The worst of all possible worlds

Jeremy Gordin reflects on day 55 of the lockdown, having used the last of his pipe tobacco

This morning, the 55th day of lockdown in a Covid-19 non-frontline area, I stared for a long while at the clear plastic bag from which I’d just emptied the last of my pipe tobacco.

The tobacco reached me about four weeks ago due to the kindness of a senior law person, and though I didn’t know its brand name, it was damn fine.

And, yes, bearing in mind that during the last week I’ve reached out to all my under- and over-world contacts without any luck at all (cigarettes and liquor are easily obtainable but not, it seems, pipe tobacco), the thought did cross my mind that one option would be to put the bag over my head and say Cheers, Big Ears.

Didn’t Albert Camus remark in The Myth of Sisyphus that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

But would anyone care? My two children might – sentimentality being de rigueur when it comes to parents – but not my gorgeous wife who’d probably think it was just another irritating attempt by me to garner attention, and who’d probably continue staring fixedly at her laptop screen, on which she works as a sub-editor.


But fundamental-shmundamental, it was only a passing thought. Life is too full of completely unexpected occurrences for me to give up the game over tobacco. Going for walk, I might, who knows, stumble over a packet of Boxer. Besides, offing myself, especially in such a grotesque manner, might bring far too much joy to my innumerable enemies, real and imagined. No way was I going to allow them that pleasure.

Instead, I set off on my daily perambulation through Parkview’s leaf-strewn streets, cogitating on what had brought about a situation in which a 67-year-old, property-owning, tax-paying citizen (no criminal record) cannot put his hands on pipe tobacco; his wife peers sadly all day at a computer; and, above all, there seems to be an overwhelming feeling of stasis in the land – a feeling of being trapped in a bubble, the smell of miasma. Rigtingsloos.

In short, I asked myself WTF is going on.

And what are the chances that SA, particularly Gauteng, will move to lockdown 3 on June 1? This was kinda promised by President Cyril Ramaphosa. But his verbal contracts don’t seem to be (in the words misattributed to Samuel Goldfish) worth the paper they’re written on.

So far there have been about 33 500 deaths in Italy, 28 000 in Spain, 35 800 in the UK, 8 300 in Germany, and 94 000 in the US. Whether all those who perished died from Covid19 per se is also not clear. There are some, such as Swedish epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who argue that most countries over-reacted to Covid-19. Be that as it may, Covid-19 was proclaimed a pandemic by the World Health Organisation and it’s incontrovertible that many thousands have died from the virus or associated infections.

Consequently, most countries instituted lockdowns. Fifty-five days ago, the SA government locked down the country, the stated intent being to “flatten the [upward-moving] curve of infections” and to prepare the nation’s medical services for the assumed flood of ill people.

Those arguing in favour of our lockdown, which has continued with very little meaningful easing, claim that its ongoing implementation has saved thousands of lives. Saul Musker has written that (what he calls) “the sacrifices made by all South Africans” “have saved tens of thousands of lives already”.

Okay; let’s go with that for a moment. Let’s agree that the imposition of the lockdown, the subsequent explanation of its rationale by Prof Salim Abdool Karim, certainly got the attention of the nation and – via the emphasis on social distancing and hygiene – might have “saved” lives.

But here, as the blues singer from Louisiana might have said, is the thang.

Our lockdown hasn’t been a successful “social” lockdown. It hasn’t worked regarding social distancing and keeping people from spreading the virus because this is South Africa and there are too many people living cheek-by-jowl. There are also too many people who need to get out to work. What’s more, the preparation of the nation’s medical services doesn’t seem to be going as swimmingly as some of us might want to believe. According to GroundUp, “some doctors and nurses [at Groote Schuur] are apparently not showing up for work or reluctant to work with Covid-19 patients. In a message to doctors, a senior hospital manager pleaded with them to make themselves available”.

Besides, if you have literally millions of people who must stand in a queue every month to collect social grants, their only money, and thousands of others outside waiting for food parcels because they’re not allowed to work, you do not have a lockdown. The only part of this lockdown that could be said to have worked somewhat is that the number of people travelling in taxis has been diminished.

What we do have, however, is an economic lockdown, which has and is destroying all our economy, formal and informal. We have the worst of all possible words, a collapsing economy that can’t be re-inflated because it’s locked down and an epidemic that is evidently only now reaching its take-off point.

In SA, as of today, 369 have died, purportedly from Covid-19 – though, again, it’s not precisely clear what role the so-called co-morbidities have played. But if you look at the article “Covid-19: Ominous signs of things to come,” certain facts stick out like the pipe in my mouth was doing yesterday.

SA is now reporting an average of over 800 such cases per day. These daily recorded Covid-19 cases have started exceeding, for the first time, those now being reported in France, Italy, Spain, Italy and Germany.

Most infections and deaths are being reported from the Western and Eastern Cape. The rest of the country seems “quiet”. But, as the article notes, “An absence of positive test results in an area in the early stages of an epidemic can mean one of two things. Either the disease is not there. Or the disease is there, but clusters are not being successfully identified and isolated, which is allowing the disease to seed itself unchecked.” Unhappily, my money is on the latter.

In short, the lockdown was not only implemented too early and haphazardly but must now be re-tooled to “save” the most vulnerable and allow the economy to operate again. Given that the government seems not to want to do anything, for fear of being considered responsible for any deaths that result, what can I suggest?

Well, for one thing, did you see what Elon Musk did? “Ordered by Alameda County health authorities to keep its Fremont, California mega-plant shuttered, [Tesla] opened the factory over the weekend and started making cars. On Monday, its employee parking lot was reported to be almost full, suggesting a near-total reopening”. There’s now a court case pending, of course, but meantime Tesla is making cars.

The way to deal with an obdurate and risk-averse government then is not to try persuading them to say “yes” to lifting their most irrational and counter-productive restrictions. Going to court is one option. Better though to act (albeit responsibly) and put the government in a position where they are the ones who must go to court to stop you.

One of the things I don’t understand is why so-called big business has been so pusillanimous about what the government is doing. I suppose business leaders go to see whomever they go to see, including Ramaphosa – and are fed the usual guff along the lines of “We’re doing the best we can, give us a chance, wait till the start of May ...” and then on May 1, they’d be told that a decision is imminent, they must be patient, they just need to wait until the beginning of June. And so on and on.

Maybe “business” needs to get off its collective tuchis and do what it needs to do. There’ll be a song and dance from the usual buffoons, but “business’s” collective life might literally depend on acting rather than talking.

I can’t think of much else that might shake this government out of its torpor – and it might also help get rid of the tomfoolery that Ramaphosa et al locked themselves into with the lockdown – that is, it might allow an old codger on a non-frontline to buy pipe tobacco if that’s what he wants to do.