Times SELECT 18 May 2020

Justice Malala

No one is talking about minibus taxis. Among the many expert opinions and platitudes about how the poor are dying of hunger and how we need to swiftly ease lockdown restrictions, no one is talking about minibus taxis. It is the elephant in the room.

In a minibus taxi there is no social distancing. At its worst, there are four of you packed in one row of seats, making up 15 or 16 people in just one enclosed space. Under lockdown regulations that are hardly being adhered to, there are two of you per row. Even then, you are less than a metre apart. You are touching surfaces that have been touched by hundreds of others. There are no sanitisers in many taxi ranks or in taxis.

Because taxis are involved in so many accidents, people used to refer to them as mobile coffins. With the coronavirus, they are even more so. You are all in there, windows closed (it’s winter, it’s cold), the air circulating, your hands holding on where many others have held on.

Over the weekend, among the many WhatsApp memes one still receives, I was sent a clip of a fulminating Afrikaans man insulting and threatening President Cyril Ramaphosa with war if he didn’t ease the lockdown. The spittle-laced insults were full of references to how Ramaphosa was letting down “jou mense” (your people) and how the poor were going to starve if we didn’t ease lockdown restrictions.

Not once did this man, and so many of those of us who are invoking the poor in calling for the easing of these restrictions, have the humility to say this: the poor, the working-class people who have to get in a taxi every day, will contract the coronavirus. Many will get sick. Many will die. This has the makings of the 1918 flu pandemic all over again. The rich will work remotely, will bolt to their remote holiday homes or farms, while the economy “opens up” for the working classes – who have to use a minibus taxi to get to your factory or mine or hospital or petrol station or to pick up my rubbish. They will contract coronavirus soon after payday, the miserable wage we pay them in their back pocket.

So let us be humble in this “debate”. Let us stop and remember that this is not just about the nonsensical regulations that an ignoramus like Ebrahim Patel places on the table. Let us acknowledge that the reason that the entire world is grappling with these issues is because they are complex, and hard, and will challenge us.

We want a straight line, a “solution” such as the word from on high that we can “open up the economy”, but life isn’t like that. It is a winding road, full of twists and turns. We want heroes and villains, but there are villains on the side of the good, and good guys among the villains. We say those who want easing are white, when the truth is that there are many whites who want the lockdown to continue.

Of course we should continue to engage, criticise and, where necessary, applaud government. What is disappointing is the descent into ‘Lord of the Flies’ territory.

Let us handle this easing with care and empathy, with thoughtfulness, without noise, without racism. All lives should matter. My friend Rorisang lobbed a question on Twitter the other day: Should we “reopen the economy” as quickly as you want if it meant one of your own relatives would die if we did so? Yes or no?

Everyone across the globe is struggling with how to ease restrictions. One of the great stars of the battle against Covid-19 has been New Zealand and its prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. Last week, New Zealand had been in lockdown for 46 days with only 21 people, all of them over 60, dead. New Zealand could have been a disaster like Italy, but they acted quickly and SA used their lockdown model and general response to Covid-19 in many ways. At present only a handful of Covid-19 cases are being detected every day. Yet their cabinet meeting last week to decide on easing was agonising. Ardern wanted a staggered reopening. Prominent epidemiologists wanted another week of lockdown. They have gone with a staggered reopening.

These decisions are not easy. The considerations are many. Of course, it would help if our leaders were clearer in their actions. For example, on Saturday the very competent health minister, Zweli Mkhize, tweeted: “Together we succeeded in flattening the curve, which facilitated ramping up and cohesion of our healthcare system as well as preparation of our spaces as we resume our economic and social development.”

This is good news if we have indeed managed to get ready to meet the spike in Covid-19 cases. He needs to tell us how we fix problems such as taxi congestion.

What is to be done? Of course we should continue to engage, criticise and, where necessary, applaud government. What is disappointing is the descent into Lord of the Flies territory: we are attacking each other, arguing from ideological positions, and failing to see the woods for the trees. We should learn from others while we also consider and deal with our own unique challenges such as minibus taxis.

It’s not the end of the world.

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