As the middle-class posts lockdown selfies, how are the poor coping?

Written by ACMS Masters student Shireen Mukadam

Shoppers with gloves reach for household supplies in a supermarket, people greet each other with their elbows and on the rooftop of my apartment complex, domestic workers hang washing on the line just like every other day. But it’s not just another day – this is days after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that we are in the National State of Disaster.

“My brother was going to have a birthday party tomorrow. They cancelled it because of this sickness,” 56-year-old Sylvia Molete told me. Sylvia works as a domestic worker in Lenasia and her family live in Lichtenburg, a town in the North West province, where she was born.

“People who have soap are rich. Poor people sometimes don’t have money to buy bread – how are they going to buy soap?” she asked.

“I heard about mixing water with vinegar and bicarb [to make your own sanitiser]. I do that. It’s hard for poor people. Rich people can go to the shop to buy chicken, and two or three bags of rice and mealie-meal, but poor people will go hungry.”

Syliva told me she thinks this sickness is “worse than Aids”.

The common thread among all the people I spoke to is fear.

27-year-old Dineo Sishweni from Limpopo and living in Diepsloot, says: “I’m scared. We’re not free anymore. Maybe we can get this disease.”

“This disease is very dangerous. There is no cure. We have to protect ourselves always. Use gloves. Sanitise. Some of us don’t have money to buy those things.”

Dineo, who works as a domestic worker, says her “boss” has provided her with a mask, gloves and sanitiser at work, but at her own home, “there’s no money to buy those things. Because I have to pay rent. I have to buy food. Also transport. I’m left with nothing. My neighbours are not going to work. I think they are not getting paid. No work, no pay.”

She says everyone she knows is taking this crisis seriously.

Justice Tsuma, who works as a mechanic in Boksburg and is originally from Zimbabwe, says social media is playing a vital role in informing people about this pandemic.

“Since last Monday [16 March, after Ramaphosa’s announcement], I’ve bought soap, Dettol and sanitiser to protect myself against contracting this disease.”

However, he doubts whether everyone has upped their hygiene habits. “I can’t say everyone else is doing the same. Some people still believe it doesn’t affect black people.”

When I asked what he means, he responded: “Some people believe that because this disease comes from Asia, it affects white people more than black people because our immune system is much stronger than the whites, so we are not candidates of this pandemic. They think it mostly affects rich people: Whites; not us blacks.”

Justice recommends the government host roadshows to target people who don’t believe this disease is real. “When we are not seeing anyone getting sick around us and view the disease from a distance, it’s hard to believe this disease is real.”

Wiseman Zitha, a 34-year-old security guard who lives in Yeoville and is originally from Venda in Limpopo, is not sure if everyone knows about coronavirus: “I’m not sure rural people understand it very well, especially those old people.” He has explained Covid-19 to his parents over the phone, but thinks that they will understand it better if he could speak to them in person.

Wiseman dismisses the myth that Covid-19 is not for Africa. “The numbers are going up [in South Africa]. This one is for everyone.”

Meanwhile, like everyone else, Justice wants to know “when is this corona going to end?”.

“It’s like we are in a cage,” he says. “For how long will we use sanitiser? Everything you touch, you’re thinking about corona. Corona, corona, corona.”

This opinion piece was originally published by the Daily Maverick, along with the featured image, under the same title, on 29 March 2020.

Shireen Mukadam is a Masters student at the Wits University, African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS). Shireen is an experienced researcher and writer. As former Southern Africa Researcher at Amnesty International, her role has involved leading field work in Swaziland, Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa, focusing on human rights issues including the right to adequate housing, and refugees and migrants rights.