/ 19 March 2020

Paddy Harper: What’s with whities and bog roll?

empty shelf
Although the government has made provision for food-assistance packages for the most vulnerable, some people say it’s those who fall just outside of the qualification (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


It’s Day Three and a Bit since life changed — completely and perhaps permanently — with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s declaration of a state of national disaster in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

I’m still a bit in shock, not just about the rate of spread of the virus since the first South African infection was detected two weeks ago. The obsession of my white compatriots with toilet paper, and their desire to hoard it along with gallons of hand sanitiser, has also bent my head.

Covid-19 is potentially fatal, but it doesn’t cause excessive bowel movements, so why the run on the white gold?

Perhaps it’s a result of a week or so of watching TV footage of abelungu in Australia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere fighting each other for 36-packs of bog roll. Perhaps it’s just a white thing. Genetic.


I was glued to the screen when the head of state did the expected and dropped the bomb after Sunday’s Cabinet meeting. Travel bans to and from high risk countries; school closures; a ban on public events with more than 100 participants and a number of border closures while the state gets busy setting up testing, treatment and quarantine facilities in preparation for the inevitable spike in the number of infected people that is coming our way.

By the time Ramaphosa made his announcement, I was already in soft lockdown mode myself. No visitors. Obsessive hand washing. No roulette sessions in the casino. No handshakes. No bevvying in the Pirates Arms on Saturday evening with Pooja Uncle and Charles Bronson.

My mask is still unused.

I’m saving it for when things get bad.

I kept my 13-year-old away from a compulsory school rugby match on Saturday. Sending him to spend a couple of hours among several thousand screaming teenagers — a fair number of them from Hilton, where the first case of Covid-19 in KwaZulu-Natal was detected — seemed to be a pretty dumb idea.

Our man was more than happy to quarantine himself in his room with the PS4, so there was no fightback from him.

The woman who cleans up his mess twice a week was also happy with staying at home until we are given the all clear. As long as I get paid, so will she. I can’t stay indoors, doing my best to avoid the virus, while forcing another person to expose themselves to it by taking two taxis across Durban to come do chores we now have the time to do ourselves.

It’s difficult working without actually being in contact with people. I’ve had to put several of my sources, who are too paranoid to talk on the phone and insist on face-to-face meetings, on hold until the Covid-19 crisis is over.

I’ve avoided press briefings and instead watched them online or on TV, and followed up afterwards over the phone. Sitting around in a crowd of journalists and civil servants in a closed, air-conditioned environment, waiting for press conferences to start, doesn’t seem like a particularly effective exercise in social distancing, so if I can avoid attending them, I will.

I’m done with most of the filing for the week, so I hit the TV remote.

Bad move.

Minister of Funerals Nathi Mthethwa is on the box, expressing his support for the idea of the Premier Soccer League (PSL) finishing the season behind closed doors. Despite the laudable decision by the league bosses earlier in the week to cancel immediate fixtures, Mthethwa’s muddying the waters, mumbling about continuing with the league, instead of reinforcing the need to press pause until the virus is gone.

This is madness.


Earlier on Wednesday, Mthethwa’s latest celebrity spokesperson “killed” 116 South Africans with one fell tweet, announcing that people were dying of Covid-19. This caused an unnecessary scare and undermining the centralised flow of statistics through the minister of health, Zweli Mkhize, who, despite the best efforts of the Mthethwas of this world, has been doing an excellent job of communicating the government’s response to the crisis.

Uefa has put Euro 2020 off until 2021. Leagues all over the planet have accepted the life-threatening reality of Covid-19 and the critical role of social distancing in fighting its spread. It’s tough, but there’s far too much at stake to do otherwise. We need to follow suit, do what science — and common sense — dictates that we do.

What is Mthethwa thinking? Does he want people to die?

Ramaphosa and Mkhize need to call Mthethwa to order before he commits further acts of stupidity. Give him a crack across the head; quarantine him and take away his toys, before he causes any more damage.

The cellphone goes. The ANC provincial executive committee is having a press briefing on Thursday. I’ll give it a miss, keep my social distance and work it off the live feed.

I head for the bathroom.

It’s time to wash my hands.