OPINION: A South African in Italy on why coronavirus is not a holiday for the middle class

Cat Walker.
Cat Walker.

I’m asking you to self-isolate - to seriously self-isolate. I am asking you to remove yourself, not as a potential victim but as a potential carrier and catalyst of the virus, from society. I am asking you to, just for the time being, stay at home - as much as possible, writes Cat Walker in Italy. 

It's 17:00 on Day 5 of self-quarantine in Italy, and I'm waiting for the President of my home country to appear on the screen.

Just a few days ago, I returned to my apartment after meeting with a few friends at a café, had a quick throw-something-together supper and turned on the news (with sub-titles).

At ten that evening, the Prime Minister of Italy announced a nation-wide lock down - all borders shut, all non-essential public services terminated, all shops aside from grocery stores and pharmacies closed, all academic activities suspended, and absolutely no public gatherings.

We were appealed to as a nation to stay indoors and to avoid social contact, prompting the national hashtag #iorestoacasa (I’m staying at home).

Italy has seen a total of 24 747 cases, 1 809 of which have been fatal.

Outside of China, it is the worst affected country worldwide.

With this in mind, the majority of the population has taken the measures put in place by the government very seriously, as evidenced by the photographs of empty Italian cities circulating media channels.

But it didn’t start out this way.

Just 22 days ago, Italy had fewer cases than what has currently been confirmed in South Africa.

The government took its first step the next day - suspending academic activities for a week pending further information.

Just six days ago, with more than 836 times the number of cases, Italy finally locked down the entire country.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa finally addressed the nation on Sunday, putting in place a series of measures such as travel bans and suspension of academic activities, designed to limit the spread of the virus - effective from Wednesday, 18 March onwards, presumably to give academic institutions, parents and returning nationals time to comply with the ordinances.

My first reaction to the address was a sense of pride and relief.

South Africa had responded in better time than many other nations, and was seemingly taking the situation seriously, despite the expectations of many that our government would underestimate it.

However, after some reflection on the matter, I came to the realisation that these measures were not only insufficient - but wholly counterproductive.

Suspending academic activities, and even those of the working class, is a surefire way to increase foot traffic in public spaces.

While public gatherings in numbers exceeding 100 may be prohibited, this does not legally curb the metropolitan population from taking their children to lunch, to the mall or to a museum in a desperate bid for entertainment while schools are on leave.

It does nothing to stop the student house parties, dinner parties or even wild nights out in venues that accommodate up to even 99 people.

It does nothing to discourage the population to stay indoors, to self-isolate, to flatten the curve that may otherwise flatten their loved ones' heart-rates.

After the live stream ended, I logged on to Twitter to read some of the responses to the announcement.

While some spoke of measures to take their business lives remote for the next two weeks, I was astonished to see some celebrating their newly-administered extended vacation.

Many parents commented that their children were delighted at the prospect of having school ‘cancelled’ and were planning activities for the week.

These reactions are fair.

When university activities were suspended in Italy for that first week on the 23rd of February, I still went about my daily business.

I visited my favourite coffee shop to do some writing; I traveled by bus to a nearby village for brunch; I went for dinner with friends at a new Asian restaurant; I even went out dancing.

My biggest concern was feeling unproductive, and so I tried to be out and about as much as possible.

I fell into the trap that many others my age did - I won’t catch it, and if I do, it doesn’t matter because I’m young and healthy and can recover as if it were any other seasonal flu.

I viewed the world through the eyes of a potential victim, rather than as a potential carrier. 

I didn’t get sick.

But looking back at the number of times that I’d (potentially) engaged, even briefly, with someone classified as medically "high risk" for Covid-19, I realised that while my worldview wasn’t necessarily incorrect, it was also incredibly selfish and narrow-minded.

And so, it is my plea to you, from a small cabin in Northern Italy, to take further the measures that the government has not yet thought to put in place. 

I’m asking you to self-isolate - to seriously self-isolate.

I am asking you to remove yourself, not as a potential victim but as a potential carrier and catalyst of the virus, from society. I am asking you to, just for the time being, stay at home - as much as possible.

Yes, this is not easy; it will be even more difficult for those with limited resources - the majority of our population.

No, this does not mean you have to panic-purchase.

If everyone maintains their normal purchasing patterns, supply patterns can remain normal too.

Even in the worst of cases (see Italy), grocery stores and pharmacies will remain open. (In essence: Be lekker).

Self-isolation and social distancing is the key to beating this virus, and it is essential that in a country like South Africa, this measure is not only encouraged but enforced at an early stage.

Today, while economists um'ed and ah'ed around the consequences of restaurants, cafés and retail outlets shutting their doors, another 368 lives were lost in Italy - many of whom could have been saved had this measure been implemented when it should have.

It’s the South African way to make humourous an otherwise grim situation.

"We laugh because otherwise we'd cry" was a national maxim often thrown around during the Zuma presidency.

While memes and jokes about Covid-19 have circulated worldwide, South African humour has dominated the punchlines - and certainly, this is not an appeal to bring that to a halt.

A country as medically, financially and politically vulnerable as South Africa needs to spread positivity - but it needs to do this without spreading the virus, too.

- Cat Walker is a South African studying (LL.M) in Turin, Italy.

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