Gauteng Premier David Makhura hands out soap bars to residents of Diepsloot during a coronavirus awareness campaign. Picture: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency (ANA)
Gauteng Premier David Makhura hands out soap bars to residents of Diepsloot during a coronavirus awareness campaign. Picture: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency (ANA)

#changethestory: A time to build solidarity, not just distancing

By Lorenzo A Davids Time of article published Mar 23, 2020

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I am extremely worried about how poor people will survive the Covid-19 pandemic. I am extremely worried about how rapidly the virus will spread in informal settlements.

Social distancing is an impossibility in the overcrowded existences of poor people.

Their entire survival is based on the practice of personal proximity. It is how their children are looked after when they leave home to look for work. It is how they cram into public transport, and how they make space for others to crowd in to have a roof over their heads at night. They always make room for “one more”.

Most of the middle class and affluent either cannot even begin to imagine this type of existence, or they simply ignore it.

The clumsiness of the phrase “social distancing” falls flat in poor communities. It is not in the DNA of such communities.

Social distancing was a phrase we used back then for those who thought they were better than others, and who did not wish to associate with poorer people. In school, the rich children practised social distancing from the poor children. Today, social distancing is how apartheid is practised in what is supposed to be inclusive spaces. In fact, even before Covid-19, South Africa was rampant with social distancing.

The suggestion, based on the ideas offered by many on social media this week, is that South Africans should rework the phrase of “physical distancing with social solidarity”.

We cannot afford to seek only our own survival in this crisis. What we have in South Africa is “social distancing with ignorance”, instead of “physical distancing with social solidarity”.

Effective physical-distancing policies must become an urgent priority for the Department of Public Works and the Department of Human Settlements.

Good social solidarity practices urge these departments to immediately co-operate to refurbish empty government buildings, empty army barracks and vacant sites into refurbished living units for poor people from overcrowded spaces to live in, so that physical distancing - an order of President Cyril Ramaphosa - becomes possible for them as well.

Here’s my question: Would any inaction by the government to assist people to practise physical distancing open up the government to possible charges of murder or even worse, genocide, should any individual or larger sections of overcrowded communities die as a result of their inability to practise physical distancing?

If the government, as the owner of large unused assets, issues the instruction as gazetted last week, that “Any person who intentionally exposes another person to Covid-19 may be prosecuted for an offence, including assault, attempted murder or murder”, and knowing the overcrowded living conditions of poor people, be guilty, by its inaction of intentionally exposing people to Covid-19?

This pandemic might well allow us to finally create the inclusive social housing experiences we have been advocating for. Government now has an opportunity to use its assets to house people in existing spaces across the metro to save lives and not to pander to privilege.

This is a moment in our history for the government to show its intention to create a better life for all by opening its buildings as housing for the people living in overcrowded wood and corrugated iron hell-holes, where the various statements by the World Health Organisation indicate certain death awaits large numbers of them.

If big states like California and big cities like New York are going into lockdown to stop the spread, we must heed the call to act. We cannot keep driving past informal settlements and the only thought we have is to buy more hand sanitiser for ourselves. It is about social solidarity to save everyone’s life, and not physical distancing to save only my life.

In 1994 we embraced ubuntu. We used it to win World Cups and Nobel Prizes. In 2020 we will begin to see how costly being a true neighbour really is. This pandemic will challenge our humanity to its core.

* Lorenzo A Davids is chief executive of the Community Chest. 

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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