Real test of our humanity likely to come after the lockdown

Alexandra has also reportedly had its first confirmed case of covid-19
Alexandra has also reportedly had its first confirmed case of covid-19
Image: Simphiwe Nkwali

I haven't left my property in five days. I feel like a baboon trapped in a cage. I irritate my family and they irritate me.

But when I look through my window, I see the wide expanse of False Bay in front of me. I share my home with my wife and our teenager. We have Wi-Fi, Netflix, DStv and many, many books. Our fridge is packed with food. There are bottles of hand sanitiser all over the house. We have running hot and cold water and three toilets.

A man in his forties called Whisper installed a door in my house last Thursday. He lives in Khayelitsha in a tiny shack made of corrugated iron and plastic. His stand is smaller than my lounge, he told me.

He shares that space with five other people. Their toilet and single tap are outside the house.

Whisper is a "piece worker" for a building contractor. If he doesn't work, he doesn't get paid. He has no savings and can't get a loan or an overdraft from the bank. Many of us in the middle classes moan, as the old Afrikaans saying goes, with a white loaf under the arm.

Where will Whisper and his family get food this week? If they comply with the lockdown, what will it be like in two weeks with the six of them staring at each other in that tiny space with no Wi-Fi, TV or books? The first coronavirus infection in Khayelitsha was reported this weekend. When will it reach informal settlements like Diepsloot and Masiphumelele?

By the way, it is by no means certain that the lockdown will end on April 21. If the infection rate hadn't peaked by then, we may well be in lockdown well into May. I'll look across the bay to Khayelitsha, think of Whisper and feel... Feel what? Gratitude that I'm so privileged? Guilt? Anger? Sadness? Despair?

I think there is broad consensus that the limitation on our freedom of movement was the correct move. Most agree that we have to "flatten the curve" of infections so our health services have even a remote chance to cope. But do enough of us realise the consequences of this decision? That it will leave literally millions of South Africans without jobs - that is above the 10 million that were already unemployed?

Have we processed the fact that hundreds of thousands of people will not have enough food to eat in the weeks and months to come? In fact, some people will die of hunger. In South Africa in 2020.

What a terrible, terrible thought.

The government is taking steps with its limited resources to save small and medium companies from total ruin and to help them pay their workers.

The Rupert, Oppenheimer and Motsepe families have each donated a billion rand, and hopefully others too. But it seems to me when it comes to feeding people, especially children, in townships and informal settlements, civil society will have to come to the rescue. You and I.

I hope the faith communities will act immediately. If you want to contribute and can't get involved in an initiative, my advice is to contribute financially (and generously) to Gift of the Givers. We know we can trust it with our money and we know it is a highly effective NGO. It's already helping the state with testing for the virus, with the provision of water to townships and has just donated a large amount of masks and bottles of sanitiser to hospitals.

We don't know what is going to happen next, but we have to be prepared for a scenario where there will be grave human suffering and many thousands of deaths.

Each one of us should now consider how we will judge our own attitudes and actions during this time, once the crisis is over. It will be too late for regrets.

-Max du Preez is the publisher of vryeweekblad.com.

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