NEWS & ANALYSIS

Nothing to worry about

Andrew Donaldson writes on his new career testing the natives for Covid-19, Melanie Verwoerd, and other matters

A FAMOUS GROUSE

I HAVE been put to good use by Her Majesty’s government these past few weeks and spend my days scooting up and down the Home Counties testing the natives for the coronavirus. 

It is not difficult work. I have a number of participating households to visit each day. I ask the residents a few questions, then give them swabs to stick down their throats and up their noses. These are then sealed, double-bagged and tossed in a box in the back of my van. At the end of the day, I drop my samples off with a courier who takes them to a laboratory in Oxford.

What’s more, I find that it’s all quite enjoyable. I’m getting out the house. The A412 is not the R62 by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m putting in hours of enjoyable “me” time behind the wheel, swearing at the radio and listening to the music of my troubled youth without the usual asinine observations that Bob Dylan cannot sing.

Even more surprising, several of my “patients” (as I fondly think of them) appear to look forward to my weekly visits. The arrival on their doorstep of a garrulous gentleman wearing latex gloves and brandishing testing kits is now an apparent highlight of their lockdowned day and there is a fair bit of amiable chit-chat about the weather once we’ve done with the swabbing.

Granted, it’s hardly breakthrough stuff when it comes to fraternising with the locals and getting to know them better, but it is a start. Social distancing, you understand, is a way of life with these standoffish people. I have, for example, been told that the English, in normal circumstances, refrain from shaking hands with rough colonial types lest this be mistaken for friendship and we pitch up at their homes uninvited for tea. 

But these are not normal circumstances. It is a difficult time for all and no-one is doing any form of popping in uninvited for anything anywhere, and in the absence of anyone better, they must make do with me. For my part, I do my best to affect a pleasant and breezy tone in my official duties. It helps with the older folk, who seem more anxious than most. 

“Been staying at home, then? Any hanging out with friends and family members?”

“No.”

“No dancing until the wee hours at the night-clubs?”

“Not since 1964.”

___STEADY_PAYWALL___

“And down at Waitrose, any licking of the coughing guard over the vegetables?” 

Actually, there are no perspex screens protecting produce in the supermarkets. So obviously I do not ever, ever ask that last question. But I sometimes wish I did. Just to test the reactions.

Due to that mysterious osmosis-like process that is learning, I am now quite familiar with the checklist of infection symptoms and can rattle them off with the ease of children bashing out Ring a Ring o’ Roses. Happily, and touch wood, no-one has yet complained of shortness of breath, fatigue, fever, chest pains or of anything else in the all-fall-down category.

This week, though, one pensioner did report that she’d been doing a bit of coughing. Alarmed, and putting on my serious concern voice, I said, “And when did this start?”

“When I ate a chocolate digestive.”

“Huh?” Much puzzlement on my part.

“I have some paralysis in the larynx,” she explained, “and it’s difficult for me to swallow. So the dry crumbs just sit there, at the back, you know, and I start to cough.”

“What about dunking the biscuit next time? Give it a good soaking in your tea before taking a bite. Not too much, otherwise it breaks off in a soggy mess…”

“Thank you, my dear,” she said, “but I do know how to dunk a biscuit.”

Naturally, the symptoms thrown up by the crisis that have greatly troubled me over the past two months or so have not been included in any checklist in these parts. 

These chiefly concern heightened indignation at the recidivist plunges into goon squad behaviour by the South African authorities and a nagging suspicion that the Zumanoid RET bunch view the pandemic as a heaven-sent opportunity to go the full Pol Pot and usher in some utopian wonderland once “white monopoly capital” and any other bits of the economy have been razed to the ground.

It was with some relief, then, that I learnt this week that I have absolutely nothing to worry about. At least according to Melanie Verwoerd, former ANC MP and SA ambassador to Ireland.

For someone who boasts that she avoids confrontation, she nevertheless takes a few swipes at the people of the “suburbs” in a recent column for News24, taking them to task for their sudden so-called expertise on herd immunity and the “national pastime” that is bashing the government.

Which is fair enough, I suppose. There is a lot of thoughtless waffle and idiotic bluster about herd immunity. And yes, a lot of criticism is directed at government for its handling of the pandemic. But, and begging the former ambassador’s pardon, who should we blame for government’s cock-ups other than government? 

Verwoerd claims she fields questions “every single day” about whether the government understands what the lockdown is doing to the economy. 

It must be exhausting, having to deal with this constant stream of moaners whose livelihoods and businesses have suddenly gone bust. These presumably are the very same people who pay her a small fortune to hear her guff on as a public speaker about the self-same government and the effects of their policies on the economy. 

But she manages to find the strength to suggest that no-one is more aware of the ruin than Cyril Ramaphosa and Tito Mboweni. “I also know that this is the last thing they wanted,” she writes, “in fact it is breaking their hearts to see their plans for growth going down the drain.”

Again, this is not an unreasonable statement. A lot of hearts are breaking and, I fear, many more will do so, and possibly much, much sooner than expected. The point is, who cares? Not, it would seem, the government of Petty Patel and Nkosazana Disaster-Zuma.

Some of my friends are working musicians who are now flat broke and desperate with families to feed. They have approached the government for assistance from the R150-million emergency fund that sports, arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa announced last month. 

Did they get anything? Other than a formal rejection note? And how does that song go, by the guy who apparently cannot sing? “There must be some kind of way outta here, said the joker to the thief; there’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief…”

Those who did get a handout, though, included the usual coterie of millionaire artists, producers and Hlaudi Motsoeneng All Stars who regularly perform at ANC rallies. It’s just that old cronyvirus, you could say.

But back to Verwoerd. She does take leave of her senses, I believe, when she dismisses as irrelevant concerns about the state’s anti-constitutional behaviour and police minister Cheek Bile’s junta-struck predilection for unchecked security force brutality.

“Let me clear,” she writes, “that I will shout very loudly if I believe government is diminishing our rights longer than is absolutely necessary. 

“Some of the ministers may indeed be guilty of over-reach and over-control within their mandates, but to seriously suggest that the President who helped give us the most liberal Constitution in the world would use this Covid-19 tragedy to become more and more dictatorial and take away our rights is just laughable.

“More dangerously it is a horrible racial stereotype.”

Excuse me. But she will shout very loudly? And what’s this about diminishing rights longer than is absolutely necessary?

I had to wipe my eyes reading that, even for the third or fourth time. Which, the experts advise, is not advised, what with the fear of the contagion. Don’t touch the face. That’s one of the uses of the mask. Which does appear to be more like a muzzle with each passing day.

For more fun and games, though, it was off to Port Elizabeth, where events this week unfortunately confirmed the metropole’s sobriquet as the Windy City. 

Ordinarily, I’d steer well clear of such personal matters, but since this issue has been raised by them, I feel duty bound to consider the question as posed in the Iqbal Survé fishwraps:

“Did Eastern Cape Health MEC Sindiswa Gomba fart during a live TV interview?”

Gomba’s people say she didn’t, and that a “mischievous and malicious” video of Gumba trending on social media had been deliberately edited to portray the MEC as being someone with no manners. 

“Eastern Cape Health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said the MEC had to apologise for making a verbal mistake in a fluffed word which ‘some bored people’ then edited a sound as if she was apologising for farting,” the Cape Argus reported. “He alleged that the TV crew can attest to that.”

I’ve seen the original SABC News item, and perhaps we should not dwell on Kupelo’s spinning any further. I will however suggest that, after consulting (yet again) JP Donleavy’s authoritative The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival and Manners (1975), this is not a matter that is easily ignored. Donleavy writes:

“In ancient times this feature of personal metabolism was esteemed an expression of the conscience as having just let off steam. And with so much artificial air around these days one would have thought sending forth wind from the anus was at least a bolt of something natural if not fresh. But this stinkingly difficult habit is sometimes a noisome one as well. And in most haughty circumstances it is not nice to be caught at. But provided you keep it quiet one is not normally ostracised from good society.”

Donleavy dwells on the subject at some length, providing detailed descriptions of the more notorious categories of emissions. For our purposes, their names alone will suffice: The King, The Blaster, The Flash, The Fake, The Farewell, The French, The Swiss, The Austrian, The Sleeper — “all fulsome without being very frouzy”.

Beware, though, The Requiem or The Royal, “…which usually silently creep out upon the atmosphere with such immense lurking lethality that one should instantly seek egress from the area and not return until someone in gear suitably protective has given the all clear especially where there has been the copious eating of sauerkraut, onions, garlic or aromatic meats and care needs to be taken to protect the eyes from smarting”.

One of the symptoms on my corona checklist, in closing, is the loss of the sense of smell. In the Covidiot age, then, it could be somewhat helpful to be in the presence of someone breaking like mighty thunder the wind, or doing The Gomba (for it must now surely take its place in the pantheon, etc). This despite the attendant offence it may cause. 

God have mercy, though, on the person who sneezes.