OPINION: Stockholm syndrome?

Norman McFarlane

It is easy to fall into the trap of being grateful to your gaoler when the gate is finally opened and you are set free, particularly if the incarceration has endured for a significant period.

The term which describes this phenomenon – Stockholm syndrome – may not yet have found its way into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standard textbook for the diagnosis of psychiatric illnesses and disorders, but aside from the event that led to its emergence, a 1973 bank robbery turned hostage situation in Stockholm, there have been other anecdotal accounts of captors feeling sympathy for, and gratitude toward their captors, upon release.

Question is, does 141 days constitute a significant period? Just how long does one have to be incarcerated – incarceration can, and often is, both physical and psychological – for those counterintuitive feelings of affection and sympathy for one’s captors to emerge?

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Saturday night that the entire country would be moving to lockdown level 2 with all its attendant freedoms on Monday at midnight, and that the prohibition on the sale of tobacco products and alcohol would be lifted, social media lit up with memes expressing emotions ranging from relief to jubilation, and yes, even gratitude.

But do we have anything to be grateful for? We have been incarcerated for over 140 days, and although pretty much the whole country took up the challenge when President Ramaphosa addressed the nation for the first time in March, imposed the state of disaster and put the country into hard lockdown, as the days, weeks, and now months have dragged on, the goodwill, the glue that provided the sense of national solidarity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, has degraded from iron-hard, indestructible epoxy, to a flour-and-water approximation that can no longer even bind paper-mâché.

We heard the week before last from Police Minister Bheki Cele when he released national crime statistics, that nearly 300 000 people have been charged for breaking lockdown regulations since March 27. That equates to 2 127 on average for each of the 141 days we had been in lockdown when the move to level 2 was anounced.

But here’s the thing: Those almost 300 000 arrests, most if not all of which might result in the offenders ending up with a criminal record, are not included in the bleak crime stats Mr Cele shared with us.

Since we are now to expect – if we can take Mr Cele at his word – that crime stats will in future be released quarterly, it will be fascinating to see how the figures will be skewed by this deluge of new criminal activity which has turned us into a de facto nation of criminals, since lockdown began.

It just feels wrong that a man who breaks lockdown to go fishing in order to feed his starving family, or the senior citizen who cannot produce his repeat chronic medication prescription at a roadblock because it is on his pharmacist’s computer, are classified as criminals, like a murderer, a rapist or a hijacker.

Yes, the initial lockdown, into which we pretty much all bought, had the purest of motives. Reduce the pressure on the healthcare system, prepare for the infection peak, save lives, flatten the curve, and it seems that it worked. But once those objectives had been achieved, the continued imposition of harshly restrictive, nitpicking, counterintuitive, contradictory, (and arguably personal agenda-driven) lockdown measures, became increasingly difficult to justify.

The lives vs livelihoods pendulum seemed stuck at the one extreme, and as criticism mounted, the responses of the national coronavirus command council – our de facto government – became increasingly dismissive, disdainful even, as if it could do no wrong, as if it is both omnipotent and omniscient.

But as the extent of the economic calamity became apparent, coupled with the inability of the government to contain the disgraceful, wholesale looting of Covid-19 emergency relief funding, the scales fell from the eyes of the nation.

The last vestiges of goodwill that remained, have dissipated, like smoke before the galeforce wind of mounting public scorn.

But perhaps the greatest insult is that the government, which treats us like a nation of unruly, misbehaving, recalcitrant children, who are incapable of managing their own behaviour, is no better.