Many of the differential effects of the global catastrophes we face today can be traced to pre-existing socio-political and economic realities. We have seen this in the last decade with the ever more serious disasters of the climate crises. Now we see this playing out in this pandemic. We have to face the fact that Covid-19 is our introduction to a recurrent problem that will become more frequent given our present trajectory.
For many, the crisis and existential dread they face does not start with Covid-19 or lockdown. The incessant worry about having a job – a livelihood – food insecurity and hunger, are at pandemic levels in the country even without there being a Covid pandemic. Yet this condition often characterised in terms of poverty is so normalised by our broken society that it is not often treated and discussed as social pandemic which we urgently need to rid ourselves of.
As many social commentators have pointed out since the beginning of this pandemic, if the Covid-19 is what has revealed the realities of inequality and the precariousness of the lives of the majority of this South Africa, then we have been living with our eyes closed. In many ways, I believe we truly are.
The legitimate outrage recently expressed at the government of the Western Cape could be taken as an example of this. I am referring to the incident where they pulled a man out of his shack while he was bathing and preparing for work. A video circulating the internet showed how officers humiliated him and threw him on the ground whilst he tried to rush back into his shack given that he was naked. But the officers pulled down his structure.
Responses to that video asked questions like “why didn’t they wait for him to get dressed?” made comments like “this is heartless: how can they do this during a pandemic?”. Of course, those are all legitimate questions to ask within the framework. But that this indignity could happen to this man in this manner is symptomatic of larger failings in our society. There are far deeper questions that should be asked about what conditions brought him to live in that informal dwelling in the first place, why those officers felt that they could act with such impunity or why their actions have been subsequently defended, and how this pattern of informal settlement and brutal suppression and removal is concentrated within quite specific demographics in the country. How did this all come to be?
The problem that we face as a society is not only to survive the novel coronavirus and the pandemics to come. Of course, we must do our best in these situations and make prudent decisions for the public good. But that, in itself, requires of us to make prudent decisions about the structure of our society. This requires the resolution of problems that go far beyond those that arise within the context of a pandemic. The decisions we make as a society long before the time of crisis condemn some to die and others to weather out the storm in relative comfort. True solidarity can only begin when we reconsider this implicit social pact.