Guest Column

OPINION: Love in the time of Covid-19

2020-03-22 07:00
Thousands of couples attend a mass wedding held by the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

Thousands of couples attend a mass wedding held by the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. (Woohae Cho, Getty Images)

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We have to learn to be in touch without actually touching; to "hold hands" at a distance, to be in solidarity without being in close bodily proximity, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.


In his novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez, tells the story of two estranged lovers (Ms Fermina Daza and Mr Florentino Ariza) who first "fell into devastating love" when they were teenagers.

For the longest time, Ariza tries everything humanly possible, to revive the love.

Fifty-one years and four days later, their hearts embrace again. And they spend "unimaginable hours holding hands" while exchanging "unhurried kisses" as their love rekindled, says Marquez.  

Not even the Cholera outbreak which was raging in their city and in their bodies at that time, could extinguish the fire of their reignited love. In this book, love itself is, among others, depicted as an infectious ‘sickness’, a kind of incurable "Cholera".  

In contrast, we live in the times of the coronavirus, not Cholera.

Covid-19 is taking its toll.

As I write down these lines, there are more than 200 000 confirmed cases, more than 10 000 reported deaths and 67 000 recoveries globally.

However, if we actively implement the measures of containment announced by several governments over the past week, including those announced by the South African president, the curve of infections could flatten.

Failure to implement the basic protocols of personal hygiene, limitation of crowd sizes, social-distancing etc. is not an option. This is a war we cannot afford to lose.  

And yet, as social and cultural beings, ours is a deeper challenge, at this time.

We have the responsibility of preventing Covid-19 not only from taking the lives of many, but also to stop it from clipping the wings of human hope - hope being "the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul", according to Emily Dickinson.

Out of the panic and the terror unleashed by Covid-19, we can build resilient communities of love in the time of corona.  

But unlike Márquez, we do not use the word "love" exclusively in the romantic sense. 

In his statement of 16 March 2020, the WHO Director General, Tedros Ghebreyesus came close to the sense in which we use the word, when he referred to the acts of regular washing of hands with soap and abstaining from the hoarding of essential items, as "acts of solidarity" .

In the sense, "solidarity" is "love" translated into a social ethic through acts, deliberately designed to protect and preserve the lives of fellow human beings.

Martin Luther King Jr once admonished that, "love is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring" because "love is something deeper than emotional bosh".  

Globally, scientists will and must necessarily, be preoccupied with understanding the novel coronavirus and the search for patient zero.

Big data fundis and mathematical whiz-kids are already harnessing the power of technology in the fight against the virus.

So they should.

Governments are doing their part in invoking the laws and proclaiming the measures necessary for the containment of the virus.  

For its part, society must wage a cultural and psychological war against a virus that seeks to pervert age-old and well-meant rites and rituals.

And so we must say goodbye to some of the most recognisable and automated gestures of friendship and human warmth, such as the handshake, the tight thug, the cheek kiss.

But as we do so, we should not give up on one another, instead, we must and have been able to devise new ways of performing our love, support and affection for one another.

In different cultures across the world, there is a myriad of alternative forms of greeting and mutual acknowledgement that can be invoked and re-purposed.  

In time, Covid-19 may injure the languages with which we communicate with one another, the very linguistic resources we need in order to wage a successful cultural and psychological war against it.

We cannot rest on our laurels, after licking our linguistic wounds, we will have to find dynamic equivalent renditions of such commonplace expressions as "holding hands", "embracing one another" and "all hands on deck" and "lending a hand" - lest we aide the spread of the virus inadvertently.  

Though many elementary mistakes were made in the South African response to the 1918 influenza epidemic, whenever necessity has demanded it, South Africans have always been able to adapt, adopt and innovate new thinking, new rituals and new languages.

In those moments of greatness, not even our stubborn problem of racism has been able to stop us.  

The South African response to Covid-19 so far, has not been perfect.

Like the rest of the world, South African society has been in distress, fear and panic. Those emotions are not conducive to the promotion of a love ethic in the time of a pandemic.  

According to Terence Ranger, that neither Western medicine nor indigenous medicine was able to comprehend the 1918 influenza epidemic - resulting in what he called "a crisis of comprehension". 

Into the void left by the crisis of comprehension, stepped such "Christian prophets" as Johana Maranke and Johana Masowe in Southern Rhodesia and Nontetha Nkwenkwe in the Ciskei.

According Laura Spinney, Nkwenkwe explained umbathalala (the isiXhosa nickname for the 1918 influenza) as "a mere foretaste of the punishment that God would unleash on people for their sins".

And so went some of the fanatical religious responses to the 1918 pandemic.  

By contrast, it has been encouraging to observe the positive and creative ways in which the South African religious community has responded to the Covid-19 challenge.

Organisations such as the Commission for Religious and Linguistic Rights, the Zion Christian Church, Jewish Board of Deputies, the South African Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church have all shown tremendous leadership.  

President Cyril Ramaphosa recently desclared that we stand face to face with our greatest "thuma mina" moment.

We are being summoned to join Hugh Masekela as he sings "I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around … I wanna lend a hand", in his song Send Me

But given the critical role of social-distancing in breaking the back of the coronavirus, we will have to re-imagine how to "lend a hand" without putting ourselves and others at the risk of infection.  

Similarly, our generation is being called upon to reinvent the act of "being there" for others, without necessarily being physically present.

We have to learn to be in touch without actually touching; to "hold hands" at a distance, to be in solidarity without being in close bodily proximity.

In short, we have to develop new languages, innovative rites and novel rituals that will help enable us to overcome the coronavirus, psychologically, culturally and spiritually.  

It is remarkable that in Love in the Time of Cholera, Márquez imagines a city in which love was not only able to coexist with Cholera, but love actually infiltrated the sickness and eventually overcame it.

If love is to stand a chance in the time of the coronavirus, we too have to infiltrate the chains of infections, through which the virus spreads biologically while disrupting the cultural havoc it is wreaking everywhere it goes.  

- Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship. He writes in his personal capacity.

His Twitter handle is @ProfTinyiko


Read more on:    cyril ramaphosa  |  pandemic  |  coronavirus
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