8 Signs we’re Living through a (COVID)War

A picture coronavirus covid 19 as an army with Vector Image
It’s a war out there. Venturing forth from lockdown today felt like creeping out of my foxhole or trench to sally forth to do battle with the enemy army, a covert (get it?) force of invisible soldiers. Not that I have the faintest idea what it feels like to be an infantryperson on the front line of a battle, and the only thing I know about foxholes is ‘foxy’ ladies’ in jodhpurs chasing wee creatures to death. The closest I have ever been to death itself was when someone tried to strangle me once (No doubt others have wished they could do me in, but someone actually tried once. I’m still here, however, so guess who won that fight?!… but that can remain a story for another day.) Then there was the chemotherapy…but that was more like imagining death as an option because chemo was so agonizingly unpleasant… again a tale for another fireside though. But the elements of a movie about twenty-first century urban conflict are all there in this death-dance with a coronavirus:
  1. The Enemy
For the first time in centuries the world war is one in which all countries share an enemy. And the virus has no alliances. It is an axis of evil all on its own, unless you consider Diabetes, Hypertension and Asthma its allies. There’s no shortage of finger-pointing at possible partners in crime, mind you, with Trump vacillating between blaming China, The WHO, the Democrats and the media for being in league with the virus. 2. War Correspondents/ Propagandists (and it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference) As with any modern war, events unfold live on TV. So, you have your obligatory war correspondents: those talking heads on TV who spout commentary all day and night are worse than googling your symptoms for frightening the bejesus out of you. It’s only when they interview the likes of Professor Salim Abdool Karim that I realise we shall be all right with him at the helm of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19. (Prof K has been voted the sexiest COVID-19 scientist by some ladies in the deep South – well they put it a little cruder, but still, not only is he a measured and eminently lucid academic, he is rather cute in a grandfatherly way.) From someone who watched the first Gulf War unfold on TV (That was when I was going through my chemo) as well as living through 9-11 and its aftermath in the US, I find these reporters often spread panic far more than information. They have to fill a 24-hour news cycle and so much of what they do is speculate…and confuse. Choose wisely who you watch. Avoid almost all politicians. They are conflicted between the health and economic crisis, and their own next election. And yes, I know I sound a little Trumpian in my criticism of the media, but choose carefully which ones you take your truth from. Remember ‘Pravda’ means ‘truth.’ Remember Squealer in Animal Farm and choose the views that do not defend or glorify politicians. In fact, the press plays a massively important watchdog role in a war. They are the ones who warn of excesses by authoritarian forces and remind us that emergency measures should not become the norm in surveillance and curtailing of freedoms and abuse of power. Study who owns media houses to see whose interests are being served. 3. Collaborators These are different from political allies. They are ordinary folk and in the COVID War they are ordinary citizens who just Won’t. Stay. At. Home during lockdown. You know the ones who don’t wear a mask because they ‘can’t breathe nicely’ with it on or aver they are ’not scared to get this virus, because they are young/healthy’…. (insert other obnoxious, entitled utterings). These are the ones who defy the regulations and who in two weeks will either be ill or have passed on the virus to some poor cashier at the supermarket or their elderly parents. We won’t mention Nkosazani Dlamini-Zuma’s dodgy dealings with illicit tobacco kingpin Adriano Mazotti because the ANCasked us not to pick on the ministers. But, ja… There will always be those who profiteer in a war. 4. Spies Any conflict involves a complex network of spies on both sides, scurrying around gathering information and exposing the underbelly on both the human and alien invader side. And they are spending lockdown with binocs surveilling their neighbourhoods for humans out after curfew and joggers nipping over the dunes for a quick paddle in the sea, posting their pics on Facebook Neighbourhood sites like ‘Wanted’ posters, shaming the offenders and turning in the collaborators. The important spies in this fight are the scientists and doctors who are devoting their waking hours to finding a vaccine and uncovering how this little bugger works. Move over James Bond and Jason Bourne -these are the spies we really need. The enemy spies and reconnaissance guerillas are unseen, jumping easily from one coughing cyclist to the next one in his unprotected slipstream. They live among us, invisible until we touch our eyes or scratch our mouths. Like Mata Hari, they lurk on our lovers’ lips and in their hair, but they are scarier and more prolific than the Army of the Dead in GOT, because they are unseen and unstoppable. 5. Conscripts As so many times throughout history the easiest cannon fodder have been the drafted serfs who are forced into a war not of their making to serve on the frontline and take the brunt of the distant generals’ and nobles’ wars. Spare a thought for the poor who didn’t bring the virus here (they can’t afford to fly) but will ultimately pay the price of the virus just as they have with HIV. Think of them in your safe, air-conditioned car on your way to your salaried job, while they commute in crowded public transporters (Oh, come on taxis are definitely going to try to defy the regs!) and return to their tiny homes to take the advance guard of corona to their elderly parents and tuberculoid roommates. 6. Foot Soldiers Then there are the foot soldiers, you and me who ‘also serve who only stand and wait’ in lockdown and the advance guard in the hospitals, petrol stations, shops, police stations and clerks in government offices; teachers in their nests; farmers in their fields; truckers on the road. Don’t forget security guards and sanitizing company works who can be seen spraying down offices like the nuclear scientists of science fiction movies, in their Hazmat suits. I really hope all the essential workers will finally be rewarded financially for being the cannon fodder of this disease. When this is over and people no longer clap at eight o’clock, please vote for salary increases for them. Like soldiers in combat, many will not receive medals and state funerals. And they are dying for us, folk. Doctors and nurses are bearing the brunt of enemy fire: by mid-April, 17 000 Italian doctors and nurses were infected with 159 medical personnel being among the dead. And that’s just Italy. Sadly, they seem to be operating like the field hospital in M*A*S*H, using their wits and making do sans proper PPE. 7. Weapons When we go out in our masks we circle other people warily like combatants in a fencing match or Star Wars Jedi knights, facing down our nemesis on a narrow ledge, our hoodies our cowls, and hand sanitizer our lightsabers. Please don’t believe Mr Trump that Lysol injections are the way to go if you’re scratching around for an adequate weapon (that one is firing blanks, my friend), or the Madagascans peddling untested plant-remedies like Thabo Mbeki on steroids. Please don’t fall prey to the anti-vaxxers refusing to contemplate a vaccine cure in the future. How do they think we got rid of smallpox, for goodness sake! You don’t need a ray gun. Just wash your hands! 8. Body Armour
Corona Virus Coronavirus - Free image on Pixabay
A word on masks: there is an entire universe of sub-cultures evident in how we are wearing masks: from the disposable medical ones; to the pretty, lacy, hand-made ones or the crudely sewn efforts of the needlework-challenged. Then there are the wannabe bandits with their bandanas tied cowboy-style across their faces like train robbers.. Trendy people don a variety of snoods and infinity scarves in multiple colourful shades and fabrics from surfer cool to cyclist flashy. The ‘boets’ of course stride through the shop in their artisan masks for chemical spraying with all sorts of filters and respirators. My favourites so far have been the old lady I spotted at the pharmacy in her ingenious McGyver-inspired mmmshield fashioned from staples and one of those plastic envelopes you put in office files, and the man who went shopping with his tiny boys armoured up as a miniature stormtrooper and some masked Marvel creature that was scarier than Joan Rivers sans make-up (Okay that is a bit mean, but if she can dish it, she should take it too).
We cannot fight on the beaches (well, not in Lockdown Level 4), but we shall fight on the school grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. With apologies to Winston Churchill

A luta continua

A Freedom Day Reflection during COVID-19 Lockdown 2020

I was born in 1964, three months after Nelson Mandela and seven comrades were jailed for life.

What is now the Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital, but then was the St Joseph’s Nursing Home, run by German Catholic nursing sisters, at the foot of Devils Peak, Cape Town, sounded like a strict place to be, from my mother’s telling of it. The fact that the nurses hurried her out of the loo, where I was nearly born, gave my existence an almost unseemly start, perhaps that’s why I was constantly found guilty of behaviour ‘unbecoming of a lady’ by the nuns who educated me. I was too loud. But not loud enough when it mattered.

The historic tragedy of the Rivonia Treason Trial that year though was unlikely to have been marked in my white, middle-class family, where my father was more conceivably focused on reading in the newspaper about the Springboks’ victories against touring French and Welsh rugby teams, or his own cricket matches at the club, while my mother was almost certainly consumed with caring for a toddler and a new baby. Johannesburg and race politics of the time were not even on their radar, both seemingly thousands of miles away. That’s one of the shocking realities of South African apartheid-era history: white people in the main, were not affected by the brutality and racial injustices being perpetrated in the country and life went on as ‘normal.’

I first heard about District Six when my father, a formidably fierce man, yelled at some pesky children taking delight in walking atop his newly constructed boundary wall in middle-class Pinelands, ‘What do you think this is?! District Six?!’ he roared out the window at them. I had no idea what District Six was but it seemed to be, from his attitude, a place where children got away with doing fun things. He of course had bought into the propaganda which saw the colourful, cosmopolitan area on the slopes of Table Mountain as a slum, resulting in the horrifying social and economic disaster of forced removals of black and coloured people in 1968. (Not that as an English-speaking United Party supporter, he would ever have seen himself as pro-government, an irony still playing out still in the English-Afrikaans divide in older, white South Africans.)

District Six’s fate was sealed in October 1964, a week after I was born when the Minister of Community ‘Development’ (one PW Botha!) set up a committee to re-plan and ‘develop’ District 6 and surrounding Salt River and Woodstock. The plan fell under CORDA, an acronym for the Orwellian Committee for the Rehabilitation of Depressed Areas, a plan which left communities decimated and precipitated ongoing poverty and crime although its stated intention was to eradicate crime ‘caused by inter-racial mixing.’

30 years later, however, on 27 April 1994, pregnant with my own second child, I stood in one of thousands of snaking queues in our nation’s first democratic election. Even though at the advanced stage of my pregnancy, I could have voted days before, I wanted to celebrate that special day and make sure my small son and unborn daughter would be there as part of the moment when we stood on the head of the snake of apartheid.

The people I queued with are dead now, the old man in front of me, almost certainly from old age, but my companion for the day, Kefilwe Ratsweu, passed away in 1999 from AIDS-related illnesses, following her rape in a field by a mindless, opportunistic thug, one mild Sunday afternoon.

She had five short years of ‘freedom.’

She, like so many women in our country, had lived a brutalized life of poverty and spent much of her divorced life away from her children. She recalled for me once how when she first moved to Johannesburg to find work, police vans would routinely pick up young women supposedly on pass law[1] offences and remembered the absolute terror she felt in being considered one of the ‘young, attractive ones’ who were offered an impossible ‘way out’ of their arrest. Many women saw the option of being gang-raped by policemen as a better option than imprisonment and loss of income for their families.

The abuse she suffered at the hands of authorities didn’t end there though. She married a taxi driver, who, when he drank, assaulted her repeatedly. Eventually, when he began to inflict his violence on her five children, she took them one dark night and fled home to her mother, who raised them in the country, while she worked in the city. And yet if I remember one thing about her, it was her capacity to throw her head back and laugh.

I visited her the day before she died in the Johannesburg General Hospital, stepping gingerly over used syringes on the lift floor of a state hospitial groaning in its need for public funds, not wanting to acknowledge that she was dying. We held hands, hers always so elegantly long and soft, despite her years of physical labour, like her once rotund body was even thinner from the ravages of her disease. And we wept quietly together. I wept for the system that made her vulnerable; I wept for the children she was leaving behind; and that I couldn’t save her. Mostly I wept because I had been part of that system, simply by being white. No amount of university protest or liberal thinking and teaching prevented me from saving her.

And hers is just one story.

The AIDS pandemic has caused so much human suffering in South Africa. Just as PW Botha’s men razed District Six to the ground, so HIV and AIDS bulldozed through townships and families, orphaning countless children in the process. And today we face a new, more threatening disease.

At its height, nearly 3 million people died in South Africa, but so many deaths were recorded as TB–or-other-related that the figure is probably far more. Nearly 250 000 new cases of HIV infection are recorded annually, with over 70 000 deaths still in this brave new world of post-apartheid South Africa.

Today is Freedom Day, being celebrated in Lockdown from a new enemy, set to ravage our nation. COVID-19 is not Die Groot Krokodil, so openly evil that we can launch an armed struggle against it. This time we are faced with another unseen nemesis like the HIV virus. The coronavirus is a tiny microbe spreading its invisible armies throughout our cities and towns, swifter and more easily even that HIV.  And the people it is set to destroy are again the poor and broken of South Africa.

But this time we know what can happen if we don’t fight. This time we have a president who is leading from the front.

This struggle ironically cannot be fought by mass gatherings of protest or by an armed struggle. This enemy thrives on our togetherness, something the apartheid regime recognized about our struggle for freedom and that’s why they banned public gatherings.

But this time for the sake of freedom (and life) for our people, especially those we have failed, please heed our president’s call to stay at home.

I was a child during apartheid; I stood by while HIV ran rampant and killed Kefilwe; I did not protest her brutalization.

This time, I am staying the fuck at home so my country(wo)men can live to see another Freedom Day!

How’s that for being a lady?

‘They also serve who only stand and wait’

John Milton, On His Blindness

[1] The dompas in apartheid South Africa required black people to carry identification at all times, including permission to be within (white) urban areas.