In this July 10, 2020, file photo, COVID-19 patients are treated with oxygen at the Tshwane District Hospital in Pretoria.
In this July 10, 2020, file photo, COVID-19 patients are treated with oxygen at the Tshwane District Hospital in Pretoria.

Outbreaks changed everything – except people

By Chelsea Geach Time of article published Sep 19, 2020

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Cape Town – There can be no doubt that the economic after-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will haunt South Africa for a long time, but will it bring about any lasting change in the way we behave and socialise? Chances are slim, according to Dr Divine Fuh, director of the Institute for Humanities Africa (Huma) and social anthropology lecturer at the University of Cape Town.

“In the short term, there will be lots of changes. But in the long term, it will be more of the same,” Fuh said.

“In each pandemic, research shows that any changes were again reversed. People are already out in the public ‘covidising’ without masks.”

Despite the fact that many previous pandemics have swept across the world and reached their ambit of destruction into SA, we were still unprepared for this one – and that is evidence that preventative changes in society don’t last long enough to protect us against the next threat.

“The very fact that we have been caught unawares and dealing with a pandemic after other deadly pandemics such as the Black Death, the 1918 influenza pandemic, HIV/Aids, Ebola, Sars, Mers, Zika, swine flu, polio, smallpox, dengue fever, lassa fever, yellow fever and e-coli, is indicative that little will change,” Fuh said.

“We seem to forget that HIV, for example, happened not very long ago and is still with us. Did it change things? Yes. Have we slowly gone back to before that? Yes.”

Roughly six months since Covid-19 first landed in the country, Fuh said we already risk losing all the solidarity that was built at the beginning of lockdown.

“If we are not careful, the connections, empathies and sympathies that were developed at the start of the lockdown, as a result of the existential threat that we collectively faced, will disappear.

’’The trust that people had suddenly developed in government, for example, risks disappearing with the Covid-19 corruption scandals. In the midst of a pandemic, gender-based violence surged. We became more parochial, racist and ethnocentric in the face of a microbe that invades every body it meets,” said Fuh.

Pandemics might be caused by contagious pathogens, which are indiscriminate about the bodies they infect, but the devastation they wreak is clearly shaped by the discrimination of social and economic hierarchies.

“Even though mainly caused by virus infection, pandemics are the product of social, political and economic relations that abandon the weak and reinforce elites,” Fuh said.

“In all examples, pre-existing inequalities were responsible for the distribution of all forms of death before, during and after the pandemics.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has already expanded the gap between the haves and have-nots in South Africa, he said, and many gains made by activist movements could be at threat, including the rights of workers and women in the workplace.

Exploitation of the labour force is becoming easier under these circumstances, with endless demands on the time of certain workers … especially given the gradual normalisation of remote working and living.”

Fuh said he found it strange that people seem nostalgic and long to return to the “normal” of pre-Covid.

“There is a desperate expectation that as soon as we find a cure, we can go back to something we have frozen as the normal “normal”. The new normal will do everything to take us back to a normal of neglect and negligence.”

Our collective bout with Covid-19 has thrown into sharp relief the inequalities which shape how people live and die in South Africa, he said.

“Unfortunately, this virus has not achieved the kind of socio-cultural, political and economic catharsis that we would like our society to undergo. I mean, this pandemic has not made us better humans, and there is every indication that this will not change … it is going to be hard to build a society of care, or with care as its key principle or main purpose,” Fuh said.

“That said, questions of care and social reproduction will become central to how we continue into the future, and will perhaps begin to redefine society, politics, cultural practices and the economy, given the manner in which this pandemic has made these central and essential.”

Weekend Argus

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