Above: an actress emulating Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, who told hungry peasants to ‘eat cake’
There is a certain time during your country’s lockdown (or social distancing measures) when it no longer crosses your mind that you’re living during a pandemic. Some people describe this moment as ‘surreal’: while we hang on in our little enclaves, figuring out which Netflix show to binge next, there is a war against an invisible agent outside. A war that it seems we only have to fight when we stand in supermarket lines, 6 feet apart from each other.
I don’t think we intend to be momentarily ignorant (for lack of a better term). Nobody’s emotional wellbeing would emerge at the other end of this pandemic intact if we constantly put it to ourselves to internalize every new update about Coronavirus and it’s effects. But it’s rapidly becoming clear that the different ways in which Coronavirus affects us, due to differing social factors, has exposed levels of ignorance that remind me of Marie Antoinette urging a distraught and hungry public to ‘eat cake’.
I’ll enforce the law, but I won’t follow it
Enter the league of leaders who have imposed lockdowns on their countries but refused to follow them themselves: Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams of South Africa, Dr Catherine Calderwood of Scotland, and Dr David Clark of New Zealand.
From left or right: Dr David Clark, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, and Dr Catherine Calderwood
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams appears in a photo posted by former deputy minister of education Mduduzi Manana, where it seems that she visited Manana for a meal during the country’s 21 day lockdown period. The picture was soon deleted after social media outcry grew, but Manana was quick to concoct a lame excuse: ‘She was collecting PPE’s(Personal Protective Equipment)’.
Above: the image shared on Mduduzi Manana’s instagram account, with Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams present
Perhaps this is one of the instances in which the cover-up is more damaging than the instance itself. Reading this comment, I could not help but feel offended: do they really expect South Africans who have given up the physical aspects of their personal lives and many of their rights of free movement to believe an excuse that superficial? The fetching of PPE’s doesn’t require a meal and a photo. It is a simple transaction in which an item is handed over and the visiting party (who technically has broken the laws of the country’s lockdown) leaves.
This instance becomes even more appalling when one considers that Bheki Cele, the country’s minister of police, has long been mocking the public for wanting to take part in activities such as walking their dogs or running during the lockdown. I have yet to hear his comments on Abraham’s (a fellow minister serving the same cabinet as himself) conduct.
This instance is deeply wounding in a country with a past that points to the unequal treatment of citizens before the law. From Apartheid, where the colour of your skin (and not the degree of your offense) determined the severity of your punishment, to the modern day democratic South Africa where corrupt former president Jacob Zuma has faced commissions of inquiry but has yet to be charged with any criminal activity despite mounting evidence, South Africa’s leadership has yet to embody one of the fundamental tenets of it’s award winning constitution: ‘everybody is equal before the law’.
It’s worth examining Abraham’s responses to previous accusations of ill-conduct: on April 5th, News24 published an article titled ‘People think that I am God- Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams takes swipe at critics’. As a public we can be faulted on expecting leaders to be without mistake, but leaders are also supposed to respond in certain ways to such challenges.
Enter the previously mentioned Dr Catherine Calderwood and Dr David Clarke.
Calderwood has resigned as Scotland’s chief medical officer after being given a police warning for breaking her country’s lockdown rules. This came after the Scottish Sun published photographs of her and her family visiting Earlsferry in Fife. She apologized for her mistakes, and admitted that her actions would distract from her country’s efforts to contain the pandemic- especially as she was the front of the country’s social distancing campaign.
Clarke, now New Zealand’s former health minister, has been demoted after it was reported that he drove his family to a beach 20km away from his house during the country’s lockdown. Aside from the demotion, he has indulged in some self-deprecation, denouncing himself as an idiot.
If we compare the reactions of Clarke and Calderwood to those of Abrahams, one can see the differences. The former are honest and sincere, while the latter gives a response that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, where the accusation is shifted from the perpetrator to the whistleblowing public.
Comparing these 2 kinds of leadership, I’m inclined to think that it’s no wonder news agencies around the world reported that South Africa was battling to enforce lockdown rules. Where footage has surfaced of the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) abusing their ports of call whilst they monitor citizen compliance with lockdown laws, Abraham’s conduct seems to imply that the rules work differently for those in power.
Celebrities? Who are they?
For as far back as society goes, there has always been a class that enjoyed a degree of fame, and who’s family matters were the subject of gossip amongst the community. At first it was Kings and their families, but now it’s the Kardashians that we love to swoon over, and sometimes, look to for indications of society’s new directions and well being. But it is now more than ever that the upper echelons seem more out of touch than ever before.
A recent video of celebrities singing a cover of John Lennon’s ‘imagine’ has been doing the rounds. I can’t help but compare it’s setup to ‘We are the World’ recorded by numerous singers in 1985 under the collective name ‘USA for Africa’. The crucial difference here is that ‘We are the World’ has raised over $63million to date for various humanitarian causes, 90% of which are African. While Gal Gaddot was aiming to unify society with her lead of the ‘Imagine’ rendition, it didn’t quite make the same contribution to society as the predecessor it may have tried (and failed) to emulate.
One can’t fault her for her good intentions, but the attempt made it apparent that the upper reaches of society simply aren’t experiencing the pandemic like the rest of their communities. It might even suffice to call it a bit narcissistic to believe that people would feel a little less worried about a pathogen that has infected over 1 Million people because you and your other well known friends sang for them, and blessed them with your presence.
One also can’t forget the moment Idris Elba tested positive despite being asymptomatic. Not long after, Cardi B took a shot at celebrities who were procuring coronavirus testing when the general public was struggling to access the very same test. Similarly, fans took to dragging Pharrell Williams when he urged people to donate money to various causes that aimed to alleviate the effects of the pandemic, conveniently ignoring his own deep pockets.
And so, whilst we’ve been spending our time thinking of our favorite celebrities, it’s clear that most of them haven’t been doing the same for us. They are so used to their mere presence being valued, and being able to use their resources to acquire certain privileges, that it seems they do not know how to carry themselves otherwise.
A very selective economic depression
I recently read a piece by the Univeristy of Melbourne’s Sally Young, where she argued that today’s media was betraying it’s consumers in ways similar to the occurrences of the Great Depression: because of reasons pertaining to self-interest, some of media is prioritizing business over public health.
I was thus alarmed when I lifted by eyes from the concluding words of her piece (that urged me to be aware of anti-science and anti-expertise armchair generals who call for the public to do things they wouldn’t do themselves) to find members of the Trump administration, such as Peter Navarro, urging for the continued use of hydroxychloroquine, despite the warnings of infectious disease experts such as Anthony Fauci who have outlined that the evidence for it’s use is actually inconclusive. I was alarmed when the Governor of Georgia lifted bans on beach visits, defending his decision by saying that only a few members of the public have frequented it, and assumedly insinuating that the numbers weren’t high enough to warrant a threat of infection.
But above all I was alarmed to see CNBC’s recent report on real estate CEO Jeff Blau who stated that the COVID-19 crisis is ‘not an excuse’- and that those who can should pay their rent. In a world where the US claims for unemployment hit record highs for 2 consecutive weeks, and where large companies/renters with deep pockets such as the female co-working space, The Wing (that has several notable locations around the globe) have been forced to furlough the majority of their staff to make ends meet, who exactly does he think has the money to pay rent? He goes on to mention that several businesses have favorable balance sheets, but my question is, given the current climate (and given the fact that most people are urged to work from home- indicating that rented spaces actually are not being used to their full capacity) for how long will these favorable balance sheets last?
I have the same question for the South African company that runs a chain of luxury hotel apartments: The Capital. It has recently announced that, because it wants to make a valuable contribution to South African society at this time, it is offering a 14 day stay at the price of around R1300 a night- including a nurse on call and 3 meals a day. Discovery medical aid scheme has chimed in, saying that those who chose to self isolate at these hotel apartments would be subsidized R400 a night. But here’s where we need to do the math:
The guest staying for the full 14 days (13 nights) ends up paying R16 900 without the Discovery compensation, and R11 700 with compensation. Either way you flip the coin, this chain is essentially asking South Africans (individuals living in a country where the country’s budget deficit is reaching war levels, and on a continent where an estimated 20 million jobs will be lost due to the COVID19 economic bloodbath) to fork out over R10 000 to gain their right to exercise a public health measure? That sounds out of tune to me. Those who can opt for this option over self-isolating at home or at government facilities are very few and far between at such times.
We’re talking about a revolution
In Italy, people are starting to go hungry. Video’s have begun circulating of people telling the government that they are out of food. Some are threading an uprising.
These sorts of things happen when people do not feel heard. They happen when CEOs in the country with the highest number of active Coronavirus cases are worried about the economic ecosystem because a pandemic ‘is not an excuse’. They happen when there is a disconnect between the suffering of the 99 and the 1 percent.
Tracy Chapman offers a pearl of wisdom: ‘don’t you know? Talking about a revolution sounds like a whisper’. I don’t think #EatTheRich qualifies as a whisper, this is quickly turning into a scream. And unless the upper reaches of society make meaningful contributions, they will suffer the same fate as Marie Antoinette who told the hungry to eat Cake: gullotined in the public square Place de la Revolution. But by virtue of living in a slightly less violent society, they’ll be hung in a slightly more embarassing way: left to dry on the washing line of society where all the other relics are banished in fits of irrelevance.