More Life and Love in the time of Corona
Updated: Apr 10
April 4th 2020 – 5pm: Rehad Desai's latest blog from South Africa
Today, I have given myself some time off from the high-intensity activism involved in getting the C19 Peoples Coalition functioning under very difficult conditions. I declared a day of self-nurturing and got my blue tooth speaker out and listened to my music for the first time in weeks. It stoked the welling up of tears that I so desperately needed to release. This is why I write today to try to make some sense of what I am feeling of what I am seeing unfold.
Yesterday's activism involved to reaching out to networks in KZN and Eastern Cape, the stories were heart-rendering, the scale of the work, the underprepared nature of state social safety networks, the problems besetting the elderly in the rural areas. It led to deeply question the whole lockdown strategy.
But let me keep this personal, the two zoom session left me shattered emotionally. Feeling there is no hope in the immediate future for the working poor trapped by their circumstances outside of the citizen-led mutual aid networks that are forming in our bigger cities and towns.
I found the words of Arundathi Roy strangely comforting this morning. For me, she has a way to illustrate entangled emotions that escape most literary canons. So let me liberally quote her.
‘’Who can use the term ‘’gone viral” without shuddering a little? Who can look at anything anymore — a door handle, a cardboard carton, a bag of vegetables — without imagining it swarming with those unseeable, undead, unliving blobs dotted with suction pads waiting to fasten themselves on to our lungs?
Who can think of kissing a stranger, jumping on to a bus or sending their child to school without feeling real fear? Who can think of ordinary pleasure and not assess its risk? Who among us is not a quack epidemiologist, virologist, statistician and prophet? Which scientist or doctor is not secretly praying for a miracle? Which priest is not — secretly, at least — submitting to science?
And even while the virus proliferates, who could not be thrilled by the swell of birdsong in cities, peacocks dancing at traffic crossings and the silence in the skies?’
Our world, my world has been turned upside down. The way she goes onto describe how first the US and then India’s response to the pandemic is tremendously instructive. Let me skip what she has to say about the USA for the moment as our country has far deeper parallels with India.
“On March 24, at 8pm, Modi appeared on TV again to announce that, from midnight onwards, all of India would be under lockdown. Markets would be closed. All transport, public as well as private, would be disallowed.
He said he was taking this decision not just as a prime minister, but as our family elder. Who else can decide, without consulting the state governments that would have to deal with the fallout of this decision, that a nation of 1.38bn people should be locked down with zero preparation and with four hours’ notice? His methods definitely give the impression that India’s prime minister thinks of citizens as a hostile force that needs to be ambushed, taken by surprise, but never trusted.
Locked down we were. Many health professionals and epidemiologists have applauded this move. Perhaps they are right in theory. But surely none of them can support the calamitous lack of planning or preparedness that turned the world’s biggest, most punitive lockdown into the exact opposite of what it was meant to achieve.
The lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated hidden things. As shops, restaurants, factories and the construction industry shut down, as the wealthy and the middle classes enclosed themselves in gated colonies, our towns and megacities began to extrude their working-class citizens — their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual.”
The last two paragraphs resonate so clearly for what we have seen unfolding in South Africa. People fled our cities not so much because of the fear of the virus, but because of fear of starvation, fear of eviction, fear of violence.
At least in our case, people had a few days notice to pack up and leave the unforgiving cities. But many now remained trapped in overcrowded ‘matchbox’ houses and shacks and now wish they had taken the opportunity to flee home to family in other provinces where they stand a better chance of survival and a more humane existence.
Today we get reports of nurses being shot by police, who were simply demanding transport to and from work, of talks about the evacuation of massive townships. It’s hard to maintain an emotional equilibrium.
It is clear that the civil society initiatives will be unable to fill the huge gaping holes that are appearing in the state’s efforts to provide a social safety net, meaning that many of the poorest 50% of our populace will not find any form of succor. People will, we will, try our very best to do what is possible.
But it not only our state that has been crippled by neoliberal policy design, we too have been weakened by 25 years of ever-increasing unemployment, deindustrialization, individualism whilst we bow before the altar of the market.
But what is also equally clear is that we will not be able to undermine this existential threat and the prospect of societal collapse unless we do come together in massive numbers and in doing so we are aided by the state. We have done this before in the face of such threats, we can do it again.
The incredible collective effort of overturning the local regulations that had stopped food hawkers from selling food, from whom 30% of people obtain their food, is one example of how we must shape the lockdown to meet people’s needs. Without this approach, the lockdown will be even a blunter tool than it already is.
For the lockdown to be effective we need to know when the government believes it will reach its target of 30,000 tests per day. As of Thursday last week, a mere 3000 were being conducted. If we ever have needed ambition, intensity, vision, compassion from government, it is now.
If we have needed a fundamental break from the hold of neoliberalism, it is now.
Ok, let's give them a break for the moment we operate within a world economy where ‘the just on time’ model has taken deep root, where huge purchasing cartels control the supply of what is available, where we have to bid against the likes of the EU and the USA for critically important ventilators, testing kits, reagents, medically graded protective equipment for our health workers.
We cannot compete on their terms. We have to establish our own terms and break IP laws that stop us from containing this pandemic and others that will surely hit us. They are doing it elsewhere, its time to stop playing ‘poor cousins’ with our begging bowl out. The state has a moral and political obligation to ensure this lockdown and those to follow are just, just for all of us. It has an obligation to our regional neighbours who are part and parcel of our regional wide economy.
We have a moral obligation to do what we can as ordinary folk outside of the state to assist the most vulnerable. We need to be allowed to this without local government permits.
My partner Anita Khanna started a soup kitchen initiative two hours ago. She has 15 volunteers making soup and counting – people are getting organized and will do more so as the infection rate shoots once mass testing gets underway.
I would like to end now as I have not managed to make this piece as cathartic as I set out to in the first place, I need to listen to more music, dance and cry and move into acceptance to allow me to continue to do what I can from my vantage of privilege.
Allow me to leave you with Arundathi words once again, she is one of our artists that nourishes our soul, her writing is testament to the ‘courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude’ that Walter Benjamin in 1940 wrote in the spring of when describing the working class and their attitude to their rulers.
“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”
Rehad Desai is an independent filmmaker from Johannesburg. Following his return from political exile, Rehad worked as a health and safety/media officer for a chemical workers union and as the head of a HIV prevention unit. His films include Miners Shot Down and Everything Must Fall. Reproduced with the author's permission.