Marginalised must lead fight against Covid-19 spread

As South Africa gives in to lobbyists’ demands to relax lockdown restrictions, the answer to fighting Covid-19’s spread may well lie with the impoverished, whose voices are muffled.

If this country contains Covid-19, it will be because the people who were thought unable to protect themselves from it blocked the path of those who claimed that they were able.

As the virus began spreading, it was assumed that Africans – or, in this country, the townships and shack settlements – would be unable to protect themselves. This shaped the government’s approach. Its lockdown was particularly strict because it agreed that people living outside the suburbs would not protect themselves unless they were forced to behave. 

Government ministers painted lurid pictures of the harm which would be caused if “our people” – which in this case meant the residents of shack areas and townships – were allowed to smoke, drink, sell hot food or take a walk after 9am in the morning. The suburbs, this assumed, knew what to do; townships and shack settlements needed to be forced.

Their attitude mirrored thinking around the world which insisted that the “First World” could cope with Covid-19 but the “Third World” would not. This divide runs through this country: the suburbs resemble the “First”, the rest of the country the ‘Third”. So, the prejudices which separate countries into those who can and those who can’t also separate South Africans into these categories.

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The problem in this view is not so much that people in townships battle to protect themselves because they lack clean water, live in crowded homes or depend on work which makes it difficult to stay safe. It assumes that, unlike people in suburbs, residents do not know or care that a deadly virus forces us to change our behaviour to protect ourselves.  

Many therefore predicted that the well-heeled would do whatever was needed to halt its spread while the authorities fought a constant battle against the majority who either ignored the restrictions or rose up against them. Precisely the opposite has happened. 

For some time, protections against the virus have been under sustained assault.

‘Suburbs good, townships bad’

The charge was led by business, which did what all effective lobbies do – it campaigned to influence public opinion. In some countries, this would have required an advertising campaign. Here, there was no need. 

Many in the suburbs were already on board. In a society whose mainstream media has for years contrasted corrupt and inept government with upright and efficient businesses and suburbs, it was always not going to take much to turn support into opposition. 

The government’s mishandling of a ban on cigarette sales and some harsh measures – ironically designed to control the townships – ensured that suburbs were soon awash with WhatsApp groups trotting out the full array of racially tinged stereotypes about government ineptitude and power hunger. 

Media, which are usually better at conveying suburban sentiment than breaking news, were available to spread the word. We were – and still are – inundated with reports of hard-pressed businesses and dire warnings that none would reappear if they were not immediately free to operate. The businesses really were in trouble. But the implied reason – harsh government restrictions – ignored the reality that pandemics are bad for business across the planet and that economies will not revive until the virus is beaten, whatever governments do.

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Also, tales of economic pain were rarely if ever matched by the accounts of physical and emotional pain which dominate media in countries whose health systems were overwhelmed, and whose daily death figures run into hundreds. 

One reason is, ironically, that, in seven provinces, the much-maligned lockdown did its job, so hospitals could cope and death figures were relatively low. Another is that the people whose world the media reflect, the middle class, have not borne the brunt of Covid-19. 

The result of this combination of lobbying and deep divisions and prejudices is a roll-back of protections at a time when infections are rising and protections are more needed than ever.

Scramble for concessions 

Nor is this likely to end here. Once organised business won concessions, other lobbies joined in: the clergy, organised sport, tourism and restaurants. The government’s chief response is to give in and, in some cases, offer help: the opening of schools may have something to do with the reality that parents have a problem going back to when their children must stay at home. And so, the erosion of protections may well continue.

With protections falling off, threats to health grow. It is hard to see how any serious attempt to cope with the virus can justify allowing business travel across provinces when the evidence shows that travel is the surest way to spread the disease. Travellers could surely use remote meetings. If so clear a failure to take health seriously is allowed, it is hard to see what will be restricted.

What the “Third World” South Africans think of all this we do not know – their role in the national debate is, as always, not to be heard but to be trotted out as props. A current example is an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa from former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. It repeats the standard suburban arguments against restrictions and asks the President to heed the voice of “Moses the parking attendant and Meko the part-time gardener”. But Madonsela does not really want Moses and Meko to enjoy a say because she assumes throughout that they want what she, the lobbies and the suburbs want – an end to restrictions.

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But we do have clues. We may know what workers think because their unions are speaking out. In the schools and on the mines, they express not great joy at the lifting of restrictions but deep fear that the health of their members and their families are under threat.

We have some sense of what township parents think because those we can hear seem mostly fearful of sending their children back to schools which may not protect them. We have some inkling of what township and shack dwellers think more generally because now and again some do feature as extras in media broadcasts. One recurrent theme is a deep fear of getting aboard taxis. Many drivers ignore the health rules but, even if they obey them, people fear they may be infected by fellow passengers.

Need for organisation

This suggests that people are travelling in taxis not because they want to but because the economy has been reopened in a way which means that they have no choice. Moses and Meko, it seems, may far prefer to stay safe – and to receive the support they need to do so – than to venture into danger on behalf of the well-to-do.

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What this means is that prospects of the fight against Covid-19 rest now with workers and people living in poverty. If teachers refuse to teach and parents refuse to send their children back to schools until they are safe, if miners won’t work unless they are protected, if congregants avoid houses of worship until they can go back unharmed and the townships resist attempts to endanger them, the worst may yet be averted.

This requires organisation and it may well be that only unions are organised enough to protect their members. But, however this ends, our prospects of limiting illnesses and deaths now rests with the people who were meant to be the problem, not those who consider themselves the solution.                             

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