Guest Column

OPINION | As infection numbers rise, South Africa’s biggest weapon against Covid-19 is its people

2020-05-21 14:33
It is only when the state democratises the fight, and accepts mass participation in this battle, that South Africa’s people become the deadliest weapon against Covid-19, says the writer. (iStock)

It is only when the state democratises the fight, and accepts mass participation in this battle, that South Africa’s people become the deadliest weapon against Covid-19, says the writer. (iStock)

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It is therefore in the people that the battle against Covid-19 will be won and lost. If we call upon the people as capable as South Africans, Covid-19 will never establish a comfortable colony. 


South Africa has been highly commended for her swift response to Covid-19.

The hard lockdown, originally planned to flatten the curve, has only succeeded in delaying the spread.

The new strategy is to now delay the inflections and get the government ready for more aggressive infection rates in the coming months.

With the winter ahead, and the plans to relax the lockdown to level 3 - which will involve opening schools and allowing some economic activity, the battle is going to be more difficult.

As experts have shown, the widespread infection is inevitable - yet the government’s top-down, state-led approach, where ordinary South Africans are left behind, locked down in their homes and forced to compliance by the army and the police, will prove ineffective.

This approach has never worked anywhere, as the government will soon run out of resources.

The opposition to the government’s approach, which is often laced with party-political and racial overtones, will intensify, driving wedges of already existing divisions even deeper.

However, as the battle enters private backyards, suburban streets, and narrow township alleyways, South Africa’s best weapon against Covid-19 is its people.

With the race for the vaccine around the world only at research and development stages,experts largely expect the vaccine to be available in about 18 months.

Earlier hopes for the effectiveness of existing drugs like Hydrochloroquine or added resistance by people vaccinated with BGC, have been dealt a blow with studies showing inconclusive results at least for now.

The only option we have as South Africans, is to fight the virus head-on like HIV-AIDS and TB.

The indications are that the new viral infections are entering poorer areas as the pandemic now assumes a new demographic character.

The new battlefield will prove far more complicated than the few cases of affluent overseas travellers the government has so far had to deal with.

This battlefield is South Africa’s poorest of the poor whose living conditions do not allow for many of Covid19’s preventative best practices.

In these areas, it is not possible to wash hands regularly because of a lack of running water, or scarcity of soap in some households.

Social distancing is also not feasible for a family of six sharing a one-room shack with no yard. 

It is even impossible if someone in these conditions contracts the virus and has to recover from home because there are just not enough hospital beds for the high number of infections.

This is the country’s ultimate Achilles heel which can prove to be the undoing of a president celebrated as a welcome relief from the forces of state capture under the previous regime.

It is only when the state democratises the fight, and accepts mass participation in this battle, that South Africa’s people become the deadliest weapon against Covid-19.

In the early days of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, the battle started as a state-led initiative, with the department of health taking the lead.

However, as primary healthcare workers took to the streets, the stigma associated with the disease turned people into their own worst enemies.

Infection rates as well as Aids-related deaths escalated despite millions of rands and resources thrown into the scourge.

It is only when interventions became people-centric, and mass communication approaches assumed a participatory nature, that the stigma slowly turned into compassion and people started helping each other out.

The current state-led, top-down approach to Covid-19 creates fear and places the full responsibility for the pandemic in the hands of the state, enforceable by autocratic laws invoked by the Disaster Management Act.

The people of South Africa play no role in the state-imposed inconvenience against their civil liberties.

When this persists, the problem transforms from being against Covid-19 to efforts to overcome government restrictions.

It results in ordinary people not regarding the problem as their own, but as an externalproblem which will disappear as soon as the lockdown restrictions are lifted.

The focus thus moves from a battle against Covid-19, to challenging the suitability and appropriateness of the government’s approach.

In a deeply divided South Africa, such a challenge often assumes a strong party-political and racial nature.

Such cracks are beginning to show in the Democratic Alliance (DA) challenge to the government, as well as calls by the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) to lift the lockdown restrictions.

The DA alleged that the Western Cape skew of Covid-19 cases is a result of the government’s deliberate manipulation of statistics.

DA leader John Steenhuisen’s assertion that South Africans will lift the lockdown if president Ramaphosa does not, is seen as a threat to mobilise a rebellion against governments approach to Covid-19 battle. 

In this example, ordinary people are the stage for the political sideshow flanking the battle against Covid-19.

The short history of a post-94 South Africa is replete with moments of victory when the people of South Africa unite for the common good. It has shown how, between them, there is no shortage of skills or resources.

The state does not have enough resources to comfort every lonely elderly person, but the people can.

It cannot feed all the hungry,clothe all the needy, and provide compassion for the projected tens of thousands of cases,but the people can. With proper education and empowerment, the people themselves can help curb the spread of the virus.

Together they turn into a multilingual, multicultural and multi-religious force that easily breaks the barriers that have frustrated developmental interventions for decades.

The people are the weapon you find in every corner of South Africa. It is these corners that the initial hard lockdown was trying to prevent Covid-19 from reaching.

Therefore, if it is in the people that Covid-19 hopes to find refuge, it is by the people that the pandemic will be given the most powerful boot.  The time to muster this war machine is now.

As important as it is, it is not sufficient to only communicate didactic messages on how to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Both the national departments of Communication and Arts and Culture have to step up to the plate and drum up support for national unity, and keep South Africans energised for the important battle lying ahead.

For the Department of Health, ordinary South Africans cannot be regarded as brainless stooges with only the natural propensity to defy compliance.

Trust must be placed in the people’s ability to own up the problem, and take proactive care and protection of themselves and those they care about.

Only when the state has trust in them will it commit resources to weaponise every one of them with knowledge and skills to battle the pandemic wherever they are.

At this moment, the approach seems short of this ideal.

The battle against Covid-19 has to quickly take the learnings of what happens when there is no active participation of people, such as in the early stages of the fight against HIV/AIDS.

It must also learn from the proactive mobilisation and involvement of ordinary people in the case of our campaign towards the FIFA World Cup.

When Covid-19 hits the suburban streets, and narrow alleyways of informal settlements, it will turn ordinary South Africans into its battle zone.

Additionally, if ordinary people are not called upon as a resource in this battle, predatory political demagogues will use this resource for their own ends.

The government will simply not have enough resources to respond. It is therefore in the people that the battle against Covid-19 will be won and lost.

If we call upon the people as capable as South Africans, Covid-19 will never establish a comfortable colony. 

- Lefa Afrika is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Film and Media Studies (CFMS), University of Cape Town. He is also director of Afriprime, an independent television content distribution company based in Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity

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