A worker stands next to a freshly-dug grave at the Honingnestkrans Cemetery, North of Pretoria.  Gauteng Health MEC Dr Masuku unnecessarily deemed it wise to talk of the more than 1.5 million grave sites he is preparing in Gauteng. Picture: Shiraaz Mohamed/AP
A worker stands next to a freshly-dug grave at the Honingnestkrans Cemetery, North of Pretoria. Gauteng Health MEC Dr Masuku unnecessarily deemed it wise to talk of the more than 1.5 million grave sites he is preparing in Gauteng. Picture: Shiraaz Mohamed/AP

Leave talk of the dead, focus on the living

By Victor Kgomoeswana Time of article published Jul 12, 2020

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Johannesburg - The MEC for Health in Gauteng, Dr Bandile Masuku, chose the wrong scripture last week. Covid-19 deaths globally constitute 4% of the 12 million cases, 550 000-odd deaths.

And yet Dr Masuku unnecessarily deemed it wise to talk of the more than 1.5 million grave sites he is preparing in Gauteng. What necessitated such an alarmist statement? Hopefully, this was a case of bad judgement under pressure and not supply-chain corruption.

Administering health care in the epicentre of the pandemic means he is overwhelmed by around 75 000 cases and around 500 deaths. Why not focus on converting empty hotels into wards for Covid-19 patients? That would somewhat reignite the hospitality sector and relieve our stretched health system.

Ponder this: “We are preparing over 1.5 million grave sites. We need to be prepared.” Where is that? In Gauteng? How do we get to 1.5 million when he said his department projects “1% of those infected will eventually demise”? If one out of 100 infected people will die and nearly 50 of them recover, we are not short of grave sites but of spaces to treat the infected.

The Gauteng Department of Health moved to “clarify the confusion on the number of graves dug for Covid”, saying “the province does not have a million already open dug graves” as the number refers to the “collective capacity municipalities can take”.

Open or closed, dug graves or not - that is not the issue. Such statements can cause undue panic. Coronavirus causes loss of life and suffering that cannot be downplayed. It is destructive to overstate the risk or plan for handling the dead while the living crave basic amenities. In war, panic can be just as deadly as nonchalance; and the MEC’s statements fuelled wholesale panic.

Those of us congregating without due physical distancing ought to be punished, not buried. Scuttling the nation’s composure and redirecting expenditure to ill-advised excesses, like the digging of graves, instead of strengthening the health care system is problematic. There will not be 1.5 million Covid-19 deaths in South Africa, let alone Gauteng, or at least not this year. The shortage of hospital beds is dire - now.

Our culture of disregard for authority stems from institutionalised defiance pre-1994 and a failed socio-economic transformation project, post-1994. Too many South Africans have nothing to lose. Corruption, including the theft of money intended for food parcels and personal protective equipment, deprives them of their basic social services, human dignity and economic opportunity. It has stagnated land reform.

Try using Covid-19 to scare such people, whose daily existence takes surviving or enduring violent crime, rape, a racially exclusive economy and the looting of public resources. Although those who defy lockdown restrictions should be denounced and punished, spending money to prepare 1.5 million graves for them is wasteful scaremongering.

We are at war to save lives and the economy. Containing the spread of coronavirus is every citizen’s responsibility, led by the government and civil society organisations. Mass graves, à la Brazil, will not advance our cause - if anything, they could needlessly demoralise everybody. We can do better.

* Victor Kgomoeswana is author of Africa is Open for Business, media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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