Covid-19 has a silver lining

COMMENT

Fortuitously, the coronavirus pandemic is teaching us many things. The climate crisis has alerted us to seeing way beyond what are assumed to be entirely natural disasters. Like climate change — with its own geological name, the Anthropocene — we can anticipate investigations into the aetiology of Covid-19 to contain multiple societal lessons for creating a safer and sustainable world. A world built on solidarity, on the recognition of the fundamental oneness of humankind, rather than the now dominant fragmentation of a plethora of competing identities, each claiming not to be different from but better than all others.

Water already foretells of the silver linings — the lessons — to come.

Wash hands is the universal regimen for everyone, as the most basic and effective safeguard against contracting Covid-19. Along with the need to maintain physical distance between people, it is what everyone is being urged to do. What began as a 20-second hand-wash has fast become a mantra of at least 20 seconds of frequent handwashing throughout the day.

This hasn’t gone down well with people in those municipalities where it has long been normal not to have a regular supply of water. Covid-19, however, exposes all of us to what many have hitherto been ready to accept as “regrettable”, for the affected were only those people living in dysfunctional municipalities marked by general poverty. Nonetheless, such is our new awareness of the importance of public health — a coronavirus silver lining — that what was yesterday seen as a distant problem only for the poor is today seen as a virus endangering everyone’s health.

Such is the power of this now recognised meaning of public health that Lindiwe Sisulu, the minister of human settlements, water and sanitation, felt compelled to acknowledge the reality of the long-known waterless municipalities. With a cynicism that I hope we won’t forget when she offers herself for even higher public office, she blandly announced the immediate provision of not only water to these areas but proper sanitation facilities as well.


What she thereby expected us not to remember were the damning statistics she provided when launching her department’s master plan in November last year. Buried on page 400 of her report was the admission: “The current percentage of the population receiving reliable water services [is] lower than it was in 1994.” This means that more than 5.3-million households and 21-million people don’t have clean water, and 14-million people not having safe sanitation. Rectifying these shameful infrastructural deficits almost 26 years after apartheid would not only take a further 10 years but would cost R898-billion, she said.

Yet none of this was so much as hinted at when Sisulu, now confronted by the reality of the coronavirus emergency, promised extra water and sanitation for informal settlements and rural areas. Silence similarly ruled regarding the effect of the national austerity budget approved by Parliament in February on her once R898-billion budget.

In the same way that crises bring out the best of people they also bring out the worst. The way in which Sisulu’s department reported her various promises bears repeating, lest we forget it when we’re in the privileged position of looking back at the Covid-19 nightmare.

“The minister of human settlements, water and sanitation Ms Lindiwe Sisulu is recognised as one of the most prominent leaders in the water and sanitation sector worldwide … This recognition makes minister Sisulu one of the most globally recognised women leaders in the sector … The department is truly fortunate to be led by a driven and decisive political head in the person of Minister Sisulu,” the department said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has now stolen her thunder by including similar commitments as part of his package when announcing the 21-day national lockdown. It is too soon to say whether — or the extent to which — the Covid-19 emergency makes immediately possible what has been impossible for the previous 26 years.

So, how much water does coronavirus hygiene require? “Wash hands frequently and for at least 20 seconds a time” presupposes that the water is available, conveniently piped into one’s home and is affordable.

While acknowledging such variables as the type of soap (liquid/solid and quality), the hardness/softness of the water and the actual water flow, and interpreting “frequent” to a conservative six times a day for a maximum of 20 seconds a time, gives a number of roughly 20 litres a day (at 3.3 litres a wash).

The importance of this number is its absence — not from the coronavirus alert world but from the government’s own calculations of how much water meets the constitutional guarantee of sufficient water for everyone. The statutory amount of what constitutes sufficient water — 25 litres a person a day — was a convenient administrative number when first introduced in 2001. Since then various attempts have been made to explain its rationale. Handwashing is all but absent from these efforts. My calculation of 20 litres a day leaves only five litres for everything else. When, during the recent near disastrous drought in Cape Town, the City announced Level 4 water restrictions, Health24’s EnviroHealth specialist, Olivia Rose-Innes, measured her own daily use for each of the many daily usages of water. She used 25.2 litres a day for handwashing.

Cape Town’s drought provides a sobering measure of what 25 litres a person a day means. Level 4 restricted each person’s water usage to a maximum of 100 litres. As the drought got worse, so did the water restrictions. Yet, Levels 4b, 5 and 6 allowed a sizable (relative to 25 litres) 87 litres a person a day. Even Level 6b allowed a generous 50 litres. Most striking of all, Day Zero, when no tap water would be available in the city and projected to start on April 21 2018, the municipality committed itself to providing all its residents with 25 litres a person a day. This requires spelling out: Even when the Cape Town was expected to run out of water, each person would still be provided with the same amount of water the national government considers sufficient for millions of its citizens — in normal times.

The amount of water is fundamental for yet another reason – the affordability of water. The largest cholera outbreak in South Africa’s history, in KwaZulu-Natal, during 2000-2002, alerted the then water minister, Ronnie Kasrils, to the “user-pays principle” — the import from Margaret Thatcher’s Britain — that made water unaffordable to the majority of South Africans only recently liberated from apartheid. Kasrils introduced the most unThatcherite policy of making basic water free for everyone.

The 25 litres was recognised as being no more than a step up the ladder towards an amount more in keeping with the Constitution’s guarantee of “sufficient” water. Being the first step on the ladder was further consistent with section 27(2) of the Constitution, which mandates the state to “take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation” of the right to water, among others.

The progressive realisation of this water right has been worse than ignored. Most, if not all, municipalities have long since eliminated the universal provision of free basic water. People must now confront both the bureaucratic hurdle and the social stigma of being registered as indigent before qualifying for their meagre allotment of free water. Worse still, some municipalities, Cape Town for instance, have used the excuse of the drought to introduce highly regressive tariff structures that penalise the poor by making the lowest users of water pay disproportionally more than the largest, thereby making the already unaffordable water even less affordable.

I was disturbed at this point while writing this article by my home’s doorbell. Workers were delivering a gas cylinder we’d ordered. They told me it was the last delivery they were making until after the 21-day lockdown period. We must protect our families from the virus, they told me. I asked if they would be paid for the period of their compulsory staying-at-home. One shook his head. The other said nothing, but his eyes said everything.

One doesn’t have to go as far as Krystal Ball, a journalist with the American news website The Hill, when, as part of her commentary on coronavirus, she invites us to: “Suspend capitalism now, and do not resuscitate.”

Covid-19 requires us to constantly revisit what only the other day was largely an unquestioned normal. Moreover, when governments around the world are demonstrating how possible the once supposedly impossible is — especially when condemning us to climate change because “the economy” could not bear anything else — the silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic is more than sufficiently thick for us to be bold. We now have the evidence to demand the continuation of many of the current emergency measures. The post-coronavirus world soon must be the beneficiary of the sufferings and sacrifices we expect will get worse in the short term.

Jeff Rudin is with the Alternative Information Development Centre in Cape Town

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