Personally and in the public sphere, South Africa is ill-equipped to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic as the country heads towards it peak, writes Angelo Fick. 

The Covid-19 global pandemic is testing us, and we are not faring well. Not thus far.

As individuals, organisations and communities, we are still having to figure out how to make sense of life now, and many of us find unlearning the habits of thought and being from before more difficult than we would have imagined.

Our resilience is being challenged: both our individual ability to cope and the capacity of our social institutions (and the organisations which constitute such institutions) are being subjected to stress tests. And South Africans do not, despite the stories we tell ourselves, have a good record on tests like this one.

The time before 26 March 2020 feels like a long time ago. We have come a long way since the declaration of the national disaster and the “hard lockdown” which followed it. But we are also nowhere near the end of this crisis. There is a long road ahead, and much of the territory which this disease will engender remains unknown still and unknowable.

Clinicians and epidemiological experts continue to discover nuances in the disease’s track through populations and its effects on individual bodies. Those who study the dynamics of human life are playing catch-up with the social and political consequences which the disease and the administrative measures implemented to slow its virulent spread have visited upon our way of life.

For decades various observers have warned us that our way of life on this planet was becoming increasingly unsustainable and therefore precarious. The climate emergency which was unfolding in the latter half of the previous century, scientists warned, would unleash upon us an environment we would have difficulty coping with. But the human belief in its own supremacy and ingenuity, the magical thinking which was our belief in our technological superiority to all other life forms on the planet, allowed us to set aside awareness of the need to change our habits of being and thought. 

Disease, we have been taught to believe, could be conquered by science. This is certainty fast being erased here and now.

The inadequacy of the social institutions of post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa was known. We had, after all, regular reports of the inadequate education we were providing young people. The unemployment and inequality statistics reflected the distribution of life chances neither just nor humane, and which had historically proven unsustainable. Our healthcare system was as pockmarked with unequal access and outcomes between the rich and the poor as other aspects of life here.

The failure of the post-1994 order to house everyone, to level the playing fields skewed by colonial and apartheid policy and misgovernance remains visible in the spatial dynamics of the past which persists across our cities and towns. Those with the least had to spend most to travel furthest to earn meagre incomes to eke out lives on the periphery of pockets of wealth generated by their labour.

To meet the challenge of a pandemic we need strong social institutions, a strong social compact and a robust social contract. But in this place, which Bessie Head once called a land of “divisions and signs” – literal and predominantly white supremacist racist in the past, much more subtle but no less effectively articulated in terms of class in the present – our institutions were only strong in theory, on paper. We have what Terry Bell and Dumisa Buhle Ntsebeza call “unfinished business” from the past. 

In not fully transforming the social institutions and the habits of thought and being we were taught in those institutions, we are ill-equipped to deal with this unfolding crisis.

The societies which have coped better than South Africa has thus far are very different from one another, but they share some characteristics which we lack. They have stronger social compacts, greater equality between the people who live within their borders.

Our social contract is weak, not least because of the chasm that separates the haves and the have-nots, whether in terms of our abilities to generate income, educate our children, secure our safety or the security of our possessions, or access adequate healthcare.

The width of the M1 motorway in Johannesburg separating Sandton from Alexandra is deceptive; the abyss that separates the life chances of those to the east of it from the life chances of those who live west of it is obscene. But it is precisely that gap that has ensured the way of life for those of us in the middle classes. Now, in the middle or perhaps worse, in the beginning stages of a pandemic, we find ourselves shackled together in the common fate we have always shared as human beings. The realisation has not necessarily brought out the best in us.

In times of uncertainty, people want quick solutions to complex problems, and in this crisis, many South Africans have looked to “leaders”, as if the “big man theory” of history was not debunked a long time ago. But the marketing campaigns for leadership (often indistinguishable from “dealership”) have been powerful, and they convince people easily swayed because they lack critically literate education, which is absent from contemporary South Africa, and was absent in its apartheid and colonial incarnations.

The result of the under-preparedness of this society and its institutions to deal with a crisis can be seen from the last 100 days. Distrust and suspicion, of government officials, researchers, and of one another. The inability to separate reliable information from disinformation. The indulgence in conspiracy theories, about the disease, about processes of government. And it has not helped that the institutions of government have themselves been in disarray: recall the contradictory messages of ministers who advise habits they themselves did not keep; the logical flaws in the regulations which allow for congress with strangers but still prohibit interacting with one’s most intimate relations.

And calls for a return to business as usual, the normality of our abnormality before 26 March 2020, pitting profit against people and suggesting that lives depend on livelihoods earned in the society with the highest income inequality in the world, reveal the rot at the heart of our way of life here and now.

We are indeed being tested, as individuals, and our resilience will be subjected to more extreme stress still.

There is much mourning ahead, as we bury our dead, and support the survivors. We have not practised the habits of thought and being that Elaine Scarry describes in Thinking in an Emergency (2011). Instead, we have found ourselves like the people of Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague, 1947): we “shared feelings, like separation or far, but people also went on giving priority to their personal concerns. No one yet had really accepted the idea of the disease. Most were chiefly affected by whatever upset their habits or touched on their interests”.

As we reflect on the past 100 days, we may do well to interrogate our responses to the unfolding crisis and consider whether our habits need changing if we are to survive this moment with the least amount of harm possible. After all, as Scarry suggests, “[i]f no serviceable habit is available, we will use an unserviceable one and become either immobilized or incoherent”.

Locating responsibility outside ourselves, relying too much on leadership without changing our individual and collective responses is a habit we must unlearn.

And as we adapt ourselves to this brave new world, we must also adapt our social institutions. We do not have the luxury of time. The klaxons are sounding. It is now or never. Sekunjalo.

– Angelo Fick is the director of research at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute in Johannesburg.

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