Would it be possible for me to do my job and protect myself from contracting the Covid-19 coronavirus at the same time?
Once the lockdown was in effect, I quickly realised that the answer to this question was ambiguous. Yes, I would still tell stories and, yes, I would be able to protect myself by practising social distancing on the ground and using the personal protective equipment provided by my company – but this all comes at a price.
Suddenly – with the emergence of the pandemic – personal interactions with ordinary citizens, telling their stories and connecting with them, was becoming almost impossible during lockdown, where it was difficult to do social distancing. But there was still a story to tell – how these citizens felt about the pandemic.
“You are the first person to come to our area,” a resident of Mandela 2 – an informal settlement in Tembisa, Ekurhuleni – said to me. “It’s as if we don’t exist, like we are not part of this country.”
This novel pandemic has shone the spotlight even more brightly on how unequal society is in South Africa. There are two South Africas, and this one, according to them, was the forgotten part of it.
Although I was pleased to have carried out my duties, I came to a second realisation of my privilege.
“You have on one of those masks. Where are ours? You come here wearing these masks and want to talk to us yet we, on the other hand, don’t even have them,” an uncomfortable truth which revealed the binary between the haves and the have-nots; where I occupied the “favourable” position of the former.
The mask and gloves were, in a way, a barrier between me and those I had hoped to engage with, an aberration of a certain kind. It was not that I was not welcome in their community, but that I was a mere mortal who had, in a sense, invaded their space wearing what had become an essential for us and for them a sign of privilege, an object they had no means or idea how to obtain.
My head was spinning: Do I take it off? Do I continue? Do I find common ground? A commonality?
After all, like the mask and the pandemic itself, I (in my capacity as a journalist) was an entity they had both not seen or experienced before.
It became clear that the mask did not just represent an inequality or unfairness to the ones I stood before, but that they too were worried about their safety.
It was pointed out that: “There was no corona in these informal settlements and these people coming in and out are the ones bringing it to us.”
What if coming there wearing this protective gear made them think I had the virus and could infect them?
A new experience has always been one that leads to a new perspective. The outbreak of Covid-19 is indeed a new experience for all of us. It is a scary time. We are human – mere mortals battling with this “new normal”.
If they could witness the panic that grips me every evening when I get back home, take off my clothes and rush into the shower. I just want to beat this pandemic and carry on doing what I love the most: telling the stories of the voiceless in our society.