OPINION: Chill, people, chill

Norman McFarlane

In the last two weeks, no fewer than three WhatsApp voice notes have found their way to me, warning of an impending “complete lockdown”.

Each is dressed up in convincing garments like – “I have a friend who is high up in the police” or “we were told this in a meeting with the cabinet yesterday”, or “my sister teaches where the education minister’s kids go to school”, and they all predict ensuing chaos and panic, encouraging one to “keep this to yourself but you’d better go and buy all the necessities you can get before the announcement”.

It simply beggars belief that any of these – and I’ve no doubt there are a great many more out there that are doing the rounds – contains a grain of truth, but what really puzzles me is figuring out what possesses a person to either originate such an item of potentially catastrophic fake news, or to disseminate it.

As convincing as they may sound, each of these emperors has no clothes.

Aside from the six-month prison sentence if one is caught spreading fake news about the Covid-19 pandemic (and spreading includes passing it by any means, to anybody), the potential to spread panic is significant, and right now, panic is last thing that we need, because when people panic, they do things that they would otherwise not do, if they were in a calm, rational state.

When we panic, we are naturally inclined to focus inward, rather than outward. Our circle of concern narrows dramatically, and our actions become largely self-centric.

At the time of writing on Monday, the tally of confirmed Covid-19 infections spiked to 402, an increase over 24 hours, of over 46%, so it may well be that by the time you read this, the country may have been placed in lockdown, but that is beside the point.

A measured statement by President Cyril Ramaphosa, if it is deemed necessary, is infinitely prefferable to some half-baked BS, cooked up by some nitwit trying to sow panic, for their own twisted reasons.

As more people choose to self-isolate, the likelihood of flattening the curve of infections increases, but sowing false panic will drive some of those self-isolators out to indulge in unnecessary panic buying “just in case it’s true”.

So, before you hit share, or forward that next panic-inducing message or social media post, “just because it may be true”, pause for a moment, think about what you are about to do, and don’t.

There is enough miscommunication coming from official sources as it is – for example, the twaddle on Sunday about a Covid-19 vaccine on its way from Cuba, which Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosasana Dlamini Zuma had to smartly debunk – without adding to the maelstrom.

The community response to the measures implemented by President Cyril Ramaphosa has been positive, with the notable exception of certain elements in the faith communities.

The most glaring was the initial refusal of the Zionist Christian Church to cancel – or at least, postpone – it’s annual Easter gathering at Zion City, Moria, in Limpopo Province.

But it didn’t end there. On Sunday, a television news anchor completely lost it, while engaging with a religious leader who insisted that he was carrying out God’s will, by not limiting the size of religious gatherings at his church.

Our constitution enshrines religious freedom but that freedom does not extend to the point where exercising that freedom begins to encroach on the rights of others; in this case, the enforcement of measures designed to protect the community from a potentially lethal illness.

The other narrative that is doing the rounds argues that the various stages of lockdown being implemented around the world, will have calamitous economic consequences.

It’s true of course, but what is the alternative?

Doing nothing and allowing the virus to spread unchecked will have equal, if not greater economic consequences, as healthcare facilities are overwhelmed, thousands contract the virus, and medical staff must make the order of triage decisions that are happening in Italy.

As an aside, there is no point in comparing Covid-19 to the seasonal flu, because it isn’t.

Yes, seasonal flu does result in many thousands of deaths each year, but millions of people have immunity to the various seasonal flu strains that flare up each year because of herd immunity that has been built up over the years.

There is no herd immunity to Covid-19, nor is there likely to be for some time to come, wrought by containment measures and a vaccine, still up to 18 months away.

But there is another side to what is emerging in the media, that surely gives us hope.

A man sitting on his balcony, playing an electric piano, and serenading people in opposite and surrounding apartments who, like him, are in self-isolation; two people on balconies some three metres apart, playing racquet ball; a soprano with the most achingly beautiful voice, entertaining people on surrounding balconies; clear blue skies above Wuhan in China; and limpid clear blue water, and frolicking dolphins in the canals of Venice.

Isolation can be either a prison or an inspiration.