“Pollyanna” is defined by Merriam-Webster as (a person) “characterised by irrepressible optimism.” At the risk of being called a Pollyanna, or “relentlessly cheerful,” as Tony Leon described me years ago, I want to emphasise that there is a bright side and an encouraging aspect to the whole ghastly Corona Virus (COVID-19) crisis.
The response of South Africans has been heart-warming in that most have accepted the situation philosophically, determined to keep safe and avoid passing on the virus to others. Many are showing their caring side by contacting friends and family much more than usual. Parents and younger children can spend much more time with each other (no doubt to the despair of some parents). Many are paying employees who are not working.
The downside is the many who do not believe the danger, do not care, or who simply ignore the regulations.
No one likes the lockdown. No-one enjoys being isolated. It weighs heavily on the elderly, often living lonely and alone and with underlying illnesses and ailments, knowing that they are the most at risk. Not to speak about the millions who are simply unable to isolate because they live in small houses or flats with no garden, or one-room shacks, erected on pavements and unsuitable ground, often with many young children who cannot be kept indoors all day and night.
Given the terrible death figures emerging from many places like Italy, Spain, and the USA, there does not seem much to be cheerful about. Allied with the health challenges posed by HIV/Aids and TB, the lockdown, the Moody’s downgrading of South African investments to “Junk” status last Friday, and the seeming impossibility of exercising proper control and social distancing in shack and informal settlements, the picture looks quite grim. It could get very much worse.
Greatly encouraging, though, is that for almost the first time in his presidency, Cyril Ramaphosa sounds like a president who knows what he is doing. Not just airy-fairy promises and dreams, but actual, practical, competent steps to be taken. Pity about the army overalls. He is not a general and was a lawyer and trade-unionist, not a soldier; he is the commander in chief as president. We must avoid creating the impression of militarisation, suspension of the Constitution, or unnecessary diminution of peoples’ rights.
That authoritarian impression was regrettably created by Minister Fikile Mbalula (never highly regarded outside ANC elite circles) and General Cele, (he who wears a jaunty hat indoors like a cowboy rather than a minister of a G20 country). They need to tone it down and seek the enthusiastic co-operation of our people.
Their negative impact contrasts with that of Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize, who projects competence and confidence, rare in a government that has largely mismanaged our affairs for many years. Perhaps he can now be forgiven for when, as MEC for Health in Kwa Zulu Natal, he defended President Mbeki who was forcing the country to accept his denialist views about HIV/Aids, leading to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of victims.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown many citizens uniting and the heavy questions of racism fading somewhat; we can now show that we care for and about others. The immediate challenge could lead to a better, more tolerant and more peaceful country.
“Never waste a good crisis,” said Machiavelli. Let’s not waste this one.
Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and ambassador to Thailand. His website is: douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com
*This article first appeared in The Star