OPINION: Youth climate activists call for countrywide community support in response to Covid-19 crisis

President Cyril Ramaphosa's clarion call to the nation should be heeded, says the writers. (GCIS)
President Cyril Ramaphosa's clarion call to the nation should be heeded, says the writers. (GCIS)

President Ramaphosa’s firm response to the COVID-19 crisis has inspired the youth. However, with existing inequalities, the lasting effects of spatial apartheid planning and high rates of TB, HIV, poverty and malnutrition in South Africa, those who can, must step up to prevent the worst through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, writes Kate Birch, Gabriel Klaasen, Sairusha Govindsamy and Nick Ford.

As South African youth of the born free generation, we have never experienced a crisis of this magnitude before.

The news of the first case of Covid-19 finally reaching South Africa felt surreal. A week and a half later, our schools shut down. We felt confused and scared, paranoid and panicked.

National emergencies seemed to be that of history books or foreign countries, never that of our present. As our nation gathered to listen to President Ramaphosa’s address, these feelings were replaced by those of solidarity, alertness and hope.

Being too young to remember the leadership of Mandela, Mbeki and Motlanthe, we carry an innate desire for careful, attentive and inspiring leadership that has been absent for most of our lives.

We needed to see a response to this existential threat that was considered, inclusive and protective of the nation as a whole.

We can only thank President Ramaphosa for the firm action that he has taken to mitigate the effects of Covid-19, prevent further spread and consider people from all aspects of society.

We also join our president in thanking our healthcare professionals for working tirelessly to treat the sick and the workers in other vital industries on whose backs this country runs.

We send support to the families and victims directly afflicted with the virus and stand in solidarity with our entire nation as it struggles through this time - especially the members of the most vulnerable and worst-affected communities hit by the economic and social recession. 

Sadly, despite the 21-day lockdown, infections will continue to rise and the government cannot safeguard the most vulnerable without a massive effort from everyone.

This crisis will exacerbate existing social injustices faced by millions of South Africans every day. Thousands of jobs are projected to be lost, with many unable to work from home and many losing breadwinners and important sources of income to the virus.

During this time, as in any crisis, it is vital for those with agency and privilege to step up, including business, civil society, well-resourced communities, religious and community leaders.

Now is the time for the spirit of ubuntu to overcome the ravages of crisis and tragedy.

Social justice must be of the highest priority.

That is why we plea with those in positions of privilege and power to work together alongside the government to protect the most vulnerable members of the population from Covid-19.

We need sustained private and public investment to ensure swift, effective and equitable delivery of social services and the addressing of inequality.

It is our civic responsibility to minimise infections, reach out to those in need and support health professionals. This time necessitates national unity and mass solidarity, as well as the adoption of fair practice on an individual scale.

Furthermore, we hope that this precedent for leadership and nationwide solidarity will not be short-lived.

We hope that our country's response to the Covid-19 crisis will prove that we are able to combat injustice with the decisive leadership needed to move us forward.

That once we have healed from this, we will continue to look at every crisis that arises, including the climate crisis,  and treat it with the same seriousness and attention that the population deserves. 

This is the first of many crises which our generation will face, but we have hope that with the guidance of our leaders, the strength of our workforce and the solidarity of our communities we can persevere through these difficult times of instability and pave the way to a just South Africa.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

- Kate Birch, 16, Gabriel Klaasen, 21, Sairusha Govindsamy, 17, and Nick Ford, 17, are members of the African Climate Alliance (ACA), a youth centered affinity group calling for socio-environmental justice in South Africa. ACA organised three major climate protests in Cape Town in 2019 and continues to call for widespread action on the planetary crisis.

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