Natasha Marrian Financial Mail deputy editor & columnist
Airports Company SA intensified measures at Cape Town International Airport by putting up notice boards and stickers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
Airports Company SA intensified measures at Cape Town International Airport by putting up notice boards and stickers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

Winter is coming. We can certainly feel it. On Tuesday, the Joburg sky outside our office windows was an eerie, deep grey, matching the grim national mood that descended when President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national disaster in response to the globe-engulfing Covid-19 pandemic.

It is difficult to think of anything else now. On one level, we all have our personal fears and anxieties, but there are also fears about what it means for SA’s broader society, with its poverty and inequality, and its high rates of HIV, tuberculosis and diabetes.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize spoke directly to these fears. "We are also now looking at the high risk of internal transmission. That risk had not reached us, but we believe now it could be setting in," he said on Monday.

"At the moment the people found to have the infection are those who had the means or resources to visit Italy, Switzerland … You can get them back, you can quarantine them; [but] once this infection begins to spread in the taxis, in the trains, in the informal settlements, it’s going to create a new dynamic … Delayed action could overwhelm the health system."

The majority of South Africans have lived with inadequate health services for decades, and this pandemic has the potential to severely punish the ANC for its tardiness in addressing the issue.

But it is heartening that Ramaphosa and Mkhize are showing leadership on the emergency and are demonstrating a willingness to take drastic action to try to limit the toll in lives.

Ramaphosa’s sombre address to the nation on Sunday could go down as a defining moment in his presidency; ever since his trade union days, times of crisis have brought out the best in him.

The next day Mkhize elaborated on how the government would try to curb the coronavirus, in a briefing that inspired confidence.

Other cabinet members also showed an all but unprecedented sense of urgency — the minister of co-operative governance & traditional affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, met traditional leaders, and mining minister Gwede Mantashe held talks with mine bosses on how the sector will respond to the crisis.

Water affairs minister Lindiwe Sisulu announced that water tankers would be deployed in informal settlements and rural areas to help people maintain better hygiene.

The question now is whether Ramaphosa and his ministers can ignite the same sense of urgency and purpose in those sections of SA’s largely inept, bloated and self-serving bureaucracy that are on the front line against the pandemic.

The day Ramaphosa declared a national disaster, the National Education, Health & Allied Workers Union saw fit to announce a "national shutdown" should the government fail to meet its pay demands. The union later relented and pledged to co-operate in the Covid-19 campaign, but at the same time said its threat of a national shutdown remained.

How would shutting down the health system at a time like this help the working class, the poor and the marginalised?

Ordinary South Africans also need to step up. There are reports of an infected family that refused to self-quarantine; university students recklessly took to the streets to celebrate after the University of Cape Town closed due to the risk of the virus spreading among them.

Mkhize said every South African was a soldier who needed to be "battle ready" to fight the pandemic.

SA’s real test is yet to come — and if it fails to meet the challenge, the blame will lie with all of us.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.