La Dolce Vita took a body blow earlier this week after the Italian government extended its novel Coronavirus Covid 19 quarantine of part of the north of the country to the entire nation. You can say what you like about the Italians, there have been no half measures; the schools were closed, then the big soccer fixtures were played but to empty stadia, finally there was a lockdown on movement until April 4.
In Britain, on the other hand, there’s a bizarre schizophrenia led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson who is so hands off, he’s the kind of person who thinks Manual Labour plays left half for FC Porto, underpinned by a tabloid media that shrills DON’T PANIC, while its coverage – on its websites especially – does precisely the opposite.
In the greatest of ironies one of the earliest high-profile patients to be quarantined was Britain’s health secretary. On either side of the globe, President Xi Jinping perhaps signalled that China’s over the worst, making his first visit to the outbreak’s original epicentre in Wuhan. The orange agent in the White House on the other hand continued to dispute the science, but ended up banning travellers from the EU (not Britain) for 30 days – but only from the end of March.
The first world hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory; amazing scenes of selfishness like the deservedly viral video of panic buying and riot over toilet paper in Australia. Or the equally bizarre bout of weaponised coughing on a Sydney commuter train, where a woman coughs repeatedly into a man’s face.
Thus far it seems like we are doing ok, as a country. The Health Department under Zweli Mkhize remains rational, approachable, seemingly transparent and most importantly calm. Health screening in place at OR Tambo International Airport well before the outbreak of this global health scare is regularly praised on social media by international travellers and has caught most of the early reported cases.
But we’re still susceptible to the mania, particularly those who can afford to: there’s been a run on face masks and hand sanitisers and in the shopping malls in the suburbs of South Africa’s affluent metropoles. Just why beggars the imagination – the danger of infection comes from all of us not washing our hands, unless the intention is to douse everyone you come in contact with as they approach within breathing range.
It’s the same attitude that allows people to work from home, yet still send their kids to school, the greatest incubator of pharmacy resistant lurgies. It’s the same myopia for those who might ‘self-isolate’ yet find the energy to raise themselves from their sick beds to allow the domestic staff in – ironically the most at-risk sector with the least safety net in terms of either job security or sick leave.
Perhaps the biggest problem with self-isolation though is that it forces people even deeper into the echo chambers of social media, feeding on the fear and the fake news. It’s another contagion that we can really do without.
Originally published on 14 March 2020 in the Saturday Star