Homeless people wait in line to be fed at Agnieszka's Haven Community and Rehabilitation Centre. The centre, together with the City of Johannesburg and Meals on Wheels, claims to feed over 580 homeless people daily. Picture: ALON SKUY
Homeless people wait in line to be fed at Agnieszka's Haven Community and Rehabilitation Centre. The centre, together with the City of Johannesburg and Meals on Wheels, claims to feed over 580 homeless people daily. Picture: ALON SKUY

Five weeks have passed since the March 27, the day we began removing our physical selves from society. We took instruction from those we trust: isolation was essential to stop the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus.

The health services needed time to prepare for a possible Covid-19 onslaught and not going out in public was the only way to flatten the curve. We were united as a nation by an overriding emotion: fear.

There are two things in these paragraphs that are extraordinary: the first that our communal fear was palpable, and not just fear of the virus, but of the uncertainty that lay ahead; and the second astonishing thing is that we trusted — and continue to trust — our government.

Trusting the government is not something that comes easily to us South Africans. And with good reason. We, well, the majority of us, lived through the apartheid years at odds with our government. Trust was not a word used to describe our relationship with the apartheid National Party government.

And, just when we thought we’d birthed a new democracy, one in which it was safe to exhale and bask in the glory of our newfound freedom, we were forced to live through a decade of watching grand scale greed as members of our government sucked this country dry for personal gain. We gave it a name: state capture; a time headed by a venal, crooked, unpopular president, Jacob Zuma.

So it is an astonishing thing that we reacted with such utter compliance when President Cyril Ramaphosa stood before us and announced that our liberty was to be curtailed, that we were under house arrest — a concept that we were unhappily familiar with from the apartheid years.

Then came news that Italy was in serious trouble; then Spain, people were dying in unprecedented numbers. Suddenly it was a European problem and our anger kicked in

Astonishing, too, because there was no end date to our house arrest. We, none of us, murmured dissent. We embarrassed ourselves by loading our cars with toilet paper, denuding shops of cigarettes, booze, flour and yeast mix as we prepared to hunker down.

Curiously, we have continued to trust those who are in charge: Ramaphosa; health minister Zweli Mkhize; the experts such as Prof Salim Abdool Karim — even minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu, who can’t tell his ventilators from his vibrators and has confused them in his press briefings.

We continue to trust them because they have been transparent, consistent, accessible and knowledgeable; they’ve inspired trust by making (mostly) good decisions. (The exceptions being the cigarette and booze bans that continue to make nanny-state decisions for South Africans. And the inexplicable ban on the sale of what are, essentially, essential items: books!).

We’ve been given a global thumbs up for doing a jolly good job; the World Health Organisation (WHO) has lauded the way in which there is consultation and communication with communities; that august magazine, The Economist, pronounced that we are better prepared for the onslaught because we’ve waged war on Aids and TB.

We’re getting it right. On the medical, PR front, that is.

For most of us citizens, though, the past five weeks have been a transformative journey. We’re going through the five stages of grief, drawn from the [Elisabeth] Kübler-Ross model, eponymous with the Swiss-American psychiatrist who was a pioneer in near-death studies and author of the internationally best selling 1969 book, On Death and Dying.

Our journey began early this year with denial (1). This coronavirus was a Chinese problem. Poor people of Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic. Poor Chinese people; if you coughed you were rounded up and literally imprisoned in your home. Nobody could leave their homes. How awful.

And we blithely went on flying, traversing the globe, cavorting on beaches, sitting within spitting distance in restaurants, hugging each other. What did we know? We were OK.

Then came news that Italy was in serious trouble; then Spain, people were dying in unprecedented numbers. Suddenly it was a European problem and our anger(2) kicked in, along with a lot of racism, and fear that, perhaps, this was not a contained disease and we might not be immune.

We’re still in the anger phase. With the economy in a state of collapse, unemployed people are hungry — and angry, showing their hungry displeasure by rioting in the streets when promised food aid does not arrive.

A Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) survey finds that a shocking one quarter of all South Africans have no money to buy food — 24% of the people in our country. Of those polled, 63% say they’ll be unable to pay their debts during the lockdown while 45% say they will have difficulty keeping their jobs.

We must trust that the president’s relief package will ease some of the pain.

While still in the anger phase, we’re also bargaining(3)We’re happy to stay home but please can we buy cigarettes? No? OK, then how about alcohol? No? Books? No? And on it goes.

We stayed home, went online and found virtual lives, had countless Zoom meetings, parties, dinners. We bravely set out the parameters of what we should do, and did it. Until cabin fever kicked, we all went a little mad and for a lot of us depression(4) has set in.

What is the meaning of it all? Where will it end?

It has become clear that there is no easy, quick fix. Covid-19 is here to stay until a medical treatment method is found or until a vaccine is developed. Or, of course, until we get herd immunity — which would mean a lot of us have to get sick to get better, an option our health service could not cope with.

Abundance or a bun dance?

I’m not sure when we’ll reach the fifth and last stage of grief, acceptance.

I’m on day 15 of a Deepak Chopra 21-day abundance meditation. Chopra, a renowned alternative medicine advocate, leads the meditation in which we are encouraged to believe that there is no lack or shortage of anything in the world, only the limits we put on our thinking.

Tell that to those hungry people desperate to feed their children.

I vacillate between wanting to scream Humbug! at Chopra’s assertions and encouraging every hungry mother to meditate on abundance.

Would it make a difference if those with rumbling bellies tapped into the infinite source that Chopra promises? Will give us what it is we want? One of the first rules of living in the sphere of abundance, we are told, is gratitude.

It’s not a new concept. It’s one that I hear often in the meeting rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. There are a gazillion Ted Talks, and YouTube-guided meditations and books and podcasts and, and, and, on the power of gratitude as a tool to foster forgiveness; to engender well-being and to take you out of yourself into a place of service.

Hard to be grateful, though, when you’re living in squalor, hungry and with few prospects of things changing.

Gratitude seemed to be the theme of the week and I wonder if that is what is needed to reach the final stage of grief, acceptance. Paradoxically, some of us gratefully living in safe, sheltered homes with enough (too much) food are dealing with another problem: we’re getting fat.

For us, time has become something of an abstract notion, an ideal that should be mastered but… it’s also OK if it’s not.

Time morphs into something else as I keep track of the days using my weekday pillbox: if it’s a purple Calciferol pill day then it’s midweek Wednesday.

As I see it, the only thing we can continue to do is trust: our government, the medical experts, the promise that the relief package will reach those who need it, and, it seems, that the universe will provide.

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