OPINION | Our way of life has needed a reset. Coronavirus might force it


These are truly terrifying moments for humanity. Art is imitating life as every dystopian TV series of the past decade makes good on its predictions. We are confronted with a force of nature that our 21st century science and technology is unable to control. The Covid-19 pandemic may well be the death of a way of life that is at odds with the very notion of survival. There are incremental changes already in place, that - despite the horror we are facing - can be positive in the long term, if we are able to adapt and adjust the fundamentals of modern living. The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the structural weaknesses in our systems which we have known for decades are not working.

The US has always put profits ahead of people. The backlash against Obamacare, cuts in Medicaid, education and school nutrition programmes, and Trump-era moves to reduce social security entitlements and protections for workers, are coming home to roost. The mighty US government may well provide a Basic Income Grant (BIG) of UD$1000 for families affected economically by Covid-19. Imagine if this BIG were to stay. This could mean change to the quality of life for middle and working class families for whom the structure of the American Dream may at times be a living nightmare.

Remnants of apartheid

In South Africa, our decades-long project to eradicate apartheid under-development in predominantly black urban and rural communities, through the provision of dignified social housing and basic services, will hopefully force government to make real on its 1994 promises in 2020, of a better life for all. Covid-19 could force swift action to spatially transform the dormitory-style apartheid design of neighbourhoods and townships. After all, social distancing cannot be practiced in over-crowded communities.

The coronavirus outbreak will force a faster delivery of water and sanitation to informal social settlements and rural areas. In fact, this is exactly what Minister Lindiwe Sisulu instructed shortly after the Declaration of State of Disaster. Imagine this ministry acts as fast to provide running water in social housing units as a basic service, and does not continue the communal tap system. A relic from our past, still with us.

Necessary hygiene practices in the battle against the pandemic can save lives. And yet, Covid-19 will expose the systematic decimation of municipal provision of basic services. This failing may cause virus-related deaths. Municipalities who have defaulted on budget expenditure for basic services may now be over-run by the pandemic because people do not have access to water, sanitation, or dignified, safe green spaces to exercise social distancing. And still, the coronavirus has the potential to force the change and social transformations we need, if we push the reset button now.

In Bogota, Columbia, the first female elected mayor, Claudia Lopez, has expanded the urban cycling lanes by 76 kilometres in an effort to reduce vehicle congestion on an already overcrowded city. While Bogota is a leader in road infrastructure to support urban cycling, her efforts will expand the already 550 kilometres, allowing for less cars on the road and more bicycles. Since the expansion initiative the city is measuring increases in clean air quality for the first time in decades in addition to less vehicle congestion.

Imagine if the pandemic - and the possibility of more remote work - can help to reduce the congestion on city highways in Johannesburg and Cape Town going forward. The outbreak has already made sure many of us living in these cities now work from home. The reduction of road congestion is marked, and noticeable. A usually 45-minute commute to work, is now a magical 25 minutes. Imagine this was here to stay. If employers, led by provincial governments, could decentralise our world of work and the economy closer to where people live. This could automatically reduce road congestion, reduce costs of commuting to work and perhaps, increase greater opportunities for work-life balance for many working parents.

Opportunity for change knocks

People with greater opportunities for rest and recovery are more disposed to social innovation which benefit communities and societies. Socially the benefits may contribute to reducing the patterns of violence so endemic in our society. Parents who come home within an hour after clocking out, because work is close to home, can spend time growing and nurturing themselves, their children and family life.

The pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink our manufacturing and industrial sectors. The working lives of many South Africans consist of a 1.5 hour commute at the best of times, a 3 hour at the worst. If you live in Ocean View in the Western Cape, your working day can start at 3am to get to Cape Town at 7am.  If you are working in an Industrial area and commute from Ennerdale or Katlehong in Gauteng, or Masiphumelela or Bonteheuwel in the Western Cape, you could take a few hours in morning traffic congestion before you sit at an industrial assembly line earning a wage.

Imagine if factories could decentralise operations closer to workforces, reducing travel time, road congestion, and perhaps simultaneously increase opportunities for small and medium enterprises to flourish in communities where labour resides. It should be a no-brainer. It requires adaptation and fearlessness of leadership from all sectors of our society. They have the chance to seize the Covid-19 moment and leverage the unity displayed in the political space.

And finally, the Covid-19 moment is an opportunity for young people to stand up, and claim the future we tell them they are inheriting. This is the moment to re-shape the world for their children. This can be the moment to claim the positives of the pandemic and reset our way of life and the trajectory of our existence. Traffic decongestion as a result of remote work. Let it stay. Dignified social housing and basic services for communities. Let it become the norm. Innovative and fearless leadership. Let it be what we come to expect in our democracy. Now is the time.

Helga Jansen-Daugbjerg is Programme Lead for the TVET GRADUATE ATTRIBUTES PROGRAMME (TVET GAP) at Activate Change Drivers. Views expressed are her own. 

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