When the best might sadly not be enough

22 March 2020

Let’s say a prayer for selfless civil servants who must help flatten the corona curve

THE thing about working on Jan Smuts Avenue, in the heart of Joburg north, is that, if you will, you can hear the pulse of a humming economy. Traffic congestion in the morning, rushed lunches across an array of designer multi-storeyed buildings that have mushroomed between Rosebank and Sandton. A city at work, to borrow from the Joburg metro parlance.

With Covid-19 on our doorstep, our re­cessionary economy becoming even slow­er, millions of South Africans are mak­ing peace with the very real possibility of a cloistered lifestyle. Like monks of yonder, we are about to appreciate the lyrics of one of Usher’s songs: “we’re bet­ter off separated”.

In economics, populated spatial ar­rangements are encouraged because these become powerful markets, plac­es of opportunity for those seeking em­ployment and fortune alike. This is why Joburg, our populous city that tries not to sleep, attracts Africans from villag­es in Sekhukhune, Msinga, Masvingo, Nigeria, Tanzania and all over the con­tinent. Yet this economically desirable congestion is, putatively, the seed of our own downfall.

With schools closed, other firms shut­ting operations down (DionWired, Game Stores and so on), an eerie silence de­scended on our roads and our normally busy cities.

What seems unavoidable for us as South Africans is that our country is about to be “plunged into a deeper state of disruption and paralysis”, to quote The New York Times’ reference to America’s stringent measures meant to slow down a virus that had, by Saturday morning, killed 214 and infected 17 000 across most populous American states.

With more than 7 000 infected in New York state, that country’s epicentre of the virus, the most powerful economy is set to run out of hospital beds. Now that’s a thing to imagine: this nation that donates much to poorer nations of the world; this land of the free, home of the brave; this big brother of the world is being brought to its knees by what Donald Trump calls the Chinese virus.

When the bully is on his knees, Amer­ican hospitals becoming Bara-like, coro­na’s emblematic impact on the health of nations of the world is not just apparent, it is real. When America can’t fend for itself, it’s time to say a prayer for poorer economies with health systems that were already on their knees.

At home, Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize has been our lodestar, ably marshalling a team of cabinet members who helped the nation accept that our no­tion of normal is changing at great speed. Mkhize has been a source of our pain and relief. When Mkhize says on Thursday evening, for example, that the number of infected people may reach 200 tomor­row, and then it does, we must believe him then when he says 60%-70% of us will eventually contract the virus.

Just so this is clear, 70% of a conserva­tive population estimate of 50-million is 35-million people. This sent shivers right down my spine.

Mkhize has been a marvel to watch. Everything he has learned in leadership he has deployed to good use and displayed for our nation to appreciate. He has also marshalled his health forces with great skill and humility.

Beyond his svelte nature and soft-spo­ken demeanour, Mkhize has given us confidence that our government knows what it is doing. That, of course, is not the same as saying it will succeed. But it gives us great comfort to know that our error-prone government seems resolute in saving us from this virus.

As someone who has worked in the public service for a few years, I have more appreciation for what Mkhize and his officials at the Department of Health have done than I would have had I nev­er worked at the City of Johannesburg.

Some of the myths about public service include that most, if not all, government employees are lazy or do the bare mini­mum. The truth, though, is that there are many civil servants who are motivated only by a desire to serve, who not only put in extra hours but apply themselves dili­gently to every area of their work.

It is these who must help us know whether or not we are moving at the cor­rect speed, having learnt from China, Iran, Italy and other countries that have been ravaged by the virus, to flatten the curve of infections.

As a country, though, we must collec­tively take our hats off to our health prac­titioners, especially doctors who have no option but to go out every morning to pro­vide care to those who are inflicted but must survive this coronavirus.

Ours is a country that rises to any chal­lenge. Our health-care professionals will no doubt do their best even if, sadly, their best may not be enough. Word yesterday that the same South African team be­hind the Covid-19 WhatsApp service in SA has helped the World Health Organ­isation to create a similar service for the globe is heartwarming. As the traffic in Joburg mirrors our slowing economy, as we become more separated but digitally connected (pay attention to Telkom and MTN adverts in this edition), we must say a prayer for Mkhize and the legions of nameless, selfless civil servants who must help flatten the curve, help us adjust to our new normal – knowing, of course, their best might not be enough.

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