Shirley de Villiers.
Shirley de Villiers.

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There’s a strange surreality to the world of lockdown.

At home, it feels like an interminable working weekend, the monotony punctuated by the apocalyptic clock-tick of numbers: 1, 523,898 global infections; 17,669 deaths in Italy; 1,845 cases in SA. The banal tedium belies the tension in this moment. Time has shifted – there was a before; there will be an after.

It’s a point Elizabeth Outka makes beautifully in this essay in The Paris Review, where she considers how the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 “seeped” into the literature of the after – and how those works reflect the fragmentation, uncertainty and menace of a moment much like the present.

This sense of threat and dislocation in the now – a world that is both on pause and thundering down an unfamiliar road – is the subject of this essay by Leslie Jamison, writing in the New York Review of Books.

“The streets outside are empty, the ambulance sirens constant, the sunshine an insult. Beyond our windows, the city is running out of ventilators. Stores have signs in their windows that look lifted from the apocalypse films I loved back when I thought they were metaphor rather than prophecy: due to the spread of Covid-19 we are indefinitely closed,” she writes.

It’s a powerful take on isolation, and torpor, and the things we do to maintain a veneer of normality. “Getting righteous about other people’s inadequate social distancing is how we manage our fear and justify our sacrifices,” Jamison writes. “If I had to give this up, you should have to give it up, too.”

It’s a sentiment we’ve seen here in SA too – the incandescent fury on social media, for example, at someone jogging past your window in violation of the restrictions. This is partly why communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams became possibly the most-hated person in SA this week, and why President Cyril Ramaphosa had to suspend her to sate the heightened desire for justice.

Sandwiched between the before and the unknown after, the present offers a depressing picture of everything that’s wrong with the world. What the coronavirus has done is shine a light on the dark, ugly disparities that divide our societies, engendered by a culture of exclusion and consumption. It’s apparent in the stark differences in the capacity of countries to contain the fallout, but it’s most clear in the toxic geography of apartheid that still suffuses social relations in SA.

In this piece for The Conversation Africa, Lauren Graham, associate professor at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Development in Africa, considers these disparities in wealth, and what the pandemic means for those stuck in a position of precarity.

The broader point Graham makes is that mitigation cannot simply be a Band-Aid for the present; it needs to be “a social justice imperative” for the after.

Therein lies one of the few glimmers of hope: the pandemic offers an opportunity to reshape our world and our economy; it invites us to imagine a society that’s more inclusive, more just, more sustainable – socially and environmentally. Quite what that world will look like is not entirely clear, but it would, for a start, probably involve the state playing a more hands-on role in the economy.

Writing for the World Economic Forum, economics professor Mariana Mazzucato offers some thoughts on overcoming the “self-inflicted wounds” wrought by rampant capitalism – attaching conditions to corporate bailouts, for example, and rethinking the public-private “partnerships” that are funded by the public but inevitably end up benefitting the private far more.

Within this moment of menace lies an opportunity for change; let’s not squander it.

De Villiers is the features editor of the FM

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