The invisible enemy

David Bullard writes on the arrival of the Covid-19 crisis in South Africa


Growing up in post war England I was only aware of the privations of war from stories my parents told me. Rationing was still in force when I was born but didn’t make much of an impact on me at that age. Food rationing finally ended in 1954 but many foodstuffs apparently remained in short supply for some while after. One of the features of the war that my parents often remarked on was the community spirit and how neighbours would rally round to help if needed.

My father had been called up and was away in the army in North Africa and not yet married. My mother lived with and looked after her own mother in a small flat in south London.

When the sirens sounded at night they would rush to the nearest underground station which served as the bomb shelter for their neighbourhood. Then, when the all clear sounded, they would emerge after a sleepless night in an airless tube station and find out quite how much damage the Luftwaffe had done.

In the part of south London in which my mother lived the Luftwaffe were pretty efficient on the whole and entire roads of suburban houses were destroyed and left as smouldering ruins. This obviously led to great hardship for the bombed families who were often taken in by kindly neighbours until they could make other arrangements.


Rebuilding the house wasn’t an option during wartime. What the government of the day did was to encourage people to get together and support one another during the war years so a large gathering for a sing song session in the local pub was a great way to lift spirits.

With COVID-19 we don’t have that luxury. Neither do we have a siren to warn us it’s coming. This is something that few of us have ever experienced and it’s hardly surprising that it has taken Western governments so long to respond. They simply didn’t realize quite what they would be dealing with, how little was known about it and how rapidly this virus could be transmitted. One of the scariest features of COVID-19 is that it is now impossible to escape it. You can’t simply leave an affected country and fly to a safe place because no safe places exist.

The closure of airports and the closing of borders happens literally overnight these days. I have a friend who flew back to Ireland via Zurich last week. She is a South African citizen who was visiting her aging mother and taking care of some local business.

While she was airborne the Swiss authorities introduced new rules so when the aircraft landed in Zurich Swiss nationals were allowed off first to be tested for Coronavirus. Then EU passengers were allowed off but the six South Africans weren’t as lucky. After an hour and a half of uncertainty on board the aircraft they were escorted to a holding area and guarded by eight heavily armed Swiss police.

Two of the passengers were hoping to visit their grandchildren, one girl was on the way to her wedding and another couple were split up. She had Swiss citizenship and was allowed to enter the country but her husband was a South African and was informed, with the other South Africans, that he would need to return to his own country. My friend fortunately had Irish residency and was allowed to continue her journey by connecting flight to Dublin.

The closure of borders and the banning of flights is also having a devastating effect on the many Europeans who own property in South Africa and come here to spend the European winter months and help boost our economy. All are on 90 day visas which are nearing expiry. Those who don’t own homes here rent property for the period of their stay and those rentals will soon be up. A combination of not being able to get home combined with the prospect of becoming an illegal immigrant isn’t a particularly attractive dilemma.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that South Africa will experience much of the uncertainty and chaos that we have seen happening in countries like Spain and Italy. Unlike the UK, which has made all sorts of promises to bail out those whose businesses are in trouble as a result of the virus and those who won’t be paid, we are not in a financial position to do the same.

In fact, just to add to our woes, Moody’s might finally downgrade us to junk status this week. It’s pointless to go on about how state capture has impoverished the country and how much of this could have been avoided because we are facing far graver problems now.

The immediate threat is the breakdown of law and order and how to best manage the crisis. Many of our fellow citizens simply don’t understand the enormity of the problem and are behaving as though there isn’t a problem.

One of the stories doing the rounds on social media, courtesy of a Zimbabwean cabinet minister, is that COVID-19 is a God given punishment to Americans and Europeans for imposing sanctions.

In the townships there is a belief circulating that this is a virus that only affects white people, particularly those who go on ski-ing holidays. This isn’t fake news at work. It’s simply a matter of thousands of poorly educated people not being in a position to know any better.

Being asked to self isolate and socially distance themselves simply isn’t going to work in a crowded township where there are already major hygiene and health problems. Even in the UK asking people to not visit crowded places and keep their distance isn’t working as the crowds in Richmond Park demonstrated at the weekend.

The next few months are going to be very difficult indeed, particularly for an already creaking public health service. There have already been demands to introduce NHI as soon as possible from some political extremists; as if a magic wand can be waved and an efficient national health service can be created out of thin air.

What this crisis is more likely to do is to highlight the yawning gap between a poorly managed and corruptible state run health system and a properly managed private health system. Since the government will almost certainly call on the private health system for help out of sheer desperation it might be a good idea to shelve the idea of NHI completely. Not that the country will ever be able to afford it after this.

Few South Africans will ever be able to forgive the ANC for raping the country’s coffers and bringing the economy to its knees. From now on though they will be judged on how well they handle this crisis. Let’s pray they act as decent humans for once and don’t see it as a golden opportunity for self enrichment.

Most commentators agree that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech to the nation on Monday night was statesmanlike. There will no doubt be critics but, whatever one’s political leanings, it’s impossible not to be impressed at his determination to tackle this crisis head on. It is our duty as responsible citizens to back him 100% in this unenviable task. To use this crisis as an opportunity for petty politicking is unthinkable.

This country’s hero, Nelson Mandela, survived 27 years in “lockdown” so surely we can all survive 21 days in a far more user friendly version of lockdown than Madiba ever experienced. Maybe the slogan should be “flatten the curve for Madiba”.

Stay safe.