South African Defence Forces patrol downtown Johannesburg on Friday night. Picture: Jerome Delay/AP
South African Defence Forces patrol downtown Johannesburg on Friday night. Picture: Jerome Delay/AP

Coronavirus lockdown - Ramaphosa: 2 South Africa: 0

By Kevin Ritchie Time of article published Mar 28, 2020

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“Cometh the hour, cometh the man”, the old proverb tells us and Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa has certainly proved that with a second masterclass in statesmanship in just over a week.

He closed down the country in clear and unequivocal terms on Monday night, along with a real road map to recovery - premised on two key pillars, the same ones he hammered the Sunday before last; maintain social distancing and keep safe.

And what did South Africa do?

We panicked, big time.

Shopping was impossible, even though he’d said there was no need, that food outlets and pharmacies, petrol stations and cellphone towers and, yes, even the media, both Jurassic and digital, would all remain open.

In the mêlée, we probably ramped up the rate of infection 10-fold, as people queued cheek by jowl in the hypermarkets; segueing from last week’s toilet paper mania to fresh meat and filter coffee.

And this was Tuesday this week, three entire shopping days before the lockdown - which a huge part of our population obviously thinks is going to be like a real-life edition of Survivor.

There’s a bizarre dissonance between what people are told is going on and what they actually think. It’s difficult to work out if people had a death wish or actually really believed that the coronavirus would only become infectious after midnight last night.

There’s no point in social isolation if you’re going to jostle in behind each other for the next pack of boerewors, or enough brandy and coke to last you till the end of the days.

It’s matched perhaps only by people plaintively asking if they can still go for a run after they’re placed on lockdown - or the Capetonian who blustered that his human rights were being infringed when he learnt the ban extended to swimming in the sea.

Spare a thought for the many South Africans who are homeless and will effectively have to be interned for the duration. Or the hundreds of thousands of others sharing tiny homes and dependent on piece jobs that have just vaporised for the next three weeks.

It’ll be a different story if this virus takes hold as it has in Italy. The footage of overcrowded wards with patients dry drowning as their lungs congest has been harrowing.

The only light relief has been the posting of footage of incensed Italian mayors filmed ranting at their residents, threatening to use flame-throwers to get them back into their homes, or actually walking the streets and almost getting stuck into residents as volubly and as expressively as only Italians can.

They’re not doing it because that’s their schtick, they’re doing it because they are sick to death of all the body bags.

For South Africa it’s still a bit of a laughing matter for now, at least, though finally the joke’s not on us, thank goodness.

As the netizens of the Twitterverse pondered this week, can you imagine trying to deal with Covid Onety-Nine with the giggling Nkandla Crooner? Then again, he’d probably have looted the hell out of that too.

* Kevin Ritchie is a journalist and a former newspaper editor.

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