A few weeks ago, the New York Times released an investigative piece on the last weeks in the life and death of Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, who was one of the first to raise the public alarm about the novel coronavirus. His story is a compelling and devastating reminder of those early, dark, long days of fear and uncertainty. It all feels somewhat far away now, but watching the Times documentary brought it all back: quiet desperation and worry, Zoom gatherings, and loved ones years and miles away. It isn’t all that distant, nor is it over. As I watched the story of Dr Li, I felt the panic rising in my tightening chest, the anxiety-induced stomach cramps. Given a choice, who among us would willingly to go back there, even for a second?
In any case, we are contending with all the tragedies that have come in COVID’s wake, some as a direct result, others as part of grotesque mutated ripples.
I wish we had held on to the difficult lessons of that time. COVID burned a swath through our society, showing us that of all of the structural weaknesses we live with, the yawning gaps in our economy of care are, by far, the most deadly. The nature of the virus’s spread means that those effects of inequality in access to care and social safety nets rippled and spread faster through communities and across barriers usually policed by class and race. The most vulnerable members of society were most vulnerable to the virus’s worst effects. But because it was so spread so quickly, and effortlessly, leaving some people vulnerable meant multiplying the risks for all of us.
In our regular lives, South Africans encounter people of other classes and races daily. Often, these are superficial, transactional encounters, in which one party is serving, and the other is being paid to serve. South African society – more than many – relies on these interactions as part of its economy. It may be remarkable in some countries, but here, almost everyone in the middle- and upper-classes employs domestic workers in some capacity. Are these transactional relationships exploitative? Not necessarily, but our brutal history and persistent social divides don’t set us up for parity and cross-cultural connection. So even though we live close to one another, often with our vastly different neighbourhoods practically next to each other, we have very different experiences in terms of the services and care to which we have access.
Of course, that has never mattered. At the core of public health, lies an understanding that ill health in any part of the community will affect all of the community. And over the years, we have felt that. The hypervigilance about crime, the rising Afropessimism. All of these things which may feel like the reaction of an insular privileged class are the effects of living in a society that is unequal, and sickly because of it. So, COVID was an acceleration of the sickness in our society. The faster it spread in economically vulnerable communities – in which many essential workers lived – the faster it wreaked havoc in all our communities. What’s that adage? You’re only as strong as your weakest link?
Not too far into the ‘post-COVID’ future, we are confronted with another social malaise: Afrophobia. This is a term used to describe the specific xenophobia visited upon African immigrants of colour who are making lives in South Africa. As an African immigrant myself, I feel I need to qualify: this is a specific form of hatred experienced by poor African immigrants who are making lives amongst and with poor South African citizens. It is not an organic hatred. It is stoked and subtly encouraged by some in high office. Take Limpopo politician, Phophi Ramathuba. After the emergence of a video of her berating an immigrant patient awaiting surgery, she doubled down, reiterating her views on various media platforms. The president commented, but only to say he found her remarks ‘unfortunate’. Not exactly a robust defense. This all feeds into this idea that care – in this case, healthcare – is a limited commodity that must be divided amongst the population. But everything we know about public healthcare contradicts this. The population is an indivisible whole. If anyone living amongst us is unwell, we are all at risk. COVID taught us this valuable lesson. And whilst not all illnesses are transmittable, limiting access to care facilities is a deadly gamble at best. What happens if, out of fear of violence or reprisals, immigrant mothers do not take their children to clinics to be vaccinated? Clusters of unvaccinated subcommunities are a bad thing for everyone, not just for immigrant families.
Maybe that’s the most disappointing part of all this. After everything – the virtual memorials, the sealed coffins, the loss, the loss, the loss – that touched us all; not equally, but it touched us all – we still hold each other in meaningless contempt. We still pretend that we are not living close enough to one another that any collapse in care is a threat to our collective societal health.
Ross Gay writes about the concept of rhizomatic care. The rhizome is a post-structuralist concept (get your eye-rolls out the way) to describe social nodes, and their interconnected and interdependent nature. Think of a knot tied to a lattice of other knots. To unravel one, you must unravel all of them. If you tug to strengthen one, you tighten all. Gay writes
Despite every single lie to the contrary, despite every single action born of that lie—we are in the midst of rhizomatic care that extends in every direction, spatially, temporally, spiritually, you name it. It’s certainly not the only thing we’re in the midst of, but it’s the truest thing. By far.
How lovely. What a wonderful way of thinking beyond these invented, stubborn divisions with which we live. What a wonderful way in which to see one another. I am tied to you. If you’re healthy, I will be healthy. COVID gave us a window into what that could look like. We made and donated masks and hand sanitizer. We drove one another to free vaccination appointments. We looked after one another by looking after ourselves.
Even if we can’t agree on the lessons of COVID, I am sure we can all agree that the price associated with a crisis of that scale is far too high. Isn’t it worth our while, then, to make sure we never again have to pay it?