I’m sitting in my office in a small back room that, thank goodness, gets some sunshine during these cold winter days, working my ass off, and for less pay. And guess what, I’m eternally grateful. My relative in the film industry lost his job, and the chances of him finding another right at present are like, tiny. Another mate can’t get any gigs. He’s staying alive — for now — by selling his musical equipment.
Working from home is great, though it seems all I ever do is work, eat and sleep. My phone and I are attached by an umbilical cord; it rings at any hour and I respond as fast as possible. My clothes are not ironed and I wear the outer layers many times before I wash them, because who cares? I seldom get to see anybody. The familiar roar of Jo’burg traffic has returned, but the rumble of jets, once so commonplace, is still rare.
Meantime, the virus is creeping ever closer towards this tiny little world of mine, infecting first acquaintances, then friends, now family. It was an abstract thing when lockdown began — I had a hard time remembering to wear my mask, at first — but as the figures soar, it’s becoming a stark, personal reality. Cases are about to peak and thousands are about to die. There’s no cheerful way to say it. We’re living through a disaster.
It occurs to me that we’re also in a period of mourning, for a time of plenty that we didn’t appreciate when we had it. Sure, we’ve had 9/11 and the 2008 crash, and before that we had apartheid and the struggle, but we haven’t had a global disaster that affects practically everyone in our lifetimes. A century ago there was World War I, followed by the Spanish Flu, then the Great Depression and then World War II. My grandparents must have been pretty resilient to deal with all that. I guess we’ll have to find ways to develop our own resilience.
I go through waves: sometimes I’m okay with all this bad news, at other times I carry a heavy weight of despair in the pit of my stomach, and it feels as if I can’t breathe properly. Some nights I can sleep, but often I wake and lie staring at the darkened ceiling. My partner and I hold each other up: if one of us is down, they’re supported by the other. We swap constantly. We’re not alone in feeling this way. The social media I peruse is starting to fill with posts about just how angry, depressed and fearful my social circle is. I’m finding that interactions can be quite odd, but I’m learning to give the person at the other end of the post, call or email more leeway. We’re all taking strain.
To keep our spirits up, my wife and I have been finding songs that we love on the internet and singing them, along with an old guitar. You can find the chords and lyrics of almost any tune these days. When we’ve run through a song a few times we record our amateur effort on a phone and send it off to friends and family — the best critics you can possibly imagine.
As lockdown lifts, there’s an appearance of life gradually returning to its many old ways, but it’s certainly not business as usual. When you do see a friend, it’s alienating to talk to them behind your masks: you talk at a distance, you can’t hug each other. And, just as we’re allowed to do this, infections are soaring. Nothing seems to make sense any more.
When I walk to the shops near my home, I’m forced to negotiate the sleeping gear of homeless people, half-eaten food and human shit. There’s a group of nyaope addicts living on the streets just 50m from my door, cooking up and injecting each other with grim intensity, impervious to the stares of those passing by. There are no public toilets, and no social safety nets to feed, house or clothe them, let alone rehabilitate them. They’re a microcosm representing the larger one of the country: some get help, some just don’t, crisis or no crisis.
I also have to sidestep the rubbish left by a neighbour outside their home. Their bin has been stolen so many times that they no longer bother to buy a new one. Across the road is a pile of building rubble. Someone has decided the side of Melville main road is a dump. Periodically the unsightly mess is cleared up, but either the same culprit or another soon replaces it. Few seem to respect the laws of the land. Few trust those in power.
When I get to the shop, prices have skyrocketed. A nine-litre gas cylinder cost R135 to fill a few weeks ago; now it’s R195. A lekker slap in the face for those who’ve lost their jobs or taken pay cuts.
Sandwiched between the junkies and the rubbish is an evangelical church. They were mercifully quiet during the initial lockdown, but they’re warming up again and soon, four days each week, they’ll regale the whole block with their songs. How come they are allowed to gather, but we can’t walk in the nearby Botanical Gardens by Emmarentia Dam?
Just down the hill, along the same main road, the streetlights are finally working, after years of darkness on a stretch of road on which vehicles careen along at 100km/h. Problem is, now the streetlights stay on all day too. Just after that, as you get to the Botanical Gardens, is an intersection with Judith Road, where the robots haven’t worked since lockdown began.
As a mate of mine likes to remark, how can South Africa co-ordinate a lockdown when it can’t fix a robot?
Across the ocean, pretty much the only superpower of the last century is busy imploding. The United States nearly tore itself apart in an utterly gruesome civil war over the issue of slavery, but 160 years later racism is still rife and black people are still killed routinely without consequence. Black Lives Matter. Looking at the way our government has treated poor people under lockdown, it’s hard to believe it.
On the outside, we’re all wearing brave faces. We have to, or we end up writing opinion pieces like this one. Where’s the good news? I keep looking, but so far, I’ve found only a few examples of people who are off the grid, rehabilitating the soil and educating others about how to live in harmony with each other and nature. May they grow in numbers, join up and deliver us from our senselessness. May it not be too late.
Derek Davey is a subeditor for the Mail & Guardian’s commercial department.