Editorial: Something beautiful in the disaster

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the nation on Sunday night has signified a new reality for South Africans. Nothing is quite the same anymore.

Amid the necessary trudge through every day there is a gnawing worry about what may happen next. And plans for the next month, next quarter, the rest of the year, are all on hold.

When the present feels so flimsy, so fragile, we can’t really entertain thoughts about the future.

And yet, as our lives changed with Ramaphosa’s address on Sunday night, something beautiful was also ignited within South Africans.

All over the country, government, trade unions, religious leaders and citizens have committed to joining the fight against Covid-19, which — if not taken seriously — could kill hundreds of thousands of people.

By Monday morning, community WhatsApp groups had turned kind, flooding with offers of support to older people, who are among the most vulnerable to the virus. Health workers —working in hospitals and in clinics in the country’s densely-populated townships — vowed to put their lives on the line to ensure people are protected and informed.

The message: Without unity, we are doomed.

Of course, we cannot ignore the panic shoppers who rushed to Woolworths to secure their stockpile of toilet paper, or the businesses hiking up prices of face masks and hand sanitisers. But it is heartening to know that many South Africans recognise this as bad behaviour. The same, for those who are determined to believe that this is much ado about nothing.

Last week, the Mail & Guardian published better and worst-case scenario projections of what could happen if the virus is not contained, or if it is.

Against the backdrop of what has happened in countries such as Italy, which has more resources and hardier public health infrastructure, these numbers were scary.

It became clear that, without real intervention, this pandemic — unlike anything this country or much of the world has dealt with since World War II — could wreck the economy, overwhelm the health services and kill off the older generation and people with severe health problems.

Right now, we have to focus on safeguarding lives. Everything else can be recovered afterward.

So when the president announced a number of bold measures to tackle the outbreak on South Africa’s shores, measures which made other world leaders look clumsy at best, many of our countrymen saw that they too have to rise to the occasion.

And now before us is an opportunity to make sure we plug the holes in the country’s public healthcare system, and to come together to ensure the government fixes what urgently needs to be mended.

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