Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Picture: HALDEN KROG
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Picture: HALDEN KROG

I’m perplexed as I sit down to write this. I’ve gone through the day’s papers — Business Day, The New York Times, The Guardian; I’ve watched snippets on CNN, BBC World, eNCA, SABC, Al Jazeera; I’ve read columns and blogs, and visited Facebook and Instagram; I’ve dipped into Twitter and the half a dozen WhatsApp groups that I belong to.

Here’s what I’ve found. Across the entire news, lifestyle, gossip, sport spectrum, across the gamut of social media posts, random YouTube clips and television talk shows, there is one single topic being discussed: the coronavirus pandemic and its resultant disease: Covid-19.

Columnists have come at this topic from all sides: the devastating and disastrous effect on the global economy; the dire plight of the poor; tips on how to stay safe.

The ministry of health has just announced that there are 31 new cases of coronavirus in SA, bringing the total confirmed infections to 116. The important news is that six of those are local transmissions with the youngest new case being a boy aged three, and a 71-year-old woman — neither of whom has travelled abroad.

CNN has just announced that in the past 24 hours, 475 Italians have died from complications related to being infected with the virus. And France has now imposed what television news stations are calling “a draconian lockdown unseen during peacetime”. In the US every one of the 50 states has reported cases of coronavirus infection.

Someone — who tried to hug me when she saw me — told me that she was ignoring ‘ridiculous’ instructions (hand-washing? Really?) and going about her life without a care

With such astonishingly widespread coverage, I will limit myself to what has not already been written about: moral obligation and civic responsibility.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told Germans in a televised address to “take this pandemic seriously”. There are more than 13,000 cases in that European country so far, a number that is rising, with just 113 reported recoveries.

She said: “Since German reunification ¯ no, since World War 2 — our country has never faced a challenge where we depended so much on our collective actions and solidarity.” She’s right. But, citizens of the world are not all acting in the best interests of the collective.

The New York Times reports that the virus has created generational fiction where some older Europeans — more likely to succumb to infection — criticise young people for “blithely ignoring warnings about social distancing”. Of course older people are concerned: this virus puts those with underlying and/or pre-existing conditions (weak immune systems, diabetes, heart disease, pulmonary problems, asthma, etc) at risk.

When I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the perennially odious EFF leader Julius Malema, you know that the world is in trouble. But who can fault Julius when — as he asks citizens to follow government regulations aimed at keeping us safe — he instructs drug companies, retailers and testing laboratories to keep prices “normal”.

Stop trying to make a quick buck off the back of the struggling masses, he said on television, asking private hospitals to “play your part” ominously adding “if you don’t want to be nationalised”.

But he’s right. That’s where moral obligation comes in.

Speaking on CNN, financial journalist Julia Chatterley laid out her responsible behaviour wish list: everyone should be given a financial holiday from repayment, for example, of home loans. In this time of crisis, she said, people should be able to use their money solely for drugs and food. And, she said vehemently — and I agree — there has to be an end to the tariffs charged for medicine.

More moral obligation needed to come from big (and small) business and governments.

The world is a very different place today than it was a week ago.

There was much pride as I watched President Cyril Ramaphosa spell out the dangers of coronavirus, the measures being taken by the SA government and the need for civic responsibility in his “state of disaster” speech last Sunday.

It was measured: letting people know that the situation was serious; that containing the spread is critical, that there are measures in place to deal with the pandemic; that it is  necessary for citizens to take responsibility for themselves and their neighbours. Most importantly, there is no need for panic.

I say I felt proud because I’d watched the leader of the developed world, US President Donald Trump, talk to his countrymen about Covid-19 and all I came away with was: “I took the test and I don’t have the virus.”

Prayer power

In the past week, I have been amazed by how people have responded.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng called for prayer: “May God bless our people. We need not to be as cursed as we appear to be by this virus, but to be blessed. We need an economy that is flourishing, we need normalcy to shake hands and hug. Those who know, know just how powerful prayer can be and so I plead with you from the depths of my heart that at least every Wednesday and every Sunday go out there in groups that do not exceed 70 to pray.”

Not everyone thought it appropriate for the man charged with ensuring the upholding of the law in the land to be playing priest. I thought it a noble — comforting — gesture.

And yet, despite all the information that is available, that has been disseminated, people still continue to practise risky behaviour: not washing hands; not socially distancing themselves; not self isolating when they’ve just got off a plane; not coughing into an elbow rather than a hand…

It is socially irresponsible.

But more worrying is just how many people are uninformed. Someone — who tried to hug me when she saw me — told me that she was ignoring “ridiculous” instructions (hand-washing? Really?) and going about her life without a care. She was safe she said, drinking a hot drink with lemon, garlic, ginger and honey every hour.

A shop assistant said everyone was going to get sick in apartment blocks as the virus was being spread through toilets and water pipes.

Still, there has been an outpouring of kindness. A neighbour who has been exposed to the virus posted on my building’s WhatsApp group that he would be avoiding the lifts and self-isolating in his apartment.

There were dozens of offers of help, to do his shopping, bring him vitamins, walk his dog…

I read somewhere that suicide rates drop to zero during times of war. The best of us, it seems, comes out when we are all under threat. 

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