Tale of Two Viruses: South Africa
Witnessing Covid-19 at the two ends of the South African spectrum
South Africa has just begun a 21-day lock down. It is a desperate bid to halt the spread of the Covid-19 virus before it reaches areas of poverty, overcrowding and vulnerability. However, prevention may not be better than the cure in this country of extremes.
It is well documented that a duality exists in South Africa that would make Dickens salivate at the narrative prospects and that division is about to become even more apparent in the face of Covid-19.
I am one of the lucky ones. I made it out of South Africa just hours before the borders closed and international flights ceased. However, in the preceding week it was already clear the country was on a precipice of disaster.
On one hand, just hours before the official start of the lock down, at every set of traffic lights in Johannesburg and Pretoria there were people doing what they do every day to survive. Groups of young men danced, others sold selfie sticks, some offered to collect rubbish from cars or were straight out begging. In so called ‘informal settlements’ and townships people gathered together to collect water from the shared tap and used shared toilets, living shoulder to shoulder in tin shacks.
On the other hand, the other end of the spectrum stocked up on food and toilet paper to spend their confinement in comfort. In a five-star restaurant overlooking the Johannesburg skyline, the alcohol sales restrictions hit home. Under the initial regulations, sales of alcohol were restricted to prior to 6pm, except on Sunday when sales were prohibited after 1 pm. In a scene reminiscent of the prohibition era lunching people from the right side of the tracks were surprised when restaurant staff whisked away their wine glasses after they received a tip off that the police were on their way.
This is the tale of two viruses in terms of how it will impact people now and in the future. While both ends of the socio-economic spectrum will have challenges, the differences will be tragically juxtaposed.
The speed of the government’s actions caught people off guard. On Sunday, March 14, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa would go into lock down as the number of cases started to rise. This nation was notified of this announcement well before and was ready and waiting to hear the speech. There were around 100 cases then, now there are more than 1000. There is no doubt that lessons from other countries show that isolation prevents contamination and saves lives.
However, on March 25 without any prior notice the government Ministers held a press conference announcing extreme measures. Suddenly there was 48 hours to prepare for the lock down. The country scrambled. Tourists frantically tried to get on already restricted flights. The have’s went shopping while the have not’s continued their lives on the streets.
The police and military have now been called in to the overcrowded settlements and townships, attempting to control people’s interactions. This is just the beginning. While the have’s hunker down in their gated communities hoping they have enough Sauvignon Blanc to get through the alcohol sales ban, the rest will grow more and more desperate.
There are 54 million people in South Africa. Nearly 80 per cent of these are black Africans, some of whom are very wealthy or middle class, but many live in underdeveloped urban squalor. With a 50 percent unemployment rate and no social security, the only way to survive is to rely on the proceeds of begging. Now, adding martial lock down to this equation we can expect to see some ugly scenes as hunger and desperation escalate.
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