Letter to A Friend during the Early Days of the 2020 Great Covid-19 Quarantine

So you’re pissed because they won’t let you walk around that gated complex you sometimes call home, under the threat of a fine for breaking the rules. And by some obscure logic you translate that into some murky, ill-defined power-grab by the President to make himself King? Not sure how you got there! But welcome to the global pandemic emergency. Fear and fake news abound.

Yes, some of your Constitutional Rights are being restricted. Mine, too. For three weeks. Get over it.

Consider instead the level of your privilege and what it grants you in this time when everybody — everybody — faces some level of restriction in the way they conduct their lives. Consider what it must be like to be quarantined in a 3x4 metre tin shack (no garden!) in some shanty town where the floor gets flooded every time it rains, where drinking water arrives by tanker-truck every third day, and the toilet is an overflowing communal bucket at the end of the street.

You say that God’s word takes precedence over the law of the land? Millions of Christians will be unable to attend Easter services this year because of the quarantine. Two million Muslims will likely be unable to undertake the Hajj in July (a thing their faith compels them to attempt) because of the virus. You and all the other Jews couldn’t have a full-blown seder because of it. Wimbledon has been cancelled, for God’s sake! (Not sure how my mother will cope with that. It’s a worry, I tell you.) I’m sure that Jahweh/Allah/Jesus/Blaggie/Other Imaginary Friend [*delete where not applicable] will forgive. After all, this God person must logically also be the one who created the fucking virus in the first place. No? What God Wants, God Gets. At least if you believe any of that shit to begin with.

Please check your privilege, your sense of outrage, your entitlement and your exceptionalism at the door. You’re not the Special Snowflake you believe you are. None of us 8-billion-odd human beings are. Not to this virus. A virus does not discriminate. Some nations’ “leaders” are busy finding this out the hard way. At least our leaders have taken what steps they can in the face of extreme constraints and severely limited options. Now if we can persuade them that climate change and habitat destruction is actually a bigger and more urgent problem that threatens to eliminate 100% of us Homo sap., and not a mere 1% of those who refuse to take sensible and necessary precautions against contagion, some good may yet come out of this global emergency.

So, no! You do not get to take a walk around your gated complex. Deal with it. Walk briskly up and down the path to your front door. Do a couple of 50m dashes while you’re in the supermarket and can take advantage of the full length of their aisles. There’s a guy in France who ran a marathon on the 4m wide balcony of his fifth floor apartment. Don’t tell me it can’t be done.

When I relate that I took my dogs for a walk in the forest this morning,… let’s be clear: I was breaking the law. I understand that they’ll arrest me if I’m caught. I’m just taking a chance, knowing that I really do not constitute a hazard to the public health: there is literally no other person within a thousand metres. You don’t have the fortune to live in a remote and isolated place with low population density like I do. That means the measures you have to endure are commensurately more strenuous and taxing. I’m sorry for that.

People around here keep saying how ‘lucky’ we are. They’re not entirely wrong – luck has certainly played its part in our being in such a place, and I’ll always acknowledge that. But they seem to forget that there’s also choice. Choices made 25 years ago and paid for over and over again in myriad and often difficult-to-explain ways that brought us here, to this place, in this time, in this state of preparedness. (Still nowhere near as prepared as I’d like, but not too bad.) One of the ways we paid was the ridicule, the smirks and sniggers of unbelief as we were dismissed as paranoiac cranks with overdeveloped environmental sensitivities. We certainly harped on about it enough that family and friends rolled their eyes any time the subject came up. This virus pandemic is a direct result of the environmental degradation that so concerned (still concerns) us. Well, don’t say we didn’t warn those around us. I say this, not with any sense of superiority or ‘being right’, but with deep compassion for the millions who really did not have the luck along the way to be able to take the necessary and obvious steps.

So please keep your self-righteous anger and indignation to yourself. It serves nothing beyond perhaps allieviating your boredom a little. On the bright side, you have the internet and satellite TV to keep you amused. My advice is to stay away from the cess-filled parts of Facebook and the like. (Hint: It’s all cess.) It may help you to keep a sense of perspective.

If it helps you, here’s how I think of the contagion problem: Rather than worrying about who around me might be infectious, I regard myself as the most likely contagion vector around, and then think about how I ought to act to avoid infecting those around me. It changes one’s perspective from one of defensive fearfulness to one of protective care — a much healthier state of mind, since it implies agency rather than helplessness. I recommend it.

Quite how you translated this all into some sort of meta-government power-grab escapes me. If I were a Believer In Imaginary Friends I’d thank my gods that we have technocrats for President and Finance Minister. It means there’s some hope. Not a great deal, but a little. At least they base their decision-making on facts and science. Better than that dipshit the US chose or the UK’s Chief Bozo In Hiding. Between an economy that was already two quarters into recession, an already weak and overtaxed healthcare system, and a credit rating that would make grown men weep, there’s not a lot of scope for action. I’m guessing that government is shitting themselves should this pandemic go as exponential (as it seems the US is about to experience), because it would likely result in the complete disintegration of the Republic as a functioning nation-state entity.

Have I ever mentioned my prediction from some years ago (4? 5? 10?): I forecast then that by 2025, South Africa would likely be nothing more than a name, some history, and a bunch of wishful thinking, that the Government of SA will be capable of exercising effective rule over little more than the Union Buildings and its surrounding lawns. I was beginning to think that (as usual!) I’d fucked up the timing. (And who among us can time the market?) Now I have to reconsider. Maybe I was closer to the mark than I thought, that first time around.

I’m pretty sure that the government modelled the various options and scenarios to death before deciding to implement the quarantine, then chose the current course as the path least damaging to the economy and polity that they could come up with. Don’t be surprised, though, when they’re forced to extend the quarantine by another three weeks or longer. Emerging concensus seems to be that a quarantine period of at least 6 to 10 weeks is necessary for the measures to be effective. I’m not sure the South African economy can survive that. Rock. SA. Hard place.

Welcome to the human race. And wear a mask when you go out.