‘Now is the time to pull together’

Dr Haig MacRobert

It’s been a 100-plus days of the emotional Corona-Coaster that has been lockdown.

You are probably, like me, sick and tired of Covid-19 at this stage.

Socially awkward regulations that are literally in your face everyday, the insecurity of uncertain income (if you are lucky enough to still have one), and a constant bombardment of news, apparently contradictory information and stories about Covid-19 and its fallout around the world.

People seemed to be completely behind the initial lockdown, especially the first three weeks.

It felt like a heroic effort and, after all, it was only going to be three weeks of sacrifice, wasn’t it?

During that time, I read a BBC article comparing South Africa’s response to Covid-19 to the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in the early days of World War II.

Confusing this otherwise good metaphor, the article goes on to do a historical flip-flop, comparing the anticipated economic fallout to our potential Stalingrad (this gave me a metaphorical headache).

It would be more useful to extend the metaphor of Dunkirk, and see the period we are now entering as the London Blitz where, night after night, ordinary citizens would hole up in shelters and hopefully emerge the next morning to survey the damage from the previous night’s raids.

Then they would need to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” going about their day’s business with tenacious fortitude, and even humour and camaraderie, from behind the gas masks and between the piles of rubble.

The Blitz went on for nine gruelling months. It must have felt unbearable at times, as if it would never end.

And so it is with Covid-19: we are in for the long haul, and in all likelihood things will get bleaker before they begin to improve.

Only then, perhaps, will things begin to return to a semblance of normality. For now, we simply have to endure.

As I write, South Africa has just over 150 000 active Covid-19 cases. The initial lockdown was only intended to slow things down and give time for preparations.

Now the actual battle has begun. Social distancing, masks in public and regular sanitizing of hands and surfaces is more important now than ever.

The strategic goal is to keep the spread down to a simmer rather than a fast boil, and to maximise ability of medical services to function, and thus save lives that otherwise might needlessly be lost.

The cloth mask you wear is partly to protect you, but it is mostly to protect others from catching the virus if you are infected.

It is not because people are “scared of getting it”, it is respectful, caring and considerate of others.

Although it remains an essential part of slowing down the spread of Covid-19, wearing masks has become unnecessarily politicised, especially beyond our borders.

Politics aside, it is understandable that wearing masks in public can feel strange and inconvenient.

Some people feel hot and bothered wearing them, sometimes even claustrophobic.

Those hard of hearing cannot lip read, and trying to have a normal conversation in a mask is frustrating, with both parties seemingly mumbling, or shouting to be heard more clearly.

Symbolically, masks would normally be associated with somebody trying to conceal their identity, or somebody who has been muzzled.

Masks also interfere with our normal constant scanning of other people’s faces to try to decipher their mood and reactions (see psychologist Paul Ekman’s face signs).

With the masks on, we can only use the eyes, forehead and general body posture, without the essential clues that the lips and cheeks give us.

Interestingly, the eye signs for laughter and rage are very similar and might be easily confused without the mouth and cheek signs.

Think about that the next time you interpret somebody scowling at you from behind a mask.

You can try emphasising expression in your voice to compensate for the reduced facial expression.

However inconvenient it is, it is still really important to continue wearing face masks.

We each have a unique set of circumstances, and can only try to navigate the limits set by the pandemic within our own lives as best we can.

Now is not the time for profiteering, nor leveraging power by the strong over the more vulnerable in our society, and now is not the time to flaunt sensible regulations because of a reactive rebelliousness, triggered by being told what to do by (usually fairly easy going) authorities.

Now is the time to celebrate the freedoms that we can still enjoy, as well as the time we have and the people around us.

Now is the time for people of all walks of life to pull together (physically distanced, of course), to practise kindness both to yourself and to those that you come into contact with.

We cannot stop the onslaught, but we can slow it down to a manageable challenge.

Now is the time to redouble our efforts and resolve, and strengthen our commitment to our community. KEEP CALM, CARRY ON. This too shall pass, eventually.

Dr Haig MacRobert is a general practitioner at New Street Surgery, Somerset West.