I originally wrote this just ahead of the start of South Africa’s hard lockdown in March 2020. It disappeared when my earstwhile site host disappeared never to be seen again. It did occur to me to revise it before publishing it again. Then I realised that it’s a good record of what I was feeling and what we thought we might be facing. So, I republish it – warts and all – ahead of a post in which I’ll do a more thorough reflection on the year that was. Or wasn’t.
What I wrote on 24 March 2019: the beginning of “a year…”
Where to begin?
That I’ve been working in the gig economy since before it was a “thing”?
Or that I have been self-employed for nearly thirty years, effectively selling my
time expertise to clients that are prepared to pay for it?
Notice I didn’t say value? Because often it wasn’t valued. Particularly in the last few years that I worked in my preferred sector. That’s how it goes. It’s fine – mostly. What it does mean is that one is always looking for the next
project hustle and one is only as successful as the last job. Events over the last few years, including the last part of the Zuma era necessitated a change in direction. I reinvented myself. The details of those 25-odd years are not important. But, if you’re that interested… The point, however, is this: if I do not work, I do not earn. I cannot remember the last time I actually had a salary. It’s been feast or famine and, by and large, I’ve got by.
No pity party
On March 5th, 2020, South Africa had its first positive diagnosis for Covid-19. Like the rest of the world, we’ve been watching its rampant spread. It’s been like a pall descending on us all. The Novel Corona virus has dominated discourse for the last ten weeks as more than a hundred South Africans clamoured to come home from Wuhan. They touched down on March 8th and went into 21 days’ quarantine.
My primary gigs are in the tourism sector which has already taken two knocks: the drought and the economic downturn. One client’s entire business depends on inbound tourism from Germany. Two and a bit weeks ago, cancellations began exacerbating an already evident drop off in international and local tourists – because of Covid-19. Oh, and this client does value my work. If I could work for them, and not charge, I would.
On Sunday, 15 March, 2020, South Africa’s President declared a national disaster. That, in turn, was ten days following the positive diagnosis of patient zero. Who has, incidentally, recovered. As has another. The virus is a rampaging one and the curve in this country is still rising: 554 – more than 100 more in 24 hours.
Two weeks ago, I had a rant about the panic and paranoia and in that post I included links to information from reputable sources like the World Health Organisation and the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Including this graphic and good advice:
The President’s announcement included these new etiquettes for greeting and for coughing and was smartly followed by a slew of regulations. Among these was social (physical) distancing with increased and more rigorous hygiene practices. And:
- the prohibition of gatherings of more than 100 people (including weddings, funerals, church services, etc.)
- the prohibition of the sale of alcohol after 6 pm on weekdays and after 1 pm on Sundays and public holidays. When they restaurants and pubs were open, they could not have more than 50 patrons on the premises at any one time
Travel, other than essential, local and international, air, as well as mass (train, bus and minibus taxi), was discouraged. Businesses were not shut down and we were
not told encouraged to stay at home. In other words, South Africa was not in lock down. Or wasn’t when I started writing this two days ago. It is now. Or will be, effective at midnight on Thursday 26 March. From Friday, 27 March, we may not leave our homes for anything other than food and medical care. The first day we will hopefully be able to set foot out of the house will be Friday 17 April.
Why lock down makes sense
Forcing everyone to stay at home makes sense for a number of reasons other than the containment – and potential cleansing – of the virus. Firstly, it deals with the miscreants who did not respect social distancing or practice good hygiene. Before we were in lock down, we were asked to stay more than 1,5 m from each other and not to crowd places. Some people did. A lot of people did. Just as many, if not more, didn’t. Similarly, the sanitising of surfaces and hands was, at best, patchy. Secondly, it deals with the fear and potential stigma: we’re all in the same boat.
As an almost aside, you may want to read this in which former journalist, Janette Bennett, reflects on how unthinkingly one can contribute to stigma and how we might well be doing something similar now.
It’s not only about the elderly
We live in a small village (about 9,000 people including the surrounding farms) and many in the more affluent part of the community are older – in the acknowledged high risk group. There are other folk in the village whose immune systems are challenged for a range of medical reasons. I understand their fear and concern. Prior to lock down, it was appropriate for them to retreat and self-isolate.
There are people whose immune systems are compromised by diabetes, life-giving immuno-suppressant drugs, hypertension, chemotherapy, and other underlying medical conditions.
Not included in that group are people living with HIV. They all have compromised immune systems. Whether or not they receiving treatment. The South African numbers:
SA population with HIV Source
What do these numbers tell us?
A significant proportion of South Africa’s population of nearly 59 million, have compromised immune systems. They are HIV+. In 2018, 7,7 million people were living with HIV and 20.4% of these were between 15 and 49 years old, and 240 000 people were newly infected with HIV. Of that 7,7 million, 62.67% were women: child-bearers and carers. Of greater concern, is the proportion of these who are HIV+ and who were also being treated for tuberculosis: 57.0% in 2017 (Source). I’ll come back to this.
The risks are real.
A friend from the UK cut her visit short as it became clear that things were worsening at home. Not just because her visa was revoked. Her parents are elderly and not well. Our neighbours who spend every other weekend here (they live in Cape Town), have just returned from Australia went and are in compulsory self-isolation. Most of which time they tell me, has been on the beach. In fresh air. Their two weeks ends as the lock-down begins. That means a total of five weeks for them. The UK is now in lock down. A friend who lives there says he is concerned that it will be like Italy. I fear so. I pray not.
Social distancing and staying at home
All the authorities say that social distancing and good hygiene, especially hand-washing, will stop the spread of the virus. The first set of regulations didn’t prohibit people from taking a walk or from going to work if they had to. The new regulations will stop that, but shops will stay open: people must buy food and supplies. Not everyone has the luxury of online shopping. We must still stay 1,5 m or more away from each other. That is more than sensible.
Who are the people who cannot stay at home? Obviously, the medical professionals, carers and staff of associated services. Who else?
Let’s begin with the people whom, until last night’s statement from the President, were not considered. They will all run the risk of exposure; some more than others:
- the people who provide food: grow it, pack, process and deliver our online orders
- the people who must ensure that our utilities (running water, lights) continue to work. In the village that includes the guys who operate the “honey sucker” what empties our conservancy tanks. The majority of the village does not have water borne sewerage
- shop keepers: the cashiers, shelf-packers and, of late, the folk designated to sanitise our hands, trolleys (shopping carts)
- the media on whom we depend for reliable information about the pandemic – among other things
Infographics – not all they’re cracked up to be
A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. As is not properly engaging with the information that’s out there. Just focusing on the headlines and sound bites fosters fake news and conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories and fake news happen when you’re not paying attention. They spread like wildfire. Often courtesy of people who come in on the back end of conversations on radio talk shows and who share infographics like this one which popped up on my Facebook timeline:
It’s the old story of damned lies and statistics, coupled with the
21st century penchant human tendency that just reads the headlines. Add to that the proclivity to only be concerned about one’s own ilk – similar age, race, gender, etc. – our friends and family. This is why I talked about that “unseen” group of people. Their HIV+ status means that they also live with the constant threat of opportunistic conditions. The one about which we know most is Tuberculosis (TB). It is a notifiable disease and is the leading natural cause of death in South Africa (Source). The table below shows the highest national incidence of TB by province and district – with my notes on what are the likely contributory factors. The overriding one is poverty.
A significant number of people are ignoring these facts and retreating into their own bubbles of paranoia. This is important because the cohort I talk about, is by and large, a silent majority. They do not have the luxury of working from home, online shopping, and/or shopping at all. South Africa’s unemployment rate sits at 29% (source). Those who work, support on average another 15 people (source).
How many of you skipped the last paragraph to just look at this headline?
TL:DNR? For the uninitiated that’s too long; did not read.
Shame on you! That’s how conspiracy theories and fake news begin.
Let’s return to Italy, and my freak-out about that Facebook post:
The facts about Italy:
- Italy has the oldest population in Europe, with about 23% of residents 65 or older
- The average age 47.3; in China, it’s 37 (source)
- Many of Italy’s deaths have been among people in their 80s and 90s
So what’s my point?
The China-Italy infographic didn’t include that level of detail. The initial comment, and the responses, were based on only half the story and there was little apparent effort to consider what the other half of the story might be.
We’re all human, so we filter everything based on our own experience, realities and fears. It’s how we hear things. It’s how we absorb information. Then we judge. On top of that, most of us don’t bother to read the small print. What’s more, it seems that in times of high emotion and panic, most people lose their ability to think clearly. I admit, I do.
Daniel in the Lion’s Den
Remember, I said we live in a small village? On a Saturday there is a market. It’s held out in the open. On busy days, there must be a maximum of 100 people there – including stall holders. It lasts all of an hour and a half to two. The stallholders decided to continue with the market last Saturday – with the appropriate precautions for hand sanitising and social distancing. The community was notified via a Facebook post. There is a public group and a private group. The overriding tone of the comments – in the private group – was that we were being irresponsible. Made, ironically, by people who rarely, if ever, come to the market. There is a symbiosis between stall holders and regulars, so cancelling the market could equally have been seen as irresponsible. Nobody went there.
Then there was yesterday’s Presidential announcement. The decision was made for us. However, the question then is: how does one serve those who depend on your offering?
I’ll get back to you on that.
This does, however, bring me back to where I started. I am not alone in having lost gigs as a consequence of Covid-19. The new regulations provide for registered businesses, but not freelancers working in the gig economy.
So, despite Covid-19, I am looking for my next hustle – in the kitchen, online or wherever – within the prescripts of the lock down. Somehow, we must get by.
Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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