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  • Writer's picturegraeme

Lockdown Reflections Day 36: Worker's day

Updated: May 3, 2020

It’s 1 May. Workers Day. Almost every year for the past ten years I have put up the same status on Mayday: something along the lines of the irony of us taking a public holiday to honour labourers, in which rich and middle class people get a day off work but insist on using it to go shopping or to restaurants, thereby ensuring that those very minimum wage labourers we are supposed to be commemorating do not get a holiday, but have to be at work to serve us. And every year, some rich and middle class people scoff at my status, saying that the poor should be grateful to have a job. And then they head off to the shops.

Today, anyone who can be at work and earn an income will be happy and grateful. And we hope that more and more of the economy can open up as soon as possible, while we ensure that the population remains healthy.

Today I am disappointed for a different, but similar reason.

Every single medical expert in the past two months has indicated that Covid-19 is particularly dangerous for people with underlying medical problems, especially those with compromised immune systems and heart and lung issues. I don’t think there’s a single person who denies this.

One million of our fellow South Africans have TB. And somewhere around 9 million have AIDS. We are unique in the world to have so many people who are in a high risk or vulnerable category. And so far we’ve done well. But these are the people the government is most worried about. If Covid-19 were to run through South Africa like it ran through Italy or the UK or the USA, we would have millions of people needing hospital care and hundreds of thousands dead. I am afraid that the very worst still lies ahead of us.

And so, this morning I am disappointed by a number of people who have taken to social media and poured scorn on the SA government. Questioning government is every citizen’s right and duty. But doing it in the way that many of my friends have done in the last two days, especially during a time of national crisis, really just doesn’t seem like a good thing to me.

I don’t think the government has got everything right in their Covid-19 response, but I don’t think they’ve lost the plot, I don’t they’re power hungry, I don’t think they’re irrational, I don’t think this is a communist take over ploy, I don’t think the government wants to destroy the economy. I just think they’ve got other priorities than only middle class economic considerations.

We also live in a country that has not yet fully recovered from apartheid. I am sad to see how quickly some people I respect have slipped back into the “us and them” rhetoric of talking about the government as if it’s not their government. Even sadder to see some resorting to veiled (and even not so veiled) racism as they do so. How sad to see people moaning about how “this government” has allowed the standard of living in South Africa to drop in the last 25 years without any reference to what it was like to be black under a century of apartheid. How sad to see some people looking at the desperate state of the poor people in South Africa apparently for the first time in their lives, and not acknowledging that most people who are hungry today were also hungry this time last year, and the year before that.

“Opening the economy” means nothing for the 25% of our fellow citizens who didn’t have a job to start with. And “opening the economy” is dangerous for anyone who has to use public transport to get from their apartheid spatial planned township to their workplace.

But mainly I am concerned about those people with TB and AIDS who are deeply vulnerable to a disease that could be deadly for them. Please, this workers day, as you question whether the government knows what it is doing, remember that 10 million people in this country are super vulnerable to Covid-19. If we fail to protect them, we have failed.

What’s the point of a workers day holiday for people who can’t take it off to enjoy it? What’s the point of an economy to people who are dying of a pandemic? It’s basically the same question I’ve been asking for ten years.

I know there are no easy answers. I know we have to get the economy going again. But I also know that the shrill voices coming from the suburbs this morning are part of the problem, not the solution.

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