heard the warnings about calamities and saw the effects of disasters. We heard about ecosystem collapse, but it was as far removed as the stories of ancient Roman exploits. We joked about power that corrupts and absolute power that corrupts completely. Yet we prided ourselves that in our impenetrable fortress of wealth, comfort and convenience, we, the enlightened postmodern, were sufficiently shielded; cocooned in an ideology of boundless prosperity while ignorant of the approaching danger. Thus, besieged we were with eyes wide shut – oblivious to the approaching storm.

It is more than our comfort and convenience, our way of living, that has been breached by the incomprehensibly silly Covid lockdown rules. This was but the start – the first wave. Much more subtle, much more devastating and potentially fatal, is the second wave: the breach of humanity’s psyche. The fearmongering and power-hungry Romans, the financial and political elite of the day, have besieged every facet of our lives, our freedom, our means of communication, even our dignity to be able to take our own decisions. There is none left. Left voiceless and without the right to decide which beach to visit.

Each Covid restriction is a test of society’s tenacity. When will the masses be ready to admit that they are the scourge of the earth, the source of their own destruction? When will they submit, roll over and accept the Roman dictates as decisions taken in their best interest? When will they yield their free will and human rights to decrees made by their Roman masters? When will they be tormented enough to toe the proverbial line and march according to the centurions’ orders? When will they be sufficiently pulverised through economic and mental harassment, in an act of ill-informed mea culpa, to fall on their own swords and perish? There seem to be but a few moments before the siege is complete; the bastion of individual freedom has been irreversibly breached and that with humanity’s soul, unknowingly, on the altar.

Are we truly victims left without escape? Impossible to believe, yet the speed of global compliance leaves one perplexed and concerned at the same time. The window of resuscitating rationality is rapidly closing. That window has a name: 2021. It may be society’s last chance before capitulating before them Romans; but, alas, I believe that for every Roman army there is an Obelix – Obelix is dead, long live Obelix! 

Thus, we tiptoe through the dark hallway of uncertainty, surrounded by the ghosts of 2020, into 2021. DM


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