Privilege, travel and petty Covid-19 rules – cutting to the chase

Veteran Johannesburg businessman, Francois Gultig, cuts literally to the chase here, using the highly apt metaphor of the Red Herring. As a former tracker-dog trainer and handler-turned Covid-19 watcher and commentator, I can testify to how pertinent this is. Like the fox or badger-hunting dogs, we can learn to ignore the potent red herring scent and stick the real trail to hunt down our quarry, thus dispatching the coronavirus to the annals of pandemic history. Not easy, I know, but fake news, totally irrelevant Covid-19 regulations and the confusing polemic, driven by our Gini Co-efficient, apartheid history and arguably, white guilt, seriously complicate matters, taking us off the real trail. Ignoring the potent red herring scent simplifies matters, enabling us to deal practically and more efficiently with the virus and return more quickly to the lives that we all so nostalgically, and often with unhelpful bitterness, talk about. We’re getting in our own way. There’s no vaccine on the event-horizon, no highly effective mitigating therapy. We need to focus on staying safe and realising that Ubuntu (a person is a person through people) is a pragmatic, existential concept, never more relevant than now. Ask ‘the Arch’ (Desmond Tutu); he’s been telling us for years. – Chris Bateman

Private letter to the president

NB: Private because I have no points to score.

By Francois Gultig

Dear Mr President

“Red herring” is an English idiom – the story behind it is interesting. Literally it refers to a kipper (fish) called a herring that has been strongly cured in brine or heavily smoked. This process makes the fish particularly pungent smelling and, with strong enough brine, turns its flesh reddish. There are variations of the story, but according to one version, the pungent red herring would be dragged along a trail until a puppy learned to follow the scent. Later, when the dog was being trained to follow the faint odour of a fox or a badger, the trainer would drag a red herring (whose strong scent confuses the animal) perpendicular to the animal’s trail to confuse the dog. The dog eventually learned to follow the original scent rather than the stronger scent.

In the figurative sense a red herring is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a red herring may be intentional, or unintentional; it is not necessarily a conscious intent to mislead.

In today’s world of ubiquitous media feeds including social media there are many red herrings. This is true for the current C-19 pandemic. I would like to elaborate on a few relevant ones that I believe have already and can potentially cause even greater harm and damage to all South Africans. But before I do it is important to mention that the relevant or important question for us all should be how to beat this disease. One option that I believe in S. Africa should probably not be up for debate is to try and find a cure or a vaccine. Compared to other international world powers we have limited resources and it would be wiser to contribute to another country’s efforts to find a vaccine than to start our own journey of discovery. So that leaves us with the real question … How do we manage the disease responsibly? … minimise the no. of C-19 deaths that could have been avoided without doing too much harm to the economy particularly in the context of so many S. Africans that are vulnerable (poor living/social conditions, bad health, HIV+, TB, of old age or diabetic).

When the lockdown started a lot of effort was put into educating all S. Africans about basic habits to minimise the spread of the disease incl. social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks, coughing with the elbow raised and taking care to self isolate if one feels a fever coming on. This I believe has already made a huge difference. No debate was really required and everyone was on board  because all these actions are about managing the spread of the disease and nothing else. In fact if we all act as responsible citizens and observe these simple rules we can manage this disease successfully. But as is often the case media hype and social media created fear and misinformation that introduced many red herrings which deflected from the important question of how we manage this disease successfully.

What does privilege mean?

So much has been said about white privilege in S. Africa. Its existence is widely acknowledged and it continues to receive a lot of attention in everyday life as it should. We all need to be reminded of how quickly evil can spread when power is abused and ordinary people look the other way. When I recently visited a WWII concentration camp outside east Berlin we noticed that the police academy where officers were trained was positioned directly opposite the camp. This was done intentionally to remind those in power of what happens when power is abused. My point is that we should all acknowledge that privilege exists and not only white privilege per se. Anybody living in a nice suburb driving a car and who has a job that pays a salary or runs a business to make a living is privileged – someone somewhere is living a hard life so we can enjoy that privilege. Yes they may or may not have created opportunities or worked hard enough but that is beside the point – we all have a role to play. For those of us that lead the privileged life it’s not about feeling or saying that you are ‘blessed’ – that is an arrogant and self centred view. It’s about feeling compassion and helping others and focussing on what you can give or contribute to the well being of others. Sometimes I think the mud slinging on social media  (often racially founded) is all because we as the privileged feel guilty and we try to deflect from our own guilt as we fail to manage the real issues of today like C-19 esp. because it effects those that are less fortunate a lot worse. We have a common enemy now and we should be standing together in solidarity … fighting the common enemy and not detracting from it with all our own insecurities and guilt.

Alcohol and tobacco

These two vices have been around before all of us were born and I suspect will be around long after we left this life. We already know that smoking is dangerous for our health and to those around us. I don’t believe any more legislation is required wrt to smoking only that the current laws should be enforced as intended e.g. no smoking in public places like restaurants, shopping malls, etc. As far as alcohol is concerned I don’t believe any legislation is required. The prohibition period in the US during the 1930’s is a standing example how of this type of legislation has failed and achieved very little. Allowing alcohol consumption in public places or at major events e.g. sporting events (when these get off the ground again) is of course up for debate and probably needs more thought. The main point about the alcohol and tobacco C-19 regulations is that they are red herrings I.e. they detract attention from attending to the main question that of managing the disease. Illicit trade in the banned substances and the policing thereof require many scarce resources that can be applied elsewhere e.g. testing and tracing contacts of infected people.

Restricted exercise hours

Restricting exercise hours from 6am to 9am makes very little logical sense and like the red herring serves only to distract from the main question. It has been subject to some wilful and very petty policing adding fuel to the fire and destroying the trust between the state and its citizens. The 80% good done by the police and the SANDF is destroyed by the 20% questionable actions taken against ‘harmless’ individuals.

We are human beings and therefore must accept that mistakes will happen, but let’s not complicate things by introducing petty regulations that increase the risk of undue actions. Restricting exercise hours to such a short time also feels intuitively wrong as it goes against the basics of encouraging social distancing. As with any petty regulations, the exercise restrictions require law enforcement and consume much needed resources that can be redirected to pursue higher C-19 testing standards and contact tracing.

Travelling and general movement

The night time curfew is understandable while the disease is still spreading but general movement and travel restrictions nationally beyond the initial 3 weeks of lockdown is difficult to understand. International restrictions esp. regional (BLSN) can potentially also be considered for relief provided countries agree and are transparent about basic C-19 spread measures. In S. Africa we are subject to the same laws and to start comparing regions serves only to deflect from the main question again – it becomes a political debate and enhances regional powers to the detriment of ordinary citizens. Resources should be mobilised on a national basis and hot spots treated as hot spots regardless of which province they fall in.

The whole debate around clothing and restrictions placed on selling certain types of clothing is a mute one and quite frankly doesn’t even qualify as a red herring. It is shear madness.

Statistics, virology, epidemiology, medicine, etc

I have never seen so much confusion and misinformation when different sciences combine and require a combined effort toward a common goal. Working cross functionally has never been easy and in the corporate world whole businesses have been created around managing across functional silos. Engineering and data science have been 2 of the great enablers to eliminate functional silos for the ‘greater good’. We clearly still have a long way to go when it comes to fighting viral diseases successfully. Perhaps we should consider bringing in process engineering skills to work with the functional experts like virologists, epidemiologists, medical doctors and actuaries toward the common goal of beating the virus.

So with these few red herrings out of the way we can focus on getting the economy going as soon as possible. Our focus should change to that of taking care to follow the basic hygiene rules we were introduced to when the lockdown started. Big corporates have already implemented basic measures like temperature readings and masks to prevent the spread of C-19. Some smaller businesses are busy getting their heads around it and I believe that we can use the public service incl. the police and SANDF to endorse some clever ideas and innovative ways of fighting the spread of the virus. The virus won’t go away and it is the fault and problem of mankind as a whole. While experts are putting monumental effort into understanding it better and while medical workers are putting their lives at risk fighting it, we as common citizens need to get out there and live with it as best we can following the basic rules. We are not going to win the C-19 war by hiding in-doors, turning our backs on the poor, closing down businesses, blaming others and complaining about stupid rules. We need to internalise the fear, trust each other as fellow S. Africans and face this new world together.

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