The good old days, before COVID-19

Jeremy Gordin writes on familiar old dangers versus the new one

At 2pm about five months ago I stopped my car outside my house on the pavement, where I’d parked for some 27 years, switched off the engine, but remained in the car. I’d seen an Uber-type vehicle heading in my direction and, thinking it was our cottage-dweller arriving home and knowing she likes being met at the gate (nervous about crime and all that), I decided to wait for her.

A man in a brown overall half-wearing a balaclava on his head and carrying a pistol appeared at the front passenger window, open due to the heat. (Old car; no air conditioning.) “I want your watch,” he said. I hesitated – due to surprise more than anything – and he continued: “I’ll shoot you, give me your watch.” So I did.

A second armed man appeared at my (the driver’s) window and man no. 1 said, “Take his wallet and phone and car keys.” They were visible to no. 1 in the driver’s door “cubbyhole”. Then in a very Seffrican turn of events, I unthinkingly expostulated, “Oh for fxxk’s sake, my driver’s licence is in there …” and man no. 2, without even looking into the wallet (it could have had R10 000 inside though it didn’t), threw it back into the car. Just business, you understand; I was wearing a watch they wanted; other than that, they didn’t really want to discomfort a fellow Seffrican.

Not an unusual story, I’d guess. Also not unusual, I’d say, was that for months afterwards I re-lived the event, going through various scenarios in my head. What if I’d been as brave (or foolish?) as my learned colleague David Bullard – who in 2007 chased some burglars out off his house, getting shot into the bargain – by saying No to the man with the gun? Would he have shot me? What if I’d left my engine running – and simply sped off when the robbers stopped? And so on.

Additionally, alas, one’s thoughts inevitably turn personal and self-pitying – “Why me, Lord?” – and one’s feelings of vulnerability come to the fore, especially if there’re other reasons for feeling vulnerable (age, illness, whatever). But, of course, it’s completely pointless to beat yourself up. If a guy has a gun – it’s game over. Full stop. Period.

One thing, though. One does understand what’s happened. You’re another Seffrican who’s been robbed. Suck it up. It’s what you pay for the good weather, for wearing an expensive watch in a country where others are poor, for living in a country where the police force is mostly disinterested or allegedly busy with bigger fish, etc. Or if you’re politically correct or Woke, you might even think it’s the price you must pay for having been born a whitey here, etc. We all know the litany; shan’t bore you.

But what about this Covid-19 (Coronavirus)?

Maybe you understand the science, but I don’t – and it’s not only because I preferred paying attention to Rinky de Beer’s gym slip in science class or because the left side of my brain is clearly under-developed. Thing is that the etiology of this virus is still not fully understood. (Good piece, by the way, written in the London Review of Books by Rupert Beale of the Francis Crick Institute.)

More to the point, the way the virus operates is also not fully understood. In short, to most of us this is a bloody scary mystery. Sure, more and more information is being garnered every minute. But in the meantime, we feel as though we’re being stalked by an invisible and vicious (and ageist) predator. And we are.

What to do? I won’t repeat here all the apparently sound advice about washing your hands, etc., and the need to try to halt the spread of the virus by quaranting/isolation – because you’ve doubtless read much of it by now.

What I’m wondering about, given what’s happened not only in China but in Italy, Iran, Spain and even in places such as Norway, is what about here, in South Africa?

An expert such as Beale, mentioned above, underlined on March 6 an “infectious diseases” colleague’s point that “early social distancing is the best weapon we have to combat Covid-19”. In other words, the best way to “flatten the curve (of the infection)” – to stop it from spreading – is to “socially distance” people so that the damn thing doesn’t spread.

President Cyril Ramaphosa took a shot at trying to get South Africa to do this on Sunday when he declared a “national disaster,” ordering the closure of schools (and later universities, courtesy of themselves and Blade Nzimande) and imposing stringent restrictions on travel and mass gatherings.

Talking of which – if I may digress – Ramaphosa’s steps didn’t require a degree in rocket science or even theology. They obviously had to be taken – duh – which is why I have been taken aback by two stories I read on Daily Maverick (DM).

The first, by Ferial Haffajee, dated March 15, was headlined “Ramaphosa shows mettle as he declares Covid-19 a national disaster and the world’s gravest emergency” and somewhere in the copy says thatIt was a statesmanlike address and the depth and breadth of measures showed that deep Cabinet consideration had gone into it”.

The second by John Battersby on 17 March was headlined “President Ramaphosa’s act of true leadership” and the first par reads: “President Cyril Ramaphosa’s radical and decisive response to the coronavirus threat on Sunday evening – and the clear and comprehensive ministerial briefing that followed on Monday morning – amount to a profound and well-workshopped act of collective leadership by a functional and united team”.

Well, as I remarked earlier, fear of the unknown has worrying effects on us all. By the way, in a marketing email on March 17, the DM noted that “Every time South Africa needed us to step up and be a guiding light in dark and desperate times, Daily Maverick [has] delivered” and will continue to do so when it comes to Covid-19, which “represents a different side of evil”. Evil? So, nothing to do with a virus or its RNA genome? More to do with the tokoloshe or Satan? I’m just asking.

Returning to the steps that government has taken to stop the spread of Covid-19. It all sounded pretty goodish, but the proof is, alas, always in the pudding – and in Seffrica we do have some serious “challenges” (isn’t that the preferred word, rather than “problems,” in business schools?) when it comes to pudding-making.

For just one example, we could all be forgiven for stifling a nervous smile when minister of transport Fikile Mbalula said he would see to it that taxis and taxi hubs would be sanitized. Ever been to a taxi rank such as Bree Street, Johannesburg?

Bottom line. So far (well, until the last few days), most of those Seffricans infected had been overseas or in contact with someone who’d been overseas.

But if “local transmission” fires up, if this virus gets going in a taxi or in a township such as Diepsloot – home to the Gordin family’s domestic worker and her son – who also stays part-time in my house because he can’t afford the daily taxi fare to his inner-city TVET college because his NSFAS money hasn’t come through (another problematical pudding) – If the virus gets going in, say, taxis and townships, and people by the way can merely be carriers, they needn’t necessarily show immediate infection ... Well, unfortunately there might be some of us who won’t get to use all that “white gold”* some of us have been hoarding.

As I finish writing this (Wednesday), the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 has risen to 116 since Tuesday’s tally of 85 and includes further cases of local transmission.

* Toilet paper