19 July 2020
Our response to COVID-19 has revealed how fractious, cantankerous and uncaring we really are
Looking at our constitution and some of the laws, you would imagine we are a caring, empathetic and considerate society. You would be thoroughly impressed if you checked the human rights provisions in the constitution and the laws relating to labour, trade, consumer and social protection through grants.
Although we might have been aware for a long time that our lived reality is far removed from the progressive nature of our laws, the advent of COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief how fractious,
cantankerous and uncaring we are at societal level. The pandemic has exposed our lack of cohesion, care and empathy.
So, what appears in the constitution and in our laws does not find an echo in our day-to-day lives and how we relate to one another. One would have expected that with the arrival of this invisible, highly infectious and often deadly Coronavirus, we would have come together to ensure that we defeat it and ensure our survival.
Profits of doom
While some in our society came to the party to donate to the Solidarity Fund meant to help us mitigate the effects of the disease, others saw only an opportunity to profiteer at the expense of everyone else.
The declaration of a lockdown in March was accompanied by the announcement of the programme to support the most vulnerable in our society through the distribution of food parcels.
But politicians at the local level saw this as an opportunity to steal the food for their families and friends, as well as a chance to reward their political supporters through partisan distribution of state-funded food parcels. Large numbers of poor people were left hungry while these crooks pilfered.
Then there were business people and companies who got involved in shameless price gouging to gain maximum benefits from the pandemic. Items vital for the protection and survival of citizens, such as face masks, had their prices increased many times over.
Whereas at the beginning of the pandemic there was a welcome measure of unity among political parties represented in parliament, as well as civil society organisations, it fell apart as soon as many of them realised that cooperation with the state cost them a spot in the limelight.
Instead of political parties seeking consultations with each other on the best way to confront the enemy, we started seeing conflict and scathing criticism of the measures put in place to fight the novel Coronavirus. Some of the criticism was valid. But would it not have been better if there was constant consultation as opposed to public street fights?
COVID-19 is new for everyone all over the world. No government has a standard formula on how to handle it. It would have been expected that even the government would make some mistakes in the handling of the virus. And it did. Plenty. Some in the government got carried away in their zeal to get the population to comply with the regulations.
No political party or government has a monopoly of knowledge or expertise on how to go about fighting COVID-19. And there is no political party that owns the virus. In a dangerous environment like this, where the lives of our citizens are in danger, you would have expected political parties to cooperate with each other in an effort to save the nation.
Instead, we have seen fractious and antagonistic engagements among the parties. The bungling, and in certain instances attitude, of the governing party did not help matters.
In addition to shrill and bad-tempered engagement among parties in relation to the pandemic, we were also treated to a stampede by political parties to the courts to challenge this or the other regulation. Some were lost and others won.
A house divided
The point is, couldn’t the government and parties do better than quarrel in public? All these tended to distract and divide the population in their fight against the Coronavirus.
Because the government seems to concede nothing without robust demand, our intrepid health workers had to plead with the powers that be for their personal protective equipment (PPE). Some of these heroes and heroines in the struggle against COVID-19 had to spill into the streets to protest about the lack of PPE. Could these matters not be sorted out speedily through calm and effective
The taxi industry, which had been abiding by the rules since March that included taxis loading only up to 70% capacity of the minibuses in order to limit Coronavirus infections, threw its toys out of the cot when it was offered R1.1-billion as support for losses incurred as a result of COVID-19.
It demanded that each taxi be given R20 000, which would have cost the state about R20-billion or so. It did not matter that the state was constrained and did not have that kind of money. It did not care that other sectors of the economy, citizens in general and their own customers were all out of pocket.
When its demand could not be acceded to, they decided to load its minibuses at 100% and ferry passengers across provinces with or without permits. This it did at great peril to its passengers – the real danger of increasing the spread of COVID-19 in the population. Considering that taxis transport in the region of 7-million people a day, the danger is as clear as daylight.
The minibus operators cocked a snook at the state and it blinked. Instead of the government standing firm, the taxi people were rewarded with a nod to load at 100%. You put the lives of 7-million people at risk every day for money?
The trucking area is another characterised by a dialogue of the deaf. For years now we have been having sporadic protests by truck drivers against the employment of foreign drivers at the expense of locals.
The protests flared up again during the pandemic, with roads being blocked, trucks torched, stoned or otherwise prevented from going about their business. It is not clear if any lives were lost this time around.
Why can’t the government sort out this matter? Other governments in the region have had this matter under control for a long time.
In the vast majority of them, if not all, an employer can simply not employ a non-national for a job that can be done by a local. They enforce the law and there is peace.
Despite the suggestion of a fair, just and empathetic society envisaged by the constitution, in practice we are a society characterised by the pursuit of personal benefit at all cost. As a result, our engagements are guided by “I, me and myself” first, and the devil should take care of the rest.
- Mangena is former minister of science and technology and president of Azanian