InternationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 21

Public health is more than a matter of individual choice

When it was first announced that schools in South Africa would be reopening on June 1, I was gripped by worry like most caregivers. I immediately emailed my children’s school principal with my concerns about my children returning, even though my children are not in grades 12 and 7, which were scheduled to go back first.

The children and I have severe chronic rhinitis and a variety of allergies that have had various respiratory consequences over the years. Before we got the medical care that we needed, all of us had been hospitalised at some point and I have had two major surgeries related to this.

Over and above that, my grandmother now lives with us. She is over 70 and suffers from hypertension, which puts her in the high-risk category.

The principal responded to my concerns in the most empathetic way and suggested that I reach out to our doctor to discuss the issue, also assuring me that we would be able to make a plan for my children to resume their education, whatever happens.

While this has been comforting, the children and I are only as safe as our community and society are. We do not live insular lives in which we have no contact with the world outside our home. But most importantly, even if we could somehow live insulated lives, our survival is deeply intertwined with others because of our shared humanity.

As places consider when and how to reopen, too frequently it has felt like collective health and care have been reduced to a matter of individual choice, which has also been incentivised by the government’s current approach to the crisis.

The plan to reopen schools came hot on the heels of warnings from New York and London about children falling severely ill, and even dying, from inflammatory complications possibly linked to Covid-19. News then followed that more than 200 schools in South Korea had to close just one day after reopening, and the reopening of others had to be postponed, following a significant rise in coronavirus infections in the country.

Closer to home in the Western Cape, which has the highest number of coronavirus infections and related deaths in South Africa, 32 schools reported that they have Covid-19 cases among their staff days before their scheduled reopening. And over the last few weeks, we have had alarm bells raised about schools not being ready to reopen, from teachers unions and school governing bodies. All these understandably drove the concerns of caregivers about their children returning to school.

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga failed to respond empathetically to these concerns, instead callously telling concerned caregivers that her department is “not forcing anything down their throats” and that they have the option to keep their children at home. But that is no solution. The department should be engaging with caregivers, learners and communities, whose support and confidence is crucial for the success of any plans related to education.

Predictably, less than 24 hours before children were meant to go back, the minister released a statement saying the reopening has been postponed to June 8 because “a substantial number of schools were not ready to reopen”. Eventually, despite continuing concerns and uncertainties, pupils in grades seven and 12 were allowed to return to their classrooms.

Late last month, Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi said “employees have a right to refuse to work if they have a reasonable belief that the necessary precautions have not been put in place to prevent the transmission of Covid-19”.

While this is a welcome policy, it cannot guarantee the safety and financial stability of most workers. Nxesi himself admits that many employers across the country are not doing enough to guarantee the safe return of their employees.

Despite the government’s reassurances, the workers who decide to stay at home due to safety concerns risk being unlawfully dismissed. While such cases of unlawful dismissal can be referred to the Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), it may take a long time for each case to be resolved, given the expected rise in the number of cases that are being referred to the council.

Moreover, many workers in South Africa, and especially Black workers, are under increasing pressure to go out and eke out a living amid continuing threats, as they do not have the option to work from home and there is no safety net to keep them financially afloat if they choose not to work. There has also been a significant increase in the prices of basic food items since the beginning of the lockdown, increasing the pressures on many workers to return to work. And all this happens against a backdrop of an exploitative labour market, an unemployment crisis and widespread food precarity that preceded the pandemic.

So, instead of leaving it to workers to decide whether they should go back to work, more must be done to enforce employers to take the necessary precautions to guarantee the safety of those they employ.

In the face of an invisible virus that renders physical connection a threat, it is tempting to focus on individual safety. Especially as this crisis unfolds in a culture steeped in neoliberalism in which human relations are defined by competition, individualism and instrumentality. But turning to individual solutions will only serve to reinforce a status quo that has created and maintained by rising inequality, heightened authoritarianism, white supremacy, and indeed many of the inequalities that are now being amplified by the pandemic.

Fortunately, across the world, we are seeing powerful examples of collective imagination and action at work. In Cape Town, unlikely communities are forming ties to collectively respond to Covid-19. In various cities across the United States thousands have taken to the streets, risking infection, to protest against the state violence inflicted on Black people. In Brazil, reportedly the biggest protest against the Bolsonaro government took place during the lockdown.

It is the collective, political imagination of these movements and the many other ways people are both maintaining and forging new connections to each other that we should be drawing inspiration from – inspiration to defy a logic that would have us turn towards self-reliance, at a time when it is our interdependence that makes us powerful.

Together, we can be powerful enough to not only shelter each other through the current crisis, but also to both imagine and actively build a better world that must come out of this crisis. A just world for which there is no evidence, but yet is possible if fought for, as we have learned from those who came before us who have had to do the same over and over again.