Fear and Loathing

I don’t know what to do with the rage.

In the 18 months since COVID-19 became a fixture in our lives, I have experienced the range of emotions one would expect to accompany the ructions of living through a slow-motion extinction event. As each wave of this virus has approached, crested and receded, it feels like it has inched closer and closer, and taken more and more. This third wave, in particular, has been brutal. I have lost count of the number of stories I am hearing about fellow young parents of small children, falling critically ill, and never making it out of hospital. These are people whom I know have been just as careful as they can be, and who have lived through the waking nightmare of protecting our small children from the constant dread and protecting the freedom of their childhoods. These are people who have lived and loved and who have done everything they need to do to hold on to the lives they have built and shared with their children. And they have been swept away by the brutal currents of COVID-19.

As the waves keep coming and seemingly draw ever closer, I find myself filled with a new level of fear and a deep rage. There is no cure for this thing. There does not seem to be a sure-fire way to predict the severity of the effect on different groups of people. But hope is not entirely lost. There is a range of vaccines available. In some countries, these have been available to the broader population for months. In South Africa, we have seen a phased roll-out. As we progress through phases and more of us become eligible to receive our vaccinations, the chorus of people who are ‘vaccine-hesitant’ has grown louder. I can summon some empathy for some the fearful and mistrustful. The medical sciences are not uniformly renowned for their respect for people’s lived experiences. In fact, for low-income people of colour, clinical medicine is too often a site of extreme trauma. I can understand the mistrust. I can also bring myself to understand the sheer frustration of hearing public health messaging that urges us all to protect one another and be selfless in a context that has never protected low-income and working class families.

In the weeks after the phased roll-out opened up to my age group, parts of the country erupted in violence. Ostensibly, this was a reaction to the imprisonment of embattled former president, Jacob Zuma. A broader reading might take into account the aching income inequality and inhumane poverty that many of South Africa’s people endure. Such a reading might conclude that the violence was, to some extent, a form of public venting of the frustrations of life in the margins. The virus’s waves haven’t breached the protections of my middle-class life until recently. But from the moment of our first national lockdown, they have been drowning South Africans who were already under water. The latest results of the ongoing National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) revealed that:

  • School drop-out rates have almost tripled, with schools in low-income communities being the worst affected
  • Children who attend no-fee schools have lost 70 to 100% learning time.
  • Approximately 10 million people, 3 million of whom are children, report experiencing or being affected by hunger.
    • 1.8 million people, 400 000 of whom are children, experience perpetual hunger (i.e. daily hunger).
    • Hunger is also linked to poor mental health, with 40% of adults living with children in food insecure households show signs of depressed mood.
  • Whilst there has been some recovery in terms of unemployment, rates remain high with women experiencing employment rates that are 8% lower than those of men.

We already lived with high rates of unemployment and unequal access to quality education. The pandemic has worsened these problems and has ensured that their effects will be embedded in low-income communities for generations to come.

I struggle, then, to turn my rage towards someone who experiences daily hunger and watches their child experience daily hunger. I don’t know how to ask that they trust a system that has so fundamentally failed them. I can’t.

Where then does all this resentment, this white hot loathing go? To the middle- and upper-class anti-vaxxers who stage protests against non-existent vaccine mandates? To whomever designed this phased roll-out and accommodated the vaccine-hesitancy of priority groups (some boomers and, inexplicably, some healthcare workers), and delayed the roll-out to the non-hesitant but non-priority broader populations?

Maybe this fear and loathing is the inevitable result of living in this house of cards we call a society. Stacked as it is, unevenly against so many people, it is no wonder that all it took was a tiny virus to bring it all crashing down. I am trying to remain optimistic. I have received my first dose of the vaccine; most of the adults in my immediate and extended family are vaccinated. My children remain resilient in the face of so much disruption and fear and change. My 2-year-old daughter, in particular, is a force to be reckoned with. Every morning, I wake up exhausted, reluctant to face another work-from-home day filled with interactions via a screen. My daughter almost invariably indulges me for 10 minutes. Then, she’s up, patiently playing while I gather my will and wits. Last week, she had her first day of a new term at play school. She marched into school, climbed onto the trampoline and began to jump. No questions asked.

I have no answers. I’m not even sure my questions are questions. More like screams into the void, I suppose. Maybe even prayers? I am left with one such prayer or supplication: please may we make it through this collective dark night of the soul and leave our children and their children with a morning worth diving into gleefully.

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