SHIRLEY DE VILLIERS: Dear minister Patel, when can we wear the matching Mao suits?
What the citizens of Hong Kong did in the absence of government directives shows that where people are informed and compassionate they can protect themselves and their communities against the spread of Covid-19 infection
It’s not entirely clear why President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation on Wednesday night.
Perhaps he hoped to quiet the increasingly voluble suggestions from the twitterati that he’s been MIA. Perhaps the purpose was for him to be this week’s fall guy for the collective failings of the executive. But it certainly wasn’t to give the nation any of the certainty it so desperately craves.
In any event, he didn’t really have all that much to say.
We learnt that level 3 lockdown is set to be introduced at the end of the month, and that we’re about to hit level 4 lite. Not that all of us will be allowed entry to the hallowed post-Prohibition world of level 3, where corona stalks the booze queue between 8am and noon on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
Already, trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel is readying his crayons to redraw the level 4 retail regulations – again.
This week Patel, our supreme sartorial leader, gave us Daisy Duke Does Siberia (specifying “crop bottoms worn with boots and leggings”) and detailing all manner of closed-toe footwear options (casual, smart, flat, heeled). And T-shirts (if they’re hidden from view, as all good undergarments should be).
Next week, fingers crossed, we may be allowed matching Mao suits.
Yesterday Patel finally lifted the prohibition on e-commerce (as long as nobody delivers booze or cigarettes). Which is just as well, since that ban created a ludicrous list of contradictions: you could buy a cordless vacuum cleaner or a “crystal shadow diffuser” (level 4 delivery on One Day Only), but you couldn’t buy a skipping rope. Or the dumbbells that would allow you to exercise away from the heaving mass of 8am joggers.
And this from a minister who, on March 25, said he wanted to keep the list of essential goods “as short and simple as possible”. It doesn’t inspire confidence that his next round of retail therapy will be any more rational or less contradictory.
If this all seems a little trivial, it’s not. As governments start to ease lockdowns, individuals will have to take increasing responsibility for containing the spread of the virus.
A study in the UK, conducted by researchers in the Netherlands and the US (here), suggests that compliance with social distancing regulations is premised partly on the perceived legitimacy of those measures and the authorities implementing them, and also on the ease with which people can comply practically.
Interestingly, the researchers note on the Conversation UK website that punitive sanction has little deterrent effect. If anything, any sanction carries the danger that people will “develop a negative view of the legal system that undermines their sense of duty to obey its rules” if they perceive law enforcement as unfair.
It suggests that successful containment of the coronavirus, post-lockdown, hinges not on policing people and meting out punishment, but on securing their support.
Ordinary citizens have shown that they can take responsibility in the absence of coherent government action. Take Hong Kong, for example.
As Zeynep Tufekci points out on The Atlantic’s website, Hong Kong should be susceptible to virus spread: it is densely populated, relies on oversubscribed public transport, is connected to Wuhan by high-speed train and air travel and “has more cross-border traffic with China than anywhere else in the world”.
But to date there have been just four known Covid-19 deaths in Hong Kong, as well as 1,050 confirmed cases and 1,009 confirmed recoveries, in a city of more than 7-million – despite there not being a full lockdown.
Tufekci lays out how the people of Hong Kong – in the face of government inaction – have drawn on resources from their recent pro-democracy protests to contain the virus themselves. In some rather civic acts of civil disobedience, medical workers went on strike to protest against border closures; volunteers installed hand sanitisers in crumbling tenement buildings; and “mask brigades” distributed masks, including to the vulnerable and elderly, in defiance of a ban on masks.
What Hong Kong teaches us, Tufekci says, is that “people aren’t helpless, even when their government isn’t helpful”.
The broader point is that compassion and goodwill can take root in a crisis – something Rebecca Solnit raises in this Guardian long read. It’s a wonderful ode to the civic-minded voluntarism that can push back – and has done so – where governments fail.
In a moment that seems dark and interminable, Solnit offers some hope: “The pandemic marks the end of an era and the beginning of another – one whose harshness must be mitigated by a spirit of generosity”.
I’d drink to that. If only Patel and his cabinet colleagues would let me.
*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM
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