Little grace or generosity in the age of Covid-19

In the last few weeks, Covid-19 has hit Durban extremely hard. Many families have had to contend with a number of bereavements and the difficulty of holding funerals under current conditions.

It is a time of generalised crisis. There is a lot of academic work that shows that in times of general crisis – wars, earthquakes, floods and the like – there are often amazing forms of solidarity that emerge in society.

Rebecca Solnit’s important 2010 book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, bears testimony to that. It was published after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

Solnit’s book shows that there were extraordinary forms of social solidarity in the aftermath of the hurricane. She wrote of new forms of community, sharing, generosity and grace emerging as people worked together to cope with the situation.

What we have seen in Durban is something very different. The price of ginger – which many believe to support the immune system – has been dramatically hiked. In some cases, ginger is being sold for up to R500 a kilogram. The same is happening on the black market for the drug Ivermectin, which is – despite the absence of clear scientific evidence – widely believed to be a “miracle cure” for Covid-19. It used to sell for R20 a tablet, and is now going for around R500 a tablet.

We need to ask ourselves when a crisis in South Africa results in cynical profiteering rather than new forms of social solidarity – of what Solnit calls “grace” and “generosity”. One possible answer may lie in another book. Orlando Patterson’s new release, The Confounding Island, is a hugely impressive work that examines the reasons for the economic and political failure of postcolonial Jamaica.

Patterson shows that during the period of slavery the white slave owners and overseers had impunity from the law and social sanction for abuses of various kinds. At the same time, the slaves had no rights at all in terms of the law. The result was a society with no sense of shared values and commitments.

Our own history created a similar situation. The poor continue to be treated as people with no rights while the old elites, now joined by the kleptocratic political class, operate above the law and meaningful social sanctions. In a society like this there is deep cynicism about the collective. The sense of social solidarity that one finds in a society such as Sweden or New Zealand is simply absent. In South Africa we endure a brutal competition for self-interest.

It is clear what we need to do to fix our broken society. First there must be an end to elite impunity. We need massive investment in the criminal justice system, watchdog NGOs and investigative journalism.

The second step is that similar resources be allocated to ensuring that the poor and other marginalised people are not treated as if the law does not protect them.

If we want to be a society where the response to crisis is grace and generosity rather than exploitation and profiteering, we must all be genuinely equal before the law. This is a huge task, but one we dare not shirk. 

OPINION: Imraan Buccus