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The saying, ‘united we stand, divided we fall’, springs to mind as you read this latest thought-provoking piece from Chuck Stephens of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. It speaks of the need for South Africans (and others in the world) to work together instead of constantly playing the blame game. In particular, it’s a call to stop the politics and worry about what really matters: our beautiful country. It certainly hit home for me. Imagine what we would be able to achieve if we focused all of our energy on fighting Covid-19 or rescuing the economy? As Stephens explains, it’s difficult to put out fires when all the firefighters are fighting amongst themselves. – Claire Badenhorst
A politicised pandemic
By Chuck Stephens*
We all know that this Covid-19 pandemic has been heavily politicized – way more than the much smaller Listeriosis outbreak that we experienced in early 2018. In all epidemics some measure of scapegoating goes on, and Covid-19 is no exception.
Already in Davos 2020, back in January, polarization was identified as one of the world’s three biggest problems. Since then, it has only gotten worse. And I don’t just mean the chill between the USA and China – right here at home, two ANC factions are vying for control of South Africa’s future, each in their own fashion. One is up to the same old tricks of looting and plundering the R50 billion set aside for Covid response. The other is trying hard to enforce its controversial policies like freezing the sale of tobacco and alcohol.
What triggered me writing this article was watching a Congressional committee in the USA hold a session with USA Attorney General William Barr. It was bizarre. Now the Zondo Commission into State Capture can get entertaining at times, but the committee meeting that Barr was invited to was a circus. First of all, there were no questions – there were only partisan statements disguised as questions. Then secondly, Barr was given no time at all to respond. It was a total farce.
This is how politicized our dialogue has become. We talk past one another. In another interview this week, the liberal host of a talk show was interviewing a US Congressman. Both men were black. The MP is a Democrat, but he supports Trump for reasons that he was trying to explain. The talk show host kept interrupting him and finally hurled an insult – asking if this MP was being paid by the Trump campaign? What followed was two men speak loudly without stopping – at the same time. For an extended period, neither would back off. That was totally un-democratic. It reminded me of Paul Simon’s song: “People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening…” And as the poet suggested, this “noise” becomes meaningless “silence”.
A tale of two views
Here are some of the highlights. On the Left you have the compliant – they wear masks; they wash their hands a lot; they keep at a safe distance from others; they sanitize countertops and door handles frequently; they stay indoors; they don’t go to work or to school. In short, they believe in preventative measures at all costs.
These folk have some conspiracy theories. They reject the well-known malaria drug chloroquine as a therapeutic; they believe that the virus probably originated from bats or pangolins; and they think that the WHO and China are above reproach. After all, China brought its pandemic under control very rapidly. And their ultimate hope is placed in the emergence of a vaccine.
Whereas on the right you have those who disagree that masks are necessary; they want to be able to go to church; they say that being over-zealous about hygiene can actually weaken your immune system; they prefer natural ventilation and sunshine to indoor lockdown; they want to reopen businesses, offices and schools because they believe that saving the Economy is equally important to saving lives. They point out that essential workers like cashiers in grocery stores have remained at work, in constant contact with people, without any huge loss of life. Some like Brazilian President Bolsonaro diminish the virus, saying that it is just a “little cold”. They put more emphasis on treatment than on prevention. Their ultimate hope is more on “herd immunity” than on vaccines, which make them suspicious.
Their conspiracy theories abound. They are suspicious about the origins of the virus, and they say that the WHO has not acted impartially. They champion all therapeutics and see the diminishing of hydroxychloroquine as an attempt to discredit Trump. They think that there is a hidden agenda behind the pandemic – led by a cabal of key people including Fauci, Gates, Tedros and Soros. They sort of sound like Thabo Mbeki did back in 2005 – trying to take on Big Pharma to show his true socialist credentials.
One analyst believes that those who lost the Cold War, with the fall of the East Bloc, have just reinvented themselves. First as the environmental movement and now as anti-establishment movements like BLM. These are just new masks for the same old scientific socialists who are using Chavez-esque rhetoric to sound like they can save the world. This attracts younger people who can go out and protest en masse, even in the midst of lockdown. You can’t work, or go to school, but you can protest! They are right about this irony.
The thinking is that this new Left tries to weaken the establishment, especially in election years. They have a bigger agenda than civil rights, legitimate as that cause may be.
What can we do?
If this all sounds familiar, let me call for some moderation and self-introspection on both sides. Here are three suggestions:
First, let’s put our country before our party. Economies everywhere are sagging. Whole industries like Tourism are in dire straits. Is this a time for partisan bickering? “Ask not what your country can do for you, as what you can do for your country.” Putting country first means making space for grace. Make room for those who disagree with you.
Second, let’s put the future before the past. Globalization clearly got away on us. In South Africa, we have had to scramble to start making ventilators. The first home-made ones are just coming on-line now. Just in time! Outsourcing has its merits, but within reason. Let’s not get caught out on the bare essentials ever again. Everyone is talking about the “new normal” and there must be more patriotism. Borders are coming back into vogue. We must each put on our own oxygen mask first, before we help others.
Third, let’s re-think some basics. For example, why do we bury everybody? In Asia, they burn everybody. Can’t we adapt our culture, even if just in moments of crisis? What about the way that we argue with our opponents? Could we listen more and yell less?
- Chuck Stephens works at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. He has written this article in his own capacity.
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