Members of the health service in Alexandra, Johannesburg. Picture: ALON SKUY
Members of the health service in Alexandra, Johannesburg. Picture: ALON SKUY

Braving the eerie streets of Joburg to replenish the stock of food and essentials is a disconcerting experience. There is little traffic, for one. But the averted gaze of the mask-clad shopper standing some distance away as we wait to be allowed into a store is what really puts me on edge. The prospect of contracting a virus has turned us into a fearful people. We are eyeing each other with suspicion. No-one is all that keen on small talk, yet after almost two weeks of lockdown, some of us crave it.

While we continue to live separate lives, we must remember what holds us together. Now more than ever, South Africans need to develop a cross-class solidarity. The Covid-19 pandemic will have devastating consequences, not just for an overburdened health system, but for an entire economy that was already on the skids before this crisis hit.

SA’s Solidarity Fund – which will direct money to heath and humanitarian efforts – and the money that wealthy families have set aside to help small businesses is one example of this. The Solidarity Fund has grown to R2bn. But the state needs to do more. And as individuals, we need to do more.

You will by now have read about Portugal, which is giving refugees, asylum seekers and migrants temporary citizenship rights for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis.

Less well known is the example of Morocco. Its government will pay a stipend to every head of a household operating in the informal sector whose activity is affected by the lockdown. And all workers who have a pension fund will receive a slightly larger figure until June. Businesses, large and small, will be allowed to defer tax payments. Morocco has also opened up military medical facilities to Covid-19 patients and deployed the military to set up field hospitals.

In Rwanda, cabinet members and head of state-owned companies will forfeit their salaries in an act of solidarity with workers. The country has also committed to help low-income households with deliveries of free food.

There are also examples of state support in Europe. Denmark and Sweden will subsidise workers’ salaries. France has promised that no company will be allowed to fail. It has frozen tax and rent payments for small businesses and is expanding its welfare system. Germany will guarantee loans, while Italy will give the self-employed a once-off payment. Spain’s rescue package will take the form of loans for small businesses, and it is also freezing mortgages and utility bills for individuals.

Some firms have also stepped in to help people (with a stable internet connection). Free audiobooks, online museum tours and virtual libraries have made it possible for people to keep busy in isolation. Free online yoga and cardio classes are helping us to keep fit.

The decision to open grocery stores early for elderly and vulnerable shoppers is a small but important contribution.

And citizens all over the world have responded with acts of solidarity. Public applause and support for health workers has been a big part of this. People (and entire hotels) have offered medical staff the option to stay closer to the clinics where they work, for free.

The UK government’s appeal for aid for the vulnerable in communities yielded 250,000 volunteers in a single day.

When residents of an apartment complex couldn’t leave their homes due to the quarantine in Seville, Spain, a fitness instructor went up to a rooftop and held a workout class for them.

In Barcelona, people have raised money for a food bank to support street vendors who have lost their income.

In Italy, a 3D printing company was able to convert a snorkelling mask into ventilator valves. And it has shared its designs. All over the world, ordinary people have been making masks. This is an important and creative intervention as the global shortage of medical masks makes daily news.

Meanwhile in SA, community structures have sprung into action to provide food, water, and other necessities to working-class communities and neighbourhoods. One example is the community action networks in Cape Town.

And the call to pay domestic workers their full salaries is a form of assistance that will have positive ripple effects on people’s lives.

Of course, some would say heeding the call to stay home is itself a way to give – perhaps the starting point of our solidarity.

It was Frantz Fanon who said: “Each generation, out of relative obscurity, must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it.” Now more than ever, kindness, compassion and active solidarity should define how we choose to respond.

Your top reads

“Wartime solidarity” is how Angela Merkel has called on people to respond to the coronavirus. She isn’t the only world leader to liken efforts to beat a virus to recruitment for battle. In an opinion piece for Al Jazeera, Christine Schwobel-Patel says concern about overzealous emergency powers comes from a familiarity with other forms of war talk – from the “war on drugs” to the “war on terror”.

And instead of framing the pandemic as a public health emergency, she says, the framing as a war legitimises state actions which would normally not be acceptable. Read it here.

Arundhati Roy has written a searing essay in the Financial Times about how pandemics have historically forced humans “to break with the past”. This one is no different, she says, describing it as a “portal”. “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.” The piece is also an examination of India’s handling of Covid-19. The crisis has heightened social and economic inequalities, religious tension and state violence.

And then, in a great act of moral bankruptcy, the very opposite of the solidarity that we all need, is the actions of the US government to block and reroute shipments of medical equipment intended for other parts of the world. Brad Glosserman, writing for The Japan Times, says Covid-19 has exposed US President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda. 

Donate to Gift of the Givers’ Covid-19 medical equipment drive here

And for a comprehensive list of efforts to contribute to, visit Wanted

This is a roundup of the best Covid-19 news from the web, brought to you in today's FM lockdown newsletter. To subscribe, for free, click here.

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