Where is the acknowledgement that we are frightened and in pain? Why are we not comforting each other? This reality demands a new kind of intelligence from us.
No-one alive has been here before. Let me rephrase: unless you are about 110 years old, you have not been here before – in this world that a virus has turned upside down.
It’s hard. We’re social animals. We are drawn to each. We gather. We touch. We hug. We stroke. We kiss. The new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is kicking us where it hurts most – in our social core of what makes us human.
We are frightened out of our wits. We’re faced with a virus that devastates and spreads like nothing we’ve ever known. I remember how scared we were when HIV first emerged 30-something years ago. This is like HIV on super steroids – it’s unrolling at lightning speed – and like HIV, it’s not going away.
In the turmoil, I started writing this post at least a dozen times. I tried being measured and intellectual, but that felt wrong because I’m a ball of emotions a lot of the time. I started placing people in categories according to how they were responding to the pandemic – impimpis (informers), conspiracy theorists and the yay-for-authoritarianism – but that felt mean and name cally, which does not help anyone.
Us, the Law-Breakers
But I’ll tell you what I concluded: most of us (in Level 4 lockdown South Africa) fall into the category of Law-Breakers. We can’t help it. There are so many gazetted regulations that it is almost impossible NOT to break them. Here are just some of the ways we break the law:
- Buying cigarettes (regardless of what the moralists in government and elsewhere decree, addiction does not come with an on-off switch)
- Running a soup kitchen that serves hot food to the poor (pardon, there’s been an about-turn on this one, although it’s not clear whether the minister responsible is saying that if one community is starving, then the neighbouring community should be too)
- Selling a T-shirt as a T-shirt and not as an “undergarment for warmth”; presumably, this applies to wearing a T-shirt as a T-shirt too. Ditto for not tucking your new “cropped bottom pants” into boots or wearing them with leggings
- Not being able to walk fast enough to get home by 9am (sorry if you tripped and hurt your leg in the early-morning winter darkness).
While we’re being criminalised, the criminals are rejoicing; here is a paradise for thriving syndicates that provide cigarettes and alcohol while legal sale is banned. They’re making a killing (literally – deaths due to drinking homemade alcohol have been reported) while government and citizens lose out on billions in revenue. And there are real concerns that these syndicates will become deeply entrenched in our future, just like the US prohibition of the 1920s put “organised” into organised crime.
Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood something. It’s hard to keep up because the regulations change rapidly and apparently on a whim. Suffice to say that us naughty citizens keep the police and army very busy – so much that the entire army, something like 73,000 troops, has been called up at massive cost.
Police and army brutality – citizens have died – has kept me awake at night. I am outraged and enraged. When President Cyril Ramaphosa gave a pep talk to the nation this week – his fifth public address in seven weeks of this fierce lockdown in South Africa – he acknowledged this brutality publicly, the first time that I know of.
“Implementation has sometimes been slow and enforcement has sometimes been inconsistent and too harsh,” he said. “This evening, I want to reaffirm my commitment and the commitment of the government I lead to take whatever action is necessary to safeguard the life, the dignity and the interests of the South African people.”
It was tagged at the end of his talk and I think it lacked detail: what exactly was he talking about and what would he do to ensure that security forces no longer bully the people? But, yes, it was something.
The devil in the detail
Will the president stop the police from arresting an elderly woman for selling her atchar, from confiscating the goods of informal traders when their families don’t have enough to eat, from arresting a family whose toddler runs onto the beach? Why are the police and army not stopping the looting of food parcels by “comrades” instead of harassing citizens?
I do see the need for some form of a lockdown, still. But where is the compassion? I was one of the majority of South Africans who willingly handed over our freedom to the government at the start of a three-week lockdown seven weeks ago. This was huge: we’d lived through four decades of apartheid. Our freedom was hard won.
But then the police and army were sent out to enforce the lockdown; the “invisible enemy”, as government ministers are fond of describing the virus, lives in people, and so people were targeted. Irrational rule after irrational rule was imposed; any signs of economic activity were quickly doused.
And our trust was stomped on. As the food queues grew and reports of bullying by security forces piled up, support for the lockdown slipped away. At times, I have felt more distressed by what our government is doing than by the march of the virus itself.
Where we gather socially
Meanwhile, social media has become our gathering space – we’re doing physical distancing, not social distancing. And we miss the nuances and signals that give context to our words – the confusion in someone’s eyes, the fragility of fear. It demands a new kind of intelligence from us.
And fear makes us do things that are out of character. Every day, I see someone on social media being labelled as white middle class, insensitive and selfish, privileged and out of touch. This is usually thrown as an insult by a white, middle-class, privileged person at someone who criticises what government is doing. That’s what I see anyway.
Those who tend to label also seem to create a hierarchy of legitimacy when it comes to concerns. So if someone says they would like to go surfing, take a walk on the beach or buy a bottle of wine, for example, they are accused of having trivial concerns: how can you be so selfish while others are starving? And some, while they provide their holier-than-thou view, describe others as “armchair experts”. Goodness, are we meant to not try to get informed and to not have opinions as we try to make sense? It’s very politburo-like, indeed.
Where is the kindness? Where is the acknowledgement that we are frightened and in pain? Why are we not comforting each other?
The more I think and feel, the more I understand that we are grieving for the world we’ve known. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described five stages of grief in 1969 and they’re still in use: denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and acceptance. Her co-author, David Kessler, has added a sixth stage: finding meaning. He’s written a great article on just this – the title is The Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.
I experience all those stages in the space of an hour. One minute, I will be finding meaning; the next, I will be angry or sad. I think this is normal – it is my normal for now. And that is okay.
I think we’re all vacillating along this continuum as we find a way to live with this virus. We have no choice because the virus and the disease it causes are not going away: we may find a good treatment and, if are lucky, an effective vaccine – in time. Let’s be kind to each other on this journey. We need it now more than ever.