Covid-19 exposes class, racial inequalities in SA

18 March 2020 - 10:05
By malaika mahlatsi
Alexandra residents have been complaining about their poor  living conditions for a very long time now. Social distancing will never be  a reality in this congested settlement near Sandton.  / ANTONIO MUCHAVE
Alexandra residents have been complaining about their poor living conditions for a very long time now. Social distancing will never be a reality in this congested settlement near Sandton. / ANTONIO MUCHAVE

A few weeks ago, a group of middle-class people went on vacation in Italy and brought with them Covid-19, a virus that is tearing the world asunder. Since then, the number of people who have tested positive in SA has increased exponentially, and by all indications, the worst is yet to come.

While our country has not registered any fatalities, there is a sense that we soon will, because our ailing public health system is ill-equipped to handle a health emergency the nature and scale of Covid-19.

It is a battle that we are unlikely to win, if the virus is to wreak havoc at the scale of what it has done in countries like Italy and China - developed countries with far better infrastructure and resources than us.

On Sunday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa stood before the nation to give us an update about some of the key interventions the government is making in order to manage the virus.

As I listened to him, I realised just how deeply Covid-19 exposes the class and racial inequalities in our country.

Ramaphosa spoke of the need to wash our hands regularly - an exercise that seems simple enough. And yet, for the people of Luxhomo village in Cofimvaba, Eastern Cape, who have in the past gone for weeks without water, or the people of Thomo village in Limpopo, who have not had water coming out of their taps in the last 15 years, it is an instruction that cannot be followed. Even if these people wanted to wash their hands, they simply cannot do it.

Ramaphosa also spoke about the need to implement social distancing. However, the people of Diepsloot, Alexandra and other informal settlements do not have the luxury to create any meaningful social distance. Their shacks are built right on top of each other, because the landless and disenfranchised black people of this country do not have the luxury to own acres of land that can enable them to create any meaningful distance.

Ramaphosa also spoke about the banning of gatherings of more than 100 people, and I wondered whether he still had any recollection of that train ride that he took on his presidential campaign.

If the president remembers clearly, thousands of working-class black people use trains to commute to work and school daily. The choice for them is between staying home and starving or going to work and risk Covid-19 infection.

Ramaphosa said our public healthcare system is ready to deal with this global health emergency. But the president knows as well as any of us that this is a blatant lie. Our hospitals and clinics are severely understaffed and tragically under-resourced.

When last did the president visit Khayelitsha District Hospital, where bed shortages are a recurrent problem and where, as a result, patients are forced to sleep on chairs and on the floor?

Ramaphosa spoke about the travel ban imposed on high-risk countries, and my mind went to the people of Zimbabwe and of other African countries who have been forced to flee their homes to seek a better life for their children.

Seeking that in countries where they may die, where they have been burnt alive, but where they will continue to come because Covid-19 and angry mobs with tyres and matches in their hands are a lesser evil than despotic leaders who have collapsed economies.

I listened to the president and I read articles about retail stores being out of supplies because those with the means have stocked up.

Those who cannot afford to take days off work, who are excluded from accessing quality healthcare, who live in squatter camps, who will never afford flight tickets to Italy, will be the casualties.

Those people are poor, they are working-class, and, in our country, they are black. We are reminded that even as all animals are equal, some are more equal than others.