COVID-19: The Disease to Equalize All Classes

Rufaro Chiswo explores the classist dynamics of a virus.

Coronavirus. An infectious disease which has taken the world by storm. Be it with the incessant memes, side-splitting twitter threads, or simply the fact that it is a pandemic, it is safe to say that if you are living in the 21st century, you are probably rushing to buy any form of sanitary guard.

Of Woolies and Pandemics

COVID-19 has managed to instill a sufficient amount of fear in the world – which is totally understandable – but what is particularly interesting is the manner in which specific demographics are navigating the virus.

To save the suspense or euphemism, white and middle to upper class individuals are scared out of their minds. The national address from Ramaphosa left poultry and meat sections empty, fresh fruit and vegetables non-existent, and your local Woolworths ordering new stock a week in advance. It was actually laughable to ideate on what this kind of conduct means on a socio-economic level. Basically stated, COVID-19 allows the world to bear witness to a monumental turning of tables. The rich, for the first time in a long while, are scrambling for their lives.

Gifts from Friday the 13th

When the South African repatriates who were infected by COVID-19 were set to arrive on the 13th of March, there were numerous reports providing bits of information to indicate where they had been travelling and thus fell victim to the virus. The reports wrote of travels from Australia, ski trips in Italy, or simply having “traveled broadly recently” according to Africanews. Following March 13th, reports have become increasingly overwhelming and flooded with misinformation or warnings against misinformation, yet the main thing that can be derived from this whirlwind of news is the unrelenting fact that only those with the resources to travel managed to inflict this disease on others who do not.

The irony should not be lost on us. The very racial group that was once considered the pinnacle of societal advancement, especially in the medical field and managed to successfully instill propaganda that POCs are the epitome of all things unclean, has fallen victim to a virus based on sanitary practices. But we digress.

It would be simple for me to engage in some sort of panicked doomsday diatribe which encourages all to run and hide from social interaction whilst stressing the importance of washing your hands – which are both very essential methods of surviving during this time, so please do adhere to the above mentioned – however, it is more difficult to interrogate the multiple predicaments that accessibility for white and middle to upper class individuals has put lower and working class POCs in.

Curing Naivety

Zwakele Mncwango, the DA’s KZN leader spoke to Independent Media on the 19th of March and emphasised the need for private hospitals to introduce free testing as part of the national fight against COVID-19. More strikingly the 41-year-old politician added “Government can’t do anything if the people are naïve”. Fair enough. However, what does this lack of ‘naivety’ look like. Does it come in the form of stock-piling hand sanitiser and 1,5 litre bottles of Dettol? Would it be wiping Woolworths shelves clean? Or perhaps conducting online schooling for students who can no longer sit in physical classrooms? On a surface level, all of these solutions make sense and would be the best means for all in South Africa to ensure that by the time the year ends, saying Coco roro will no longer be a completely off-centre joke.

Yet what is most difficult to understand is how the likes of Mncwango cannot see the inherently classist nature of the provided ‘way out’. Access to healthcare facilities alone has been one of the primary contentions in modern day Africa thus having free testing at private hospitals – on the off chance that majority private hospitals decide to comply – is essentially useless if the geography of post-apartheid South Africa is taken into consideration alongside the unreliable transportation system in major cities. Suffice to say, that is probably not going to work. Then if we observe the notion that the whole South African population must essentially grow up, it seems slightly naïve of me to engage with that level of condescension.

What remains?

At this point COVID-19 takes on the form of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb would call a “Black Swan Event”, whereby we are not sure what exactly could transpire from this moment, or how severe the consequences could be. Although coined as a means of theorizing within finance, the term could not be more relevant for the world at the moment. However, what makes the term even more apt, is the idea that in hindsight, said Black Swan Event would be considered an obvious conclusion to a set of specific events.

Perhaps the factors that contributed to this pandemic would be fan favourites: capitalism, hyper-individualism, white privilege and lack of awareness (just to name a few), and perhaps, this Black Swan is exactly what a nation like South Africa needed to realise the plethora of ills it has held, will hold, and is currently confronting. And Coronavirus is just a symptom.


Words: Rufaro Chiswo

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