Mobile testing units have been activated in and around the Yeoville clinic to assist with the Covid-19 testing process. The writer asks, are the solutions we are implementing in our quest to manage the spread of the virus valid for South Africa we live in? Photo: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency (ANA)
Mobile testing units have been activated in and around the Yeoville clinic to assist with the Covid-19 testing process. The writer asks, are the solutions we are implementing in our quest to manage the spread of the virus valid for South Africa we live in? Photo: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency (ANA)

Covid-19: Are the solutions we are implementing valid for the South Africa we live in?

By Kurisani Maswanganyi Time of article published Apr 7, 2020

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PRETORIA – This corona virus has got everyone talking, confused and sometimes borderline stupid. I don’t know what it is about this virus that has made us forget about our humanity. It’s so difficult now to even think out loud for fear of being crucified for asking a simple question.

Are the solutions we are implementing in our quest to manage the spread of the virus valid for the South Africa we live in?

In a narrow view, behind the locked electronic gates of my gated community with access to unlimited Wi-Fi and a walk-in grocery cabinet, I can say 100%, it is a workable solution.

However, having been in the infrastructure industry for the past 15 years and counting, my limited knowledge of the state of things in our country tells me that the majority of our people cannot sustain their lives in the confines of their homesteads, that is if their lucky enough to even have a square meter of land to call their own.

We look at the chaos in the townships and wonder what sort of people are these who can’t take instructions. What instructions when we have a housing backlog a mile long, when we have squatter camps with no running water and proper sanitation, and so forth? 

Social ills such as rebellion, alcoholism, unruliness, don’t happen overnight or suddenly appear. All this chaos is an outlet people have mastered to get attention, numb pain and hide fear. What we are seeing on TV, right now, is an elevation of a reality they live with daily. Where nothing works and no one listens.

Then we crucify those who dare to voice out the questions. It’s not easy to sleep when you know that history will judge you on how best you treated the less privileged. 

I’m amazed at how we don’t see this as an opportunity to correct some of the wrongs we might have made along the way. How short sighted can we be, that we don’t see that this is an opportunity to look at things we might have overlooked. All we need is to have foresight, and it’s not too late to do so.

I do not disregard the hard work that many have put in thus far. I do not undermine the difficult position our President has found himself in. I don’t know what it is to be in his shoes however, I do believe, he has not dug deep enough.

Like one of my friends would say, “Project Management 101, my friend, that’s what you need to apply right now”. Maybe the president needs to consult my friend.

So, here’s my attempt at outlining project management 101. The initial step is to define the problem statement and how that problem impacts communities. 

Then we identify whether there is something similar that has occurred in recent years. The WHO declared the swine flu outbreak a pandemic on June 11, 2009. We got people maintaining basic good hygiene. What is the difference? That’s our starting point for lessons learnt.

Then we can start to explore what others have done right and where they have gone wrong, specific to Covid-19. China succeeded because they put the wheels into motion and were a few steps ahead of the curve. It is worth mentioning that in addition to China’s aggressive planning was access to abundant resources and technology, a luxury we do not have in South Africa. Italy on the other hand took their time and, in my opinion, failed at managing the situation because the solutions were not country specific. From our interrogation of what others have done, we can then tailor make a solution that is responsive to the South African context.

I believe we have failed to apply simple principles of project management, Mr President. Clearly, we don’t:

  • Understand our environment. We took 1st world country solutions and simply plugged and played. The task is huge and hence we see the police and military failing to bring law & order in the streets.
  • Understand the family nucleus. The home is the building block of our community structures. We have child headed homes, single parent families, broken down families. These situations bring a special dynamic on how we function in times like these.
  • Understand our people. South Africans thrive in community engagement hence we have stokvels, church gatherings, men and women’s groups, burial societies etc. These are what we call communal structures - the backbone and operating system of our communities. Over the years, we have broken down the communal structures that brought law and order in our communities.
  • Our communal structures provided means of leadership, accountability, policing, information dissemination, engagement and various activities that created what we would call a community.
  • These structures ensured that the wellbeing of everyone was every person’s responsibility as long as they formed part of that community. This is where sayings such as, it takes a village to raise a child, Ubuntu etc. came from.
So, Mr President, we ask you to re-think and re-look at the current solution. Maybe even consider the following:
  • The creation of a system that will fundamentally correct some of the errors made. As an example, in townships, it’s better to segregate areas into cells. This will allow for a more focused approach when it comes to monitoring, policing, logistics, provision of basic needs such as food and services. If approached with the sensitivity and focus required, we could enable some form of economic activity albeit in a very minute way. Our townships are structured in such a way that there is a spaza shop or an informal trader to a number of households. Those are the people who could potentially continue to trade. Maybe, this could limit the number of people venturing into malls, enable us to identify the genuine shoppers and arrest the disruptors.
  • We would be able to manage basic health and safety aspects. We could easily identify those with access to ablution facilities and those who do not have. And where there’s lack, we provide temporary facilities. 
  • At the current state of things, we run the risk of losing sight of those that need food supplies. There are many that rely on feeding schemes and currently cannot access such interventions.
  • We should not forget those who have means of income but are homeless and the actual homeless that flood our traffic lights daily. I will not be surprised that some of those who roam the streets do so because the shebeens, street corners etc, are actually their homes.
  • A cordoned off area would be easier for police and military to provide security instead of just dumping them in the street and allow them to run aimlessly at the risk of their own health. 
  • Information dissemination and communication becomes easier because we would be able to provide focused messaging. What affects one area might not affect the other. 
  • Cells would allow people to stretch their legs and provide support to each other. We already have a mental health crisis. Lack of income, job security, confined spaces, lack of social interaction, increase anxiety levels, that lead to all manner of health problems. We don’t want to resolve one outbreak and be left with another.
  • And in the event a case of Covid-19 is reported in a cell, we are able to identify it immediately and even know who that person has come into contact with. Our responsiveness would be more proactive, focused and within our control.
I believe that the President should have taken advantage of communal structures – the influential sectors and institutions within our communities, such as the informal sector associations, church leadership etc. Currently they are not part of the solution, they were just told to close shop. If we integrate these sectors in our solutions, they will help us manage the situation better. A solution for Pretoria East suburbs cannot be a solution for Mamelodi. We cannot be seen to be coming up with solutions that favour one sector of the community over another.

Just maybe, Mr President, we might come up with a solution that can be taken beyond Covid-19 in delivering services to our people. However, in the interim, we win at activating some economic activity that will minimize anxiety and give people a way to continue living. We might learn how the township economy works and develop policies that would actually respond to the people on the ground rather than the ones that currently focus on the few that have means. We could create secondary logistic structures and systems that would work in tandem with the already existing formalized structures. At the utmost, restore communal structures that provide leadership and accountability to take us beyond Covid-19.

It’s the little things, that we have to get right first.  If the idea is to protect life, contain the virus and manage risk, we cannot have a blanket approach for a society that has despairing economic and social differences.

Take heed of Proverbs 4 - “Get wisdom, get understanding...Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”

What will take us over the line is a collective effort, although we look to you for leadership Mr President.

Kurisani Maswanganyi is an entrepreneur and activist for social justice – Pretoria, SA.

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