As I write this article, I have just received the message that my colleague Mohammad Karaan, professor in agricultural economics at the University of Stellenbosch and president of the Maties Rugby Club, has died from Covid-related complications.
This follows the news that the hard-working deputy principal of Paul Roos Gymnasium, Werner van Rensburg, with whom I worked closely for a long time, had died earlier. There are so many others.
With the first wave of the pandemic, we talked numbers. But with the second wave, the numbers have acquired names. The virus is on everyone’s doorstep. Space limitations prevent me from honouring them all, but be assured of my sincere condolences. Each teacher we lose leaves a void which is hard to fill. Over the past few days, I could not help thinking: Who is caring for the caregivers?
A touch of love
The true caregiver does not just keep an eye on someone or something, but looks after them, cares for them, even nurses them. This is a process of supervision, but with a touch of love. And this is what teaching is, and has always been, in the traditional sense of the word.
But now the carer has fallen ill.
The reference to the passing of Karaan and Van Rensburg serves to illustrate what my colleagues and I experience daily. Every day starts with the messages on WhatsApp and Facebook. Every hour we receive more disturbing news, and the list gets longer and longer. A friend on Facebook recently wondered: “When will this end?”
With each snippet of news, you become panic-stricken anew, wondering when death will come knocking on your door. Your thoughts wander and your attention is not on your work. Can people not understand that at this moment you do not want to be in a classroom? Is it so difficult to realise that you first need time to yourself to clear your head and to phone the next of kin?
You search for words with which to express your sympathy, knowing that they are empty words. How do you console someone whose loved one was never sick, but has suddenly been ripped away?
Then your phone rings. Friends in your group are making enquiries, and there are explanations and queries. “Why him? All the good people are dying,” reads one comment.
Living in fear
You must decide whether you will attend the funeral. You are aware that only 50 people are allowed, so if the family invites you, you feel too guilty to refuse. You know that they had to refuse others, even relatives, to accommodate you.
But truth be told, you actually wish that they had not invited you. You so much would like to go because he or she was such a good person. But you fear the virus… all of us have had this experience during the past two months.
Then the debate on the reopening of schools started. I looked at the viewpoints in the debate and wondered whether this is all that matters. Are our children really going to miss so much if they start a week or two later? If we wait until the worst is over, and the infections and disturbing phone calls decrease?
Maybe we must ask who wanted the schools to reopen? Maybe those who teach classes online without the danger of contracting the virus?
Do we really know what goes on in the hearts of teachers who have to make vital choices in the townships every day? Those who have to wipe little noses, feed and even wash and dress children? Where there are still no toilets or fresh water to wash your hands? Where online classes are not part of their existence?
They don’t see the problem
In a previous column, I asked whether the Department of Education was giving attention to supplying masks to learners, especially now that they are compulsory? And what about running water, sanitation facilities and internet connections? My information is that at many schools these requirements are not yet in place. Why was nothing done during the holidays to supply water and toilet facilities to schools? My patience with the relevant ministers ran out a long time ago.
And then President Cyril Ramaphosa comes with the defence that “we should appoint cadres who are more capable”!
As the English author GK Chesterton said: “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”
Where does the urgency of some of those involved in the debate to force teachers to return to school come from? To do what? To look after children who were left to their own devices by their parents for two months? Last year the curriculum was quickly and easily shortened. Did the heavens fall upon us then? A curriculum is a human-made construct which we can easily catch up with. The same does not go for learners and teachers who have lost their lives.
I made enquiries with a school principal colleague about why so many teachers had died during the holiday. His answer was staggering: most teachers went through hell in 2020. The tension and pressure were unbearable. To teach every day with death staring you in the face took its toll. The virus caught them when their immune systems were at their most vulnerable.
Nearly 2,000 teachers have already died.
Thousands more are sick and in isolation. While hundreds are fighting for their lives in overcrowded hospitals, there are those who want teachers to return to school in these circumstances. To care for their children. While they themselves are not emotionally or physically healthy to look after themselves, let alone care for children.
It is they who should be our priority now. Not assessments which must be “finished” by the end of February. That can wait.
The narrative has always been that true teachers are prepared to give so much of themselves that they forget about their own health. I thus urgently call on teachers to be extra careful in these times, because clearly there is a new narrative in the new normal: Teachers must be prepared to sacrifice their lives.
In this country, great emphasis is placed on the welfare of children, and rightly so, but the question remains: Who is taking care of the caregivers? I have not read anywhere or heard of teachers receiving trauma counselling for post-traumatic stress.
At the University of Stellenbosch, everyone has to use the Higher Health Check app before they may go to campus. It helps Maties to get quick responses on their health and decreases the risk of infections. Is something similar in the pipeline for teachers? Or is Daniel being thrown into the lion’s den with a prayer that an angel will care for him?
My message to teachers is the vital lesson of Peter Bailey of Minnesota in the US, who cared for his invalid wife for years before she died: “Like aeroplane passengers, let’s not forget to put on our own oxygen masks first… we are no good to our loved ones if we collapse under the strain.”
Werner van Rensburg and Mohammed Karaan served their fellow beings on so many terrains. Now we have only the memories of their good deeds.
The caregiver is dead. DM
"Men are good in one way, but bad in many" ~ Aristotle