Be at war with the coronavirus, not with each other

This week I watched with sadness as my 18-month-old  daughter and her eight-year-old friend spoke over the wall. I could see that Koni longed so much to touch and play with my daughter.

I have watched this friendship blossom since my daughter started talking (well, baby talk) and walking. We laughed when my daughter called Koni’s name in her sleep. Theirs is a beautiful friendship only understood by them, considering the big age gap.

But since the lockdown they have stopped playing with each other, and only communicate through the wall on some days.

Covid-19 has changed our lives and has also affected cute friendships like that of my daughter and Koni. But it is for their own good that they only communicate through the wall.

Since the virus hit our shores, the biggest message from the government and President Cyril Ramaphosa has been that if we work  together as a nation we will conquer it.

This virus is not a government thing. The government, of course, is leading the strategic efforts to fight this coronavirus, but it is also up to us as residents of the country to assist the state in what it is doing.

It was therefore disheartening to learn that in Gauteng there have been schools,  with boarding facilities that refused to house homeless people during the lockdown.

After the president declared a national state of disaster and the lockdown, acting MEC of social development and also MEC of education in the province, Panyaza Lesufi, announced that the province would use schools with boarding facilities to accommodate homeless people.

Last week, Lesufi tweeted that  “self-centred SGBs [school governing bodies]” had refused to open their schools to homeless people.

In an interview on Radio 702, Lesufi said the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas) had discouraged its members from opening their schools to homeless people. He added that the department had received letters threatening to take it to court should he go ahead with the plan to use the schools.

But Fedsas chief executive Paul Colditz denied this.

In the same radio interview, Colditz said they had only given legal advice to their members on what steps need to be taken before anyone can use a school.

He also said that there were matters the schools needed to be certain of before opening their doors, such as who will cover the cost of water and electricity, who will be responsible for safety and security while the people are living in the schools’s boarding facilities.

These are legitimate and valid concerns.

Another matter, said Colditz, was that the schools also needed to know who will feed the homeless and buy them necessary items such as toilet paper.

Because some schools refused to accommodate homeless people, some are now living in tents in stadiums.

On television over the weekend I watched the homeless people living in these tents and talking about how difficult it has been in the past week to sleep on wet grass because of heavy rain. They also said there were no proper sanitation or bathing facilities at the stadiums.

One might argue that they are used to these conditions in the streets, but it is not the time for that attitude.

It is no secret that Lesufi has rubbed many school governing bodies in the province the wrong way with the policies he has introduced, with certain groups feeling that they have been attacked.

But now is not the time to allow those fights to get into the way of the bigger problem the country is facing. If we are to flatten the curve of this virus and ensure that it does not attack as hard as it has done in some European countries, we need to put petty differences aside and be at war with the virus.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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