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‘Over-preparing’ to fight the virus

Over the past month, Gauteng MEC Tasneem Motara has eased into the small comforts of the lockdown: getting back into baking, spending time with her family and watching more television than she has in the past decade.

This new way of life has been “an adjustment”, she says. The unrelenting pace of public life has calmed, but the stakes of her job are higher than ever.

As the MEC in charge of infrastructure, Motara is heading up the effort to ensure there are enough quarantine facilities and hospital beds to accommodate the potential flood of Covid-19 patients in the densely-populated province.

“I think for us, and I have said it to my team, two scenarios can happen: either we get it right, or we can get it horribly wrong,” Motara says over the phone from her home in Benoni.

As infections rise, provincial governments — guided by national strategy — are at the forefront of warding off the outbreak and softening its economic blow.

By Tuesday morning, Gauteng had 682 active Covid-19 cases and 14 deaths. In the first weeks of the outbreak, the province was the epicentre of the virus, but has since been surpassed by the Western Cape.

Despite this apparent turn of the tide, the Gauteng government is preparing for the worst.

At a press briefing before the start of the March 27 lockdown, Gauteng Premier David Makhura said: “We know as we are sitting here … that if there are no drastic measures taken, there will be some of our communities and areas that, if the outbreak was to hit them, the capacity to cope will be very, very limited.”

Motara says that the pressure on Gauteng to respond effectively to the pandemic is immense. “If we get it wrong in Gauteng we will contribute to a negative impact on the nation’s entire economy.”

The provincial government’s strategy is to “over-prepare”, Motara says. The measures taken by Gauteng  include ensuring there are over 4000 beds to accommodate Covid-19  patients and contractors are working  24 hour days to get this done.

As each project is completed, Motara is able to breathe a little bit easier. “But it has been extremely stressful,” she says, likening the task to the country’s preparations to host the 2010 World Cup.

For Motara, who loves “order and predictability”, the uncertainty of the current situation has amplified this stress. She had initially pencilled in this interview for Monday morning, but one urgent online meeting snowballed into a “one thing after the other” start to the week and she had to reschedule.

Motara says the outbreak and responses to it have been accompanied by a change in “the culture of public service”.

“So it used to be that there were public office bearers who were politicians in boardrooms and who attended meetings and that sort of thing all day. But the culture has changed over time.

“And you now see a lot of especially younger politicians who are out on the street making sure things are actually getting done. Because it is easy to get a report that says everything is 100%, but on the ground you have a totally different story.”

This is a space Motara, whose political DNA was shaped by her activist parents, is comfortable in. “So I always like to say it’s like growing up in the church. It is the only thing that you know and even if you don’t want to do it, you end up just doing it.”

To keep her mind fixed on the tasks ahead, Motara says she tries not to think too much about how bad the outbreak might get.

“I don’t want to do that to myself. And I also don’t want to do that to my team and the people around me.

“I am just focusing on doing the work and then whatever has to happen beyond that will happen,” she says. “So we are cautious, but not to the point of not being productive.”

Motara, who regularly spends her days visiting hospitals to attend to their infrastructure needs, says the fight against the pandemic has exposed the importance of public servants willing to put themselves on the line.

“You always know that as a public servant you are at the frontline. But this [pandemic] makes that very real. Nurses, doctors, they are public servants. They are first at risk and so are we.

“I think often people create this sort of bubble around politicians and public servants, thinking that nothing can go wrong, [that] you don’t get affected by what is happening in the world. But that’s not true.”

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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