Customers shop for hand sanitisers at a store in Johannesburg, on 6 March 2020, following the government announcement on 5 March of the first confirmed coronavirus case in South Africa. (Michele Spatari, AFP)
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Over the past seventy-thousand years, the ability of Homo Sapiens to overcome epidemics is not only part of the reason humans have survived, but also part of the reason for our misplaced sense of self-importance over the environment and our fellow animals, writes Tinyiko Maluleke
Ngonyaka ka nineteen eighteen saqedwa ukufa - in the year 1918 we were wiped out by a disease.
So starts the song of sorrow titled influenza, written by Reuben Tholakele Caluza, one of the greatest music composers this country has ever known.
Three hundred thousand South African graves later, the 1918 influenza plague subsided.
While the 1918 influenza took the lives of such high profile individuals as, the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, Louis Botha, the truth is more than two thirds of the dead were black.
Ironically, at the end of the plague, some prominent white politicians and parliamentarians appeared to blame the blacks for spreading the influenza, so that increasingly, they recommended racial segregation as one of the long-term solutions.
One hundred and two years later, COVID-19 is sweeping across the world.
Imagine that 1918 Influenza and COVID-19 were heavyweight boxers taking turns to fight against society.
The 1918 Influenza could be likened to Mike Tyson who came out swinging fast and furious so as to knock out his opponent as quickly as possible.
More than 50 million people died globally, in less than two years.
However, it appears that COVID-19 is more like Muhammad Ali, determined to go the furthest in terms of time and distance, using the deadly rope-a-dope style.
If I am correct in my estimation, the battle against COVID-19 may not be a sprint but a marathon.
The passage of time and the epidemiological differences between COVID-19 and Influenza notwithstanding, there are lessons - good and bad - to be learnt from a century of public health interventions against influenza.
According to the WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus, the most important difference between Influenza and COVID-19 is that, although there is no vaccine currently available, and while the human body is still to build up an immune system of defence against it; the latter can be contained.
Containment is therefore seen as the key and perhaps as the only intervention currently available.
We could spend time and space engaging in a discussion of particular COVID-19 containment stratagems, from the mushrooming cordon sanitaire initiatives being touted by various governments, to travel bans, assembly bans, as well as all manner of "barriers" that are being erected in order to keep the infected away from the "clean".
The enormity of our situation does not afford us the luxury of a philosophical discussion.
But we do need to look critically at containment and its limitations as a macro strategy.
Nor should we be seduced by those who seek to disconnect COVID-19 from the national and global realpolitik of our times, arguing that the pandemic is an insignificant diversion.
But what can be more politically and economically significant than a virus that threatens to put the world’s manufacturing factory - China - under lock-down indefinitely?
Which economy in the world can thrive without the "Made in China" goods and services?
What could be more political than the introduction of COVID-19 into a country in which less than 20% of the population have medical aid, more that 30% are on social grants, and the real unemployment rate is above 35%?
Indeed, COVID-19 does not respect nationality, race, class and gender boundaries, but it does not take rocket science to see that some will be in a position to manage it better than others.
Some among the infected and the affected, will receive a considerably better quality of care and support than others.
Some will "die with more dignity" than others (God forbid that there may be any fatalities as result of COVID-19).
We have not even begun, to process, let alone understand, the cultural, psychological and spiritual implications of the terror that has been unleashed upon the world.
Once again, human beings are being asked to revise several public and private rituals of intimacy, trust and solidarity.
As if it is not bad enough that human beings are spending more and more time with their smartphones, tablets and laptops and less and less time fully with one another, as they touch and swipe their gadgets, now they are being told to stop touching one another.
For all the razzmatazz around the 4iR, they are yet to create a robot whose touch feels like the touch of the human hand, in times of solidarity, joy or sorrow.
That popular African church song of fellowship, ake sibambane ngezandla bazalwane (let us shake hands in fellowship) often used to mark either the beginning or the end of service, now has to be revised.
With what shall it be replaced it?
Ake sikhahlelane ngezinyawo bazalwane (let us kick one another’s feet) just doesn’t sound right.
Consider the implications of the new person-to-person distance protocols for family dinner tables, for couples on a promenade, for church pews and for the serving of communion.
In time, all manner of clairvoyants and prophets professing all manner of miracle cures for COVID-19, will come out of the woodwork, if they haven't done so already.
Before we know it, pseudo-science, the ancestors, the gods and God herself, will be roped in to explain why COVID-19 is upon us.
People will be told how, only Vitamin C, or garlic, or industrial alcohol can clear the infection.
They will also be told that the real reason for the COVID-19 outbreak is that the ancestors are upset, the gods are hungry; that COD-19 is the will of God and the last sign of the end-times.
The UCT historian Howard Phillips, whose 1984 PhD thesis was on the 1918 Influenza epidemic in South Africa and science journalist-cum-novelist Laura Spinney, whose book The Pale Rider traces the devastation of the 1918 influenza across the world, attest to the rise of prophets and quack science, in the aftermath of the epidemic.
Nothing stokes primal human fears like plagues and epidemics.
Over the past seventy-thousand years, the ability of Homo Sapiens to overcome epidemics is not only part of the reason humans have survived, but also part of the reason for our misplaced sense of self-importance over the environment and our fellow animals.
In times of plagues and epidemics, we need more than the WHO-types of containment strategies, designed to give scientists time to search for a vaccine.
We need all our psychological, cultural and spiritual resources as a people.
We have to summon them all if we hope to win the long war which has only just begun against the coronavirus.
- 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.
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