The world is an innately dangerous place that puts us at risk at every turn. Life is full of sharp edges and things that go bump in the night.
For previous generations, that was a self-evident truth. In much of the world and certainly, for most people in Africa, that is still the case.
The deaf-blind activist Helen Keller summed it up neatly in 1940, at a moment when the United States was fearfully contemplating involvement in a world war. “Security is mostly a superstition,” she wrote. “It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.”
That’s a truth that Snowflake Generation shudders to contemplate, suckled as it has been on 70 years of peace and steadily increasing prosperity. That's a reality that the cosseted citizens of Europe, North America, Australia and parts of Asia, as well as the cushioned elites of Africa, fervently seek to deny. Instead, like young children, they want Mummy — as embodied by the state — to intercede, to banish the Nasties and make it all better with a kiss.
As a result, the language of most of our leaders, in every sphere of modern life, is one of honeyed reassurances. We’ll make your lives risk free, they promise their electorates. We’ll shield you from distasteful ideas, they promise their students.
The exaggerated fearfulness of their citizenries has woven a dependency that has served politicians very well for scores of years. Whether it’s the protection of actual lives from foreign invaders or merely bruised feelings from hurtful words, government and governed share the same premise. The state must and will intervene.
The Covid pandemic has challenged such assumptions. It’s no longer possible and, in fact, it is politically counterproductive, for leaders to make exaggerated promises of protection against something which is moving so fast, changing so disconcertingly quickly.
We now have a peacetime equivalent of the military metaphor “fog of war”, used when events are moving so rapidly that the true situation is essentially unfathomable. It's the fog of disease that we’re now enveloped in. It's a situation where the parameters are constantly changing and the final outcome will be unknowable for quite a while yet.
In a time of pandemic, the leaders who pretend to be able to provide clarity and certainty risk being quickly exposed. The economy can tank in three months. The death rate can spiral in three weeks.
So, paradoxically, those politicians who have not pandered to public hysteria and demands for "solutions" are the ones who might come out best. Best not to pretend infallibility when tomorrow is likely to leave you wiping egg from your face.
Covid has also confronted us daily with the interventionist state’s stark limitations. There’s a growing realisation that the state does not always know — or always care — what’s best for us.
Even supranational entities like the World Health Organisation have been shown not to be omnipotent. Politically, WHO has been shown to naive at best, at worst cravenly placatory, towards China. On scientific matters, the area where WHO claims unchallengeable authority, it has performed as disappointingly.
The issues have ranged from seemingly simple ones, as to whether we should wear face masks, to matters that are obviously scientifically complex, such as the supposedly “very rare” transmission of the virus by asymptomatic carriers of the infection. WHO has been forced to flip-flop and contradict itself repeatedly, because it has pretended to have all the answers, instead of admitting that it doesn’t yet know.
On occasion, the WHO’s science has been tainted by politics, as shown by its prolonged initial reluctance to declare the Covid outbreak a pandemic, for fear of offending China. On other occasions, despite the conspiracy theories that multiply as fast as the virus, it is just ignorance, having to fumble their way to the truth — just like the politicians and the rest of us — through the fog of disease.
The impossibility of certainty can be seen in the attempts to model Covid mortality rates. In April, the WHO warned that Africa was going to be the next epicentre of the disease, with an estimated 300,000 deaths in a year. Last month, it cut that estimate to 190,000.
South Africa’s initial projections were 350,000 deaths in this country over a year. A fortnight ago, the government, yielding to pressure from the scientists, released the details of its new modelling, on which it was basing its lockdown policy. Its optimistic scenario projects 40,000 deaths by November and all 3,300 ICU beds nationwide filled by July. The pessimistic scenario projects them to be filled by June and 48,000 deaths by November.
Given that the pandemic has transformed every South African from being the Springbok rugby coach to being the nation’s chief epidemiologist, you’ll all have your own passionate views on those estimates. But it doesn’t really matter what numbers you come up with. The point is that large numbers of the public reject the official, government, version of what the size of the problem is and what has to be done.
A sea change has taken place since that heady first State of Disaster broadcast to the nation. The almost unanimous approval for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s swift, firm interventions has evaporated.
His government’s insistence on what’s good for us and what the next moves are, has faltered. It is crumbling in the face of court challenges, scorn over bureaucratic pettifogging, the imperative (if you are not a state employee) of having to work, and our ingrained national inclination towards lawlessness.
In the government’s top leadership, it’s only Ramaphosa who appears to understand that an irretrievable change has occurred.
In his most recent broadcast, the president was honest: “It’s going to get much worse before it gets better”. Ramaphosa was also frank about the limitations to what the government and its agencies could do, quoting Nelson Mandela: “It’s now your hands…”.
Our dear Uncle Cyril is absolutely right. So, go scrub those paws, keep your social distance, and take responsibility for yourself, instead of crying for Nanny.
Do that and the feisty Helen Keller — who also wrote “life is either a daring adventure or nothing” — would have been proud of you.
WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye