There is a growing weariness and frustration among South Africans as the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s response enter a fifth month. Jennifer Morris comments that the authorities must be held accountable for their decisions and actions, but recognises that they are facing an unprecedented crisis and do not have all the answers.
The facepalm has to be my favourite emoji at the moment. It conveys just the right amount of incredulity and weary frustration needed to sum up my daily trawl through South African news sites. 🤦♀️
Current crisis-related adjectives are distressingly dreary. We’re all frustrated, bored, worried, anxious, angry, broke and bothered to some degree or another. In conversations, I’ve become increasingly aware of the COVID-malaise that infects us all: a dull, nagging sense of unease that colours everything we see, do and talk about and rising frustration with the way we are now.
Opinion pieces on the South African government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis could easily paper a city. Twice. In the face of what feels like one the harshest lockdowns in the world and an ever-more arbitrary set of haphazardly-enforced rules and regulations to abide by, it’s no wonder that South Africans have the collective grumbles at the moment. Unabashed as we are about breaking into print to express ourselves, our news media is awash with articles and editorials reflecting the ideas, feelings and thoughts of every possible South African demographic. Opinions, it seems, are like goody-bags at an Oprah show. Everybody gets to have one.
The themes have become familiar, the dialogue dull and unvarying. The masks are either a symbol of fascist control or proof that the wearer is a moral human being. The opening of schools is either a cynical attack on children and teachers or essential to restarting the economy. The alcohol ban is either a brilliant ploy to ease pressure on hospitals or the latest sign that we’re living in a police state. On and on, ad nauseum.
In the middle of it, The South African Government seems adrift and at the mercy of various lobbies and private interests. Much of the goodwill initially extended to President Cyril Ramaphosa and the National Coronavirus Command Council has been lost and, with it, any feelings of unity that we may have felt facing a common foe. Doubt and uncertainty about the future, combined with a growing sense of unease about the potential outcome of several recent government decisions, has divided South Africans into two camps:
- Those who feel that the lockdown regulations are necessary to prevent the spread of the disease, regardless of the cost to the economy.
- Those who feel that the closure of our economy will ultimately result in far more hardship than the virus and advocate for the immediate reopening of everything, regardless of the risk to human life.
Therein lies the heart of my frustration. We have become a society obsessed with binary arguments that gives rise to an ‘if you’re not for this, you’re against it’ school of thought. As the pandemic progresses, we have mired ourselves in the minutia of the debate. Our public discourse on the subject has become increasingly polarised and vitriolic, rather than enlightened or contemplative.
Like children denied, South Africans are stubbornly insistent on an impossible outcome, namely that we come through the pandemic completely unscathed. With no jobs lost, no economic fallout and no people dead. Anything less is unacceptable and, more worryingly, a reason to apportion blame.
Equally, we’re obsessed with blame.
I’ve never felt sorry for a politician in my life, but one has to spare a thought for the poor incumbents now. There’s no blueprint, no map, no pre-existing protocol to guide the leaders of the world in how to handle a pandemic on this scale. What information they do have is disputed the minute it’s disseminated, and continuously changes as we learn more. Experts argue and contradict each other. Public opinion wars with professional advice and usually wins based on volume alone. Private interest groups claw at each other for a foothold, money goes missing, and people prove fallible, again and again.
Against this backdrop, is it any wonder that the governments of the world appear to be winging it? Aren’t we all?
However history eventually judges Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for her handling of the COVID-19 emergency in South Africa, we’d do well to heed her words here and now:
“We must all work together to protect one another. No one is safe until we are all safe. We must approach this pandemic as the president once mentioned, it’s like being at war with an invisible enemy. We are the ones moving it around. We see the results of this virus across the world.”
The factors at play in South Africa’s COVID-19 response include some very thorny social, political and philosophical questions. We’ll be dealing with the fallout of the virus, in terms of what it has exposed about our political, legal, social and economic systems, for a long time to come. We’ll be overusing the words ‘unprecedented’ and ‘world-changing’ for even longer. In the meantime, is it too much to ask that we stop over-simplifying the issues by viewing them exclusively through our limited worldview and demographic and apply a modicum of critical thought to our largely uneducated, uninformed published offerings?
The world is at war. In wars, unity is strength. We need to embrace the uncertainty of the times, manage our expectations, surrender ourselves to not knowing the future for a bit and help each other as best we can while the world’s scientists and health experts try to figure this thing out. That would certainly be a far better use of our time than writing endless opinion pieces about how unfair it all is. A lot less boring, too.