Melanie Verwoerd | From Wisteria Lane to hysteria lane: Covid in our suburban bubbles

This shot of an area of Durban is part of a series of images depicting inequality around the world. (Johnny Miller. Instagram:@johnny_miller_photography)
This shot of an area of Durban is part of a series of images depicting inequality around the world. (Johnny Miller. Instagram:@johnny_miller_photography)

We all have a right to our opinions, but Covid-19 does not give anyone the right to hide behind "scientific" or economic theory to disguise racial stereotyping or callousness.


These last two weeks I have found myself getting very irritated with people - especially the ones in the "suburbs" (as people apparently now self-define). 

I hate conflict and go to great lengths to avoid it. Unless something is really a matter of principle, I would rather walk away.  

So it is rare for me to get angry, but it seems I am not the only one. Many people have admitted that they will have significantly fewer friends after the lockdown ends.  

I understand that we all bring our own experiences to the table.

The medical worker who is exposed daily to the virus; the businesswoman who has to close her business after 50 years; the wife who has lost her husband to the virus; the scientist who has to look at the epidemic with a clinical eye; the investment manager who is seeing his portfolio shrinking - will all have very different perspectives on the epidemic and how it should be managed.  

I have no problem with people expressing their frustrations and exasperation with this new reality that Covid-19 has created.

I also understand the fear people are facing as their income diminishes or disappears completely. 

In my own case, a huge proportion of my income comes from public speaking and engagements, which will not be an option for a long time. 

However, I have been horrified at the barely concealed callousness and racism in some of the arguments people use.  

One example is about "herd immunity" (because everyone is "mos" an expert now). Time and time again I hear people argue that lockdown should be lifted since we need herd immunity.

Gypsyamber D’Souza and David Dowdy (infections disease experts at Johns Hopkins), say that, depending on how infectious the disease is, between 50% and 90% of people need to contract a disease to get some form of effective herd immunity.

In Covid-19’s case it is generally accepted that it should be around 70%.  

In our country of 55 million people that would mean 38.5 million people would have to get the disease.

According to international experience about 20% of those  - so 7.7 million people - would have to be hospitalised.

Of those it is estimated that up to 50% - or 3.8 million people - might need ICU facilities (we only have just over 5 000 ICU beds in the country).

With a 1% to 2% fatality rate (again from international experience) this would mean somewhere between 385 000 and 770 000 people would have to die.  

When I ask people who in their family they would be willing to sacrifice - they look at me shocked.

"Well, we will be fine" they usually respond. True, but that raises the question: "Who are you then suggesting should die?"

Of course we all know what people are thinking: "It is the other … they in the townships, they who don’t have private healthcare. Definitely not 'us in the suburbs'." 

Then there is the age-old it-is-nature's-form-of-population-control argument.

Again, I asked: "Who are you talking about?" 

"Should the disease take one of a three-child family? Or two of a four-child family?"

Of course the answer is always no. 

Because we all know it is about the poor, those in the townships that people are actually talking about when they use these insensitive arguments.   

The other national pastime at the moment is of course government bashing.

Again, I have no problem with people criticising ridiculous decisions such as the clothing regulations or the mistakes they have made (such as the disastrous communication strategy).

What really worries me is the racial undertone in the way people in the "suburbs" talk about the government.  

The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) subtext is that the "these people" in government are incompetent and don't have a clue about what they are doing. 

"Don’t they (as in government) know what they (!) are doing to the economy?"

I am asked every single day - even by senior business people.   

I don't believe that anybody knows better than Cyril Ramaphosa and Tito Mboweni what the lockdown is doing to the economy.

I also know that this is the last thing they wanted, in fact it is breaking their hearts to see their plans for growth going down the drain. 

Then of course there is the "give-them-an-inch-and-they-become-dictators" argument also fuelled by some in the media.

Let me be clear, that I will shout very loudly if I believe government is diminishing our rights longer than is absolutely necessary.  

Some of the ministers may indeed be guilty of over-reach and over-control within their mandates, but to seriously suggest that the President who helped give us the most liberal Constitution in the world would use this Covid-19 tragedy to become more and more dictatorial and take away our rights is just laughable.

More dangerously it is a horrible racial stereotype. 

When all of the arguments are exhausted people usually throw the trump card.

"More people will die from the lockdown than from Covid" they say.  

It is true that people are suffering from loss of income and that the poorest of the poor will suffer most.

But to suggest that tens of thousands of people will die - presumably from starvation, would imply that the government would sit idly by while that happened.

Knowing many of the people who are in government this is not even a remote possibility.

Many more people would have to be included in the social net and that would put additional stress on the fiscus, but there is absolutely no way the government would allow people to simply starve. 

"But some actuaries' reports say that it will shorten poor people's life expectancy because of malnutrition - so it is the long term impact", I’m told in response – as if this is a new reality. 

This has been true for decades before the epidemic, so I find it a tad disingenuous when very affluent people now suddenly pretend to be the voice of the poor.  

We all have a right to our opinions, but Covid-19 does not give anyone the right to hide behind "scientific" or economic theory to disguise racial stereotyping or callousness.

In fact it imposes an obligation on those of us who are more privileged to look further than our suburban bubble and genuinely care about our fellow country men and women, because if there is one thing this crisis has shown it is that we are all inextricably linked.  

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland


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