By Greg Nott
Lerato* is a 24-year-old doctor working in an Intensive Care Unit in the midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. Hers is the story of many of South Africa’s young heroes, working on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic. She and her healthcare colleagues have been navigating the lockdown and Covid-19 together, bracing each others’ spirits with daily meals and debriefs in their residence.
She is doctor, counsellor, comforter and friend, as her patients are prevented from seeing their families. She’s been working nine-hour shifts a day for five straight days, usually with five days off to recover, but as her colleagues have become infected with Covid-19, her days off have diminished. Lerato is often called in on her off days to help with problematic Covid-19 cases or increased patient loads. There are occasions when she leaves her patients for a couple of days, only to discover they have passed away. There is no time to mourn, to reflect and to process the magnitude of the life-and-death decisions she is constantly making.
Exhaustion and disruption are the order of the day. At every turn, everyone is battling the biggest enemy of all: fear. And it comes in multiple forms — fear of not being able to breathe properly, fear of dying alone, fear of not saying goodbye, fear of not making amends, fear of deserting one’s family. It’s been hard as a 24-year old to have to reassure and comfort sick people of all ages.
In our coronavirus war, our young people are on the frontline, as they have been in many other past wars. I call it a war, not lightly, because we are fighting an enemy that we can’t see and whose next move we can’t predict. As in wartime, established industries have been brought to their knees, supply chains and factories have been severely impacted, booming businesses have come to a halt, the retail and property sectors are in the doldrums, celebrations have been muted or cancelled and economies decimated. The workforce is receiving special training for combat, wearing personal protective armour. If we don’t wear our masks and adopt the mind-set required to win a war, we will not recover from this fight.
Everyone wearing their masks in public has reminded me of the South African flag car side mirror covers that were so prolific in the 2010 Fifa World Cup. People from all walks of life put aside their own unique identities to unite behind our South African identity. Wearing our masks in uniformity symbolises the opportunity to lay down individual identities for unity and the common good of all of us.
We need to give our young people a voice at this time and encourage them as they labour on the frontlines. Look at how the United Kingdom has done that with their National Health Service. At 8pm on Thursday nights, millions of people stand at their front doors and open windows, in gardens and on balconies, to clap hands and praise those working on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus.
There are young people in our society who have the right principles and ethical foundations to lead our nation. We must not let political bullies and thugs silence or discourage them. Because make no mistake, it’s only good and compassionate leadership, shown by youngsters such as Lerato, that can put our nation on a different trajectory. And we need them in all sectors of society — in public service, in medical care, in factories, in shops, in the police force — and they are there. They need us to rally around and encourage them.
Of course, if you’re looking for division, you’ll see it, but as I’ve looked for unity, I have found that too. There are those who are seeking to polarise us and politicians that infuriate and embarrass us. There are those who refuse to wear masks, those who want to see our rand and economy ruined, those who are keeping the masses under-served and robbed of opportunities for a better life.
Right now, I am seeing an awareness of being respectful to our fellow South Africans and keeping each other safe. We have been forced to look beyond our corner in the classroom for the support and survival of our fellow man. It’s not our wealth, status, skin colour or creed that will protect us against our enemy, but consistently wearing our masks. There is uniformity of purpose as ordinary South Africans wear their masks in public and seek to overcome this plague. We are united behind our masks as we adhere to social distancing and sanitise our hands and surfaces.
Prior to 1994 we spoke with two voices, and perhaps some of those in their sunset years are still speaking with a pre-1994 voice. But the Born Frees who went to school after our Democratic Revolution want simple things: job opportunities, good universities to study at, income to feed their families, financial security, peace in their time, protection from gender-based violence and prosperity for all.
I dare to say that never before has South Africa been so collectively fed up with the government of the day. We didn’t go from being a middle-income country that ranked in the top 10 in several indicators of the World Competitiveness Report to be the third-most miserable economy in Bloomberg’s Misery Index, as announced this week, without dozens of own goals.
In South Africa, there has always been ubuntu, but it’s up to us to determine how much we still have. We don’t want a side-track or hippo trail of ubuntu. We need it to be the highway to our future. The mask symbolises our common protection against a common enemy and it provides an identification that we are in this together, regardless of our political affiliations, skin colour or cultural grouping.
Our coronavirus war is offering us an opportunity to reset and to embrace change. We must realise the choices of the past have led us to where we are today. We owe it to those young people who hold our dreams for the future to not let fear and discouragement cause us to throw away the mask. We owe it to doctors like Lerato to unite behind our masks and speak up against division, intolerance, hatred and greed. We owe it our young people to do better.
*Name has been changed for professional reasons
Greg Nott is Caster Semenya’s lawyer, the 2010 Global Lawyer of the year and the Head of the Africa Practice at Norton Rose Fulbright. He writes in his personal capacity. He is regularly featured by media outlets across South Africa, sharing his views on nation building, sports, the law, democracy and human rights.