I. Two days ago, my second daughter celebrated her 14th birthday. Poor middle class people like medon’t go big. The truth is that we can’t afford to, even if we wanted to. All around, the challenges are too onerous to enter the theatrical stage of ostentation. After all, all that glitters is not gold – the best celebrations don’t have to be elephantine. So, a little oval-shaped multi-flavoured, layered cake from one of the local national chain-stores, was all we could muster. But it was at the moment of the customary candle-lighting ritual that I heard what sounded like an...
I. Two days ago, my second daughter celebrated her 14th birthday. Poor middle class people like medon’t go big.

The truth is that we can’t afford to, even if we wanted to. All around, the challenges are too onerous to enter the theatrical stage of ostentation. After all, all that glitters is not gold – the best celebrations don’t have to be elephantine. So, a little oval-shaped multi-flavoured, layered cake from one of the local national chain-stores, was all we could muster.

But it was at the moment of the customary candle-lighting ritual that I heard what sounded like an ambulance siren from a distance. My muscular and cerebral spasms returned.

“Where is the ambulance going,” I thought? Yet, I have heard similar-sounding sirens from the same direction before and it never raised alarm. My mind had once more thrown an assortment of harrowing pictorial scenes of a tiny organism we have come to know as coronavirus in the deep recesses of my subconscious.

The household unanimously agreed to place the words: “14 at a time of Corona” on the cake. No doubt, the progenitor of this now famous titling phrase, Gabriel García Márquez, would have followed this plagiaristic capturing with towering vigour.

II. The world is living through a climate of fear akin to war. We fear death from Covid-19, any other disease or cause, because life is beautiful and fulfilling.

But our fear also comes from ignorance. We are ignorant of sciences, more specifically the science of disease. We also fear because we are social beings. We are conscious of social inequality in its broadest sense.

Diseases don’t affect all people the same way. The poor are always invariably most vulnerable; even in the most testing of conditions, the more resourced cope better. Wherever one sees oneself in the social pyramid, one rightly or wrongly identifies with implications for themselves and beyond.

Perhaps during this lockdown, we owe ourselves the obligation for self and broader civic-education on the disease and science more generally. We must also sustain discourse on the challenge of how best to make our society more equal and resilient to the outbreak of diseases and other natural disasters.

Among other things, Covid-19 has brought the need for solidarity into sharp relief. Many have been deeply touched by the selflessness of Cuban, Chinese and Russian doctors and nurses who have taken to faraway lands to lend a helping hand to others, strangers they have never met, but are connected together by the simple fact that we are all human beings who share a common destiny.

Also this week, the Islamic Republic News Agency, Iran’s official news agency, reported on efforts to pressure the United States government to lift sanctions to enable the country to import medicines and medical equipment. Iran has recorded more than 30,000 coronavirus infections and over 2,000 deaths.

If the sanctions are not lifted, the country could suffer innumerable loss of lives which might come to haunt the conscience of humanity.

III. Which takes us to another issue, the need for a coordinated international response to the outbreak of the disease. In a brief but well-argued article in the Financial Times on Wednesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed raised the point that success in defeating Covid-19 in one country or region of the world is no guarantor of health safety for the world.

“The current strategy of uncoordinated country-specific measures while understandable,” he wrote, “is … unsustainable and potentially counterproductive.

“A virus that ignores borders cannot be tackled successfully like this.” He called for “institutionalised rather than ad hoc” global-level leadership to tackle Covid-19 and similar pandemics.

To illustrate Ahmed’s point, we know much about our government’s response in tackling the virus outbreak. But we have not heard much about the Southern African Development Community and a broader African response. In this regard, South Africa as the current chair of the African Union (AU) has enormous responsibilities.

Pursuit of mutual cooperation with our neighbours, the rest of the continent and the world has been an integral part of democratic South Africa’s outlook.

For example, the reconstruction and development programme base document advised that: “All policies affecting health must take into consideration the fact that South Africa is an integral part of the southern African region and has regional responsibilities to prevent and to combat the spread of disease.”

IV. In an online article this week, Buffalo City metropolitan municipality mayor Xola Pakati called for global condemnation of “the racial, ethnic and xenophobic weaponisation of disease” in reference to US President Donald Trump’s characterisation of the coronavirus as “the China virus”.

But in a press briefing earlier this week, the department of small business seemed convinced of the idea that only spaza shops owned and managed by South Africans will operate during the lockdown period.

The suggestion that the decision is informed by considerations of food and product quality (presumably also safety) betrays the underlying bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment at play.

Like Trump, we, too, are making the bold statement that non-South Africa spaza shop owners are disease carriers. But South Africans are not, probably because we are exceptional or unique.

The recurrent expression of this vulgar sentiment in some circles in government suggests it might be time that we become honest with one another and admit that our claims of commitment to regional and continental integration, African unity and similar such lofty ideals is but a lie. How else does one rationalise the contradictions?

It boggles the mind why some of us think that we can make such extremely offensive statements and expect the rest of the continent and the world to take us seriously.

One hopes that the lockdown will succeed to flatten the disease curve and buy us the much-needed chance to strengthen the health system so as to return to normalcy.

In the process, we would be well advised to take Pakati and Ahmed’s counsel.

Vignettes of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown_1

Mukoni Ratshitanga.

Ratshitanga is a consultant, social and political commentator. (mukoni@interlinked.co.za)


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