/ 22 March 2020

Safeguarding social justice in a time of social distance

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Photo: (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


The novel coronavirus does not discriminate but us humans do. In South Africa, the majority of people know the well-rehearsed positions of distance along the lines of race, class and wealth. Social distancing comes naturally to those with means: just say the word, and we’ll retreat into our own home, protected by fast internet delivered through fibre specifically sunk into the soil for us, by walls and fences, access to home delivery and a security guard down the road who got up at 3.30am to make it to work on time, and who will return home at 8pm. 

Social distancing, however necessary during this epidemic, may amplify the country’s steep inequality. And yet, it offers an opportunity to lessen social distance and draw on South Africa’s long history of resilience when faced with disaster and to bolster social cohesion.

Although social distancing is vital to flattening the curve of infection and reducing health system stress and, ultimately, excess mortality from a lack of capacity for intense care, we may inadvertently push others into the fray for us — and we do so while building community and social solidarity. 

As we retreat into our homes — be it for reasons of self-isolating with symptoms suggestive of Covid-19 or another disease; or after exposure, for protection; or just to keep the children entertained now that the schools are closed — we may inadvertently or thoughtlessly put people at higher risk of infection, who have less resilience should they get sick, fewer means and less power to negotiate with us due to their dependency on us as employers or benefactors. Here we discuss a number of ways that these risks could play out, and what to do to counter them. 

Start caring for the carers 

Asking care workers such as nannies and domestic workers to continue to show up for work creates a superhighway for infections between two households at opposing ends of the wealth spectrum, increasing both households’ risk of infection. However, only one of them tends to have access to private healthcare should they fall sick. (It is important to note here that at this stage the risk of infection is highest for middle-class folks with a recent history of overseas travel.) If they take public transport to work, their risks are compounded. 

Now is an excellent time to offer paid leave to carers and other domestic workers until the epidemic is under control — at least for those of us with a realistic expectation of continuing to be paid in the next months. Alternatively, offer staff to stay with you (and offer for them to self-isolate if they choose to do so); or at least pay for ride-hailing services to and from your home. If you should fall sick yourself, keep paying them, make sure they have access to appropriate testing and care — but, in that instance especially, make sure they stay at home.

With the children out of school, it is tempting to draft grandparents into childcare, or ask nannies or au pairs to work full time. The elderly are at much higher risk of severe versions of Covid-19 disease and should be the first to self-isolate, either on your property, if you have enough space, or, if more convenient, in their own home. If childcare staff rely on public transport and cannot easily be accommodated in your home, rather send them home with pay, and take turns with your partner or one or two available friends to look after your children yourselves. 

If your staff have school-going children of their own, make sure you don’t force them to choose between looking after your children or house and looking after their own children in the frantic weeks to come. Often people who are marginally employed find it hard to get others to look after their kids while they work, and if they must draw on older relatives or those with TB and/or HIV this will further compound risk. If you can’t send your staff home with pay and you have some spare space, it might be better for them to come live with you with their children and benefit from whatever home-schooling arrangements you have made for your children.

If your staff have elderly or vulnerable members in their household, including those with disabilities or underlying lung or heart disease, remember how hard it is to self-isolate in an overcrowded household. Consider offering the elderly parents of your staff your spare room or cottage to self-isolate in, if you have these available. The epidemic curve will thank you for it.

Don’t hoard 

It is hard to stock up when you live hand to mouth- so please don’t give in to primal instincts and don’t hoard. There is no hint of supply lines being hit — witness the almost total refilling of supermarket shelves the next day — and it harms a person who may have limited means to get to the supermarket, only to find what they need is not available.

Support small businesses and self-employed people 

In the coming weeks of increasing self-isolation, larger businesses will close down temporarily; smaller businesses, such as training studios, restaurants, artists, hairdressers and other small shops, will all be at risk of going under. To prevent those people paid hourly or on contracts from losing the income that entire families often depend on, large businesses should find flexibility around leave policies and extensions of contracts. 

If you can afford it, keep paying self-employed people or small businesses that you currently support, order in food from a favourite restaurant (establish a contact-free handover routine); buy (online, when possible) food or personal care vouchers for people to redeem once this is over; and if you have to shop, buy (or order) from a small shop.

Give generously to the poor and marginalised 

As the streets become emptier, the poor who rely on hand-outs at traffic lights, on the streets or at your gate will collect less money, and fewer people will be willing to open their windows or doors during self-isolation. If you have to drive anywhere, be it to work or to the shops, give more generously than normally or add some tins for others to your shopping and hand them over in a bag, together with some hand sanitiser or soap.

In places without regular water supply, in particular transport hubs and creches and other institutions, consider assisting with the installation of hands-free tippy-taps.

Bolster mental health, including your own 

Possibly more than the strain of the epidemic itself, we will collectively take strain from engaging with it. Take a break and check in with each other; start a conversation with your neighbour or the people who keep you safe. Be especially alert for friends and contacts who may be at risk of increased domestic violence as tensions fray, and again, offer a safe space if you are able to do so. At the very least, if you are worried about someone, reach out, ask the hard questions and assist with safety planning, depending on your capacity. 

In this country, we’ve all too often given up on stopping to think about where people come from and how they lead their lives, often in ways that accommodate ours. This epidemic is a perfect opportunity to find out about people’s living circumstances, in particular their means of transport, household crowding and access to water. If you can, listen to people’s questions and concerns. Hear them out on what they might have heard or read elsewhere, and answer the questions they might have, even if they come in the shape of a statement.

Start a neighbourhood WhatsApp group that isn’t about security. Try to share practical advice about hand washing if someone asks. And be deliberate about exercise and self-care. Check in with your family and friends by phoning. Limit obsessive news reading and social media use to specific, defined time periods.

Join a mutual aid organisation or start your own

Thousands of people have organised and establishing neighbourhood solidarity groups to assist people who are in need — a practice referred to as “caremongering”, to counter the more frequent “scaremongering”. See Cape Town Together as a local example of communities self-organising around neighbourhoods by disseminating practical, non-alarmist information, linking people in need to those nearby who can help, and serving as an online support system of solidarity. 

This means that running alongside our individualism is another, much more remarkable story: the emergence all over the globe of local, neighbourhood-based mutual aid groups. This is an extraordinary burgeoning of creative ways of organising support and access to resources at hyperlocal level. These self-organising groups are using technology, web-based forums and good, old-fashioned leafleting to connect neighbours with each other, street by street.

From London to Cape Town to Vancouver, neighbours who may never have exchanged even a word are suddenly finding each other. As people in vulnerable groups face the prospect of spending possibly weeks or months in isolation at home, their neighbours are rallying around to offer shopping, dog walking, prescription-meds delivery and, most importantly, friendly conversation. This is perhaps where the greatest opportunity in this crisis lies.

Challenge fake news and spread evidence and science 

Spread practical advice about hand-washing, coughing etiquette and what physical distancing entails. Emphasise the importance of good physical and mental health.

Plan ahead of the epidemic curve 

Anticipate that the measures may be in place for several months, and start thinking about what that means for the people who are part of your routine. 

This epidemic also teaches us the power of being nice, fully taking on the everyday insight that we won’t be human unless it is to the humans around us. When we do venture out, we need to be as appreciative as can be towards those people who are still forced to go to work, the people who are keeping us safe and the world ticking over in our self-chosen, temporary absence. 

In Lynn Ungar’s recent poem Pandemic, she writes: “Know that we are connected/ in ways that are terrifying and beautiful./ (You could hardly deny it now.)/ Know that our lives/ are in one another’s hands./ (Surely, that has come clear.)/ Do not reach out your hands./ Reach out your heart./ Reach out your words./ Reach out all the tendrils/ of compassion that move, invisibly,/ where we cannot touch.” 

Or, in the words of the collective of infectious disease specialists and mathematical modellers behind flattenthecurve.com: “There is hope. You’re it. That’s the work.”

Gesine Meyer-Rath, Francois Venter, Nicola Spurr, Tom Boyles, Kristin Dunkle & Marlise Richter, Anso Thom.

With much appreciated input from Lisa Venter and Bronwyn Hodges