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Our inability to act collectively when things fall apart is Covid-19’s scariest lesson

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Brett Herron is GOOD Secretary-General and a member of the Western Cape provincial legislature.

What if the next global crisis is faster moving than Covid-19, and there simply isn’t time for political dramas and court challenges? If we can’t agree on what to do, now, how will we possibly be able to rapidly implement best practices and guarantee citizen compliance to mitigate trauma when in even graver danger?

The most sobering aspect of people’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is the lack of agreement on the best strategies and tactics to counter it. At the macro level, although Covid-19 is described as a “global enemy”, and the world as a “global village”, there is no global authority to lay down rules and ensure compliance and justice. 

Most scientists concur that physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing in public spaces are the best defences we have in the absence of a readily available vaccine. These are the measures advocated by the global agency charged with health matters, the World Health Organisation. 

But the WHO doesn’t have the authority to enforce rules; that’s up to politicians, who vary widely in their approaches to implementing the recommended defences. Individual nations must, after all, take and implement decisions based on their own unique circumstances, including economic circumstances. 

The WHO is a specialised agency of the United Nations, which turned 75 in 2020. The UN describes itself on its website as “the world’s only truly universal global organisation”. The truth is that the world body was no closer in 2020 to developing models for universal good behaviour or compliance than it was in 1945. 

National variances in approach are mirrored at the citizen level. Some people are more compliant than others in their response to efforts aimed at regulating their behaviour, as we saw in the United States where the wearing or non-wearing of masks was deliberately politicised in the run-up to the presidential election. 

In South Africa, predictably, responses to Covid-19 lockdown regulations have reflected societal inequality. Physical distancing and regular hand-washing are difficult for the millions of citizens who live cheek-by-jowl in under-serviced informal settlements. In the suburbs, many whiled away their time under lockdown complaining about the State of Disaster regulations, such as the alcohol sales and beach bans.

And in the (Zoom) corridors of power, equally predictably, the DA held endless press briefings to decry the state’s rules – and briefed its lawyers to continue conducting lawfare. 

Make no mistake, some lockdown regulations have felt a bit bizarre and led to seemingly unnecessary suffering. The impact on the hospitality and alcohol industries has been catastrophic. But how do you balance their pain against the fact that our emergency rooms are clogged up with victims of alcohol abuse? 

South Africa needs to have a conversation about unity. Not the kind of unity that protects corrupt politicians from one another, or the symbolic unity that led to the premature notion of a rainbow nation without due consideration for necessary redress. 

Our lawmakers haven’t been perfect, but they are not the only ones. Across the world, nations have battled to hit the right regulation notes to navigate through an unpredictable crisis, keeping their citizens as safe as possible while minimising economic losses. 

Epidemiologists and virologists say pandemics are increasingly likely in future due to human interference in natural systems, while we no longer need climatologists to warn us of the impacts of climate change which are already being seen in the form of localised and regional disasters. 

What if the next global crisis is faster moving than Covid-19, and there simply isn’t time for political dramas and court challenges? If we can’t agree on what to do, now, how will we possibly be able to rapidly implement best practices and guarantee citizen compliance to mitigate trauma when in even graver danger? 

Differing opinions are a valuable part of life, and the right to state them and be heard is an indicator of societal maturity. But how do we develop the means to enforce universal citizen compliance with rules, without unstitching individual and group rights painstakingly developed in many nations over decades of struggle? 

What will we learn from our inabilities to develop common purpose against Covid-19? Not much, if 19th-century philosopher Georg Hegel’s well-worn words hold true: “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learnt anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” 

Commentators and analysts quickly defined the challenge Covid-19 posed in 2020  as appropriately balancing the interests of saving lives and economies. It was lives versus livelihoods, they said – and the virus has indeed exacted grim tolls of each. 

But Covid’s grimmest impact may be in the global existential crisis it has produced. Many people have lost faith in the ability of the human species to respond appropriately to the gravest crisis.

Human cleverness and endeavour have shrunk the world into a global village, but the law of the jungle still applies: survival of the fittest. The politicisation of our collective response to Covid-19, and the apparent determination of wealthier people and nations to act in their own interests first, indicate how far from ready we are to apply global solutions. 

Feelings of discomfort are particularly acute in South Africa which, 27 years after apartheid, remains among the most unequal and racially divided societies on Earth. Its economy was already in tatters prior to Covid – and with a government characterised by decades of mismanagement and corruption – self-esteem, confidence and hope are in increasingly short supply. 

The looting of our Covid-19 defences didn’t come so much as a surprise, as confirmation of the trouble we’re in. Adding to unease is the fact that societal discomfort and division are mined and inflamed by an official opposition widely viewed as a Trojan horse for minority interests and privilege, which regards its job as opposing everything the government does, regardless of merit. 

When the chips are really down, how will we manage to pull together if all that we know is how to pull apart? 

South Africa needs to have a conversation about unity. Not the kind of unity that protects corrupt politicians from one another, or the symbolic unity that led to the premature notion of a rainbow nation without due consideration for necessary redress. 

We must discuss what we must do as a nation to galvanise our people in unity of purpose across social, spatial, environmental and economic divides; what we must do in order to all feel we’re running in the same direction, in the same race. 

Before the next crisis hits. DM

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"