It’s been almost nine months since Covid-19 started dominating the headlines and led to the first national lockdown. A lifetime, it seems, has passed since the time we were all a bit like the outgoing US president, talking about a virus in China.
Now it’s hard to shake the feeling that the population is feeling fatigued by it all and wants nothing more than a relatively normal Christmas. Politicians are not helping, with conflicting messages and rules. This lockdown has been marred by ridiculous rules that have baffled people, including government ministers themselves.
They can’t decide if you are allowed to play tennis or golf with a friend, or meet another family while walking the dog. Rich people’s problems, you might sneer, but these are important for mental health in these stressful times. Some restaurants and cafés can open as long as they don’t sell alcohol. Shops can sell essential goods, but who defines what those are?
How can anyone argue that baby clothes are non-essential? A national retail chain has had to issue a grovelling apology after (wrongly) telling a customer it couldn’t sell sanitary products to her during the most severe period of the lockdown. Yet you could go to that very shop and buy a bottle of vodka.
And the young people. The great scapegoats of this new wave. It’s their partying, locking themselves in contained spaces, drinking, and getting up to whatever else 20-year-olds get up to in normal times. But they are too selfish to realise that these are far from being normal times; sacrifices have to be made.
“Young people don’t just spread the virus to each other, they spread the virus to their parents and their grandparents,” said a frustrated minister. Not that we older people are off the hook. Politicians are making noises about our failure to respect the rules having made the new restrictions inevitable. If you are going to act like children, the message goes, we are going to treat you accordingly and make decisions for you. And for most people, having watched their incompetence, lectures from these politicians are really hard to swallow.
If you are going to act like children, the message goes, we are going to treat you accordingly and make decisions for you
The public is weary already, so the last thing you need is for this to be tainted by allegations of corruption and sweetheart deals for people with political connections. But this is exactly what has happened. Consultants have been appointed at great cost, and failed trace-and-test providers were chosen without open tenders. A politically connected company whose test kits had to be recalled because of concerns about contamination got another testing contract valued at R7-billion, sans tender too.
The vodka-but-no-tampons example should have been a clue that this is not about South Africa, but just a few of the headlines I saw during my visit to the UK in October. Surely no British minister would ever survive doing something as silly as banning alcohol altogether. Our much-ridiculed trade and industry minister, Ebrahim Patel, might otherwise have taken heart in all of this, as it shows we are not alone in our madness during these extraordinary times. But a decision to ban the sale of warm food and online shopping in the middle of a pandemic is going to take some beating.
Fingers crossed that everyone behaves. It would be a terrible thing if he was forced to do it again for Christmas.
• Mnyanda is the editor of Business Day.
• From the December edition of Wanted, 2020.