Ours always to reason why

Posted on June 4, 2020


According to the United Nations, the world now faces “a famine of biblical proportions” because of responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. This means putting some 250 million people on the brink of starvation.

What this UN statement has confirmed, as noted in this column, is that “viruses kill, but so does poverty”. And it is the working class, the low-paid, the casual labourers and the unemployed who will suffer most and die, perhaps in their millions.

In many cases, these are women and men, many with families to support, who have only recently been thrown out of work. Among them are the already ailing and ill, who may have no access to necessary chronic medication. In the South African context, they may be unable or unwilling to collect whatever medication is available.

Whatever the reasons, researchers and clinics in the country’s high density areas report a marked increase in missed appointments by patients suffering from diabetes, HIV and tuberculosis. Many more children are also not being vaccinated against illnesses that include that most contagious of viral infections, measles.

What seems beyond dispute is that, after two months of lockdown, hunger has become a major factor. It is summed up by the comment: “Bring the virus and let me die, because already I am dying of hunger.”

That precise remark, and others like it, were made to Imbumba Foundation chief executive, Richard Mabaso when he visited rural villages in KwaZulu Natal. Similar sentiments were voiced to Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang when he, Springbok captain, Siya Kolisi and wife, Rachel, recently delivered food parcels in the Eastern Cape.

It is clear that the draconian lockdown and the inability to provide adequate sustenance to millions of hungry poor has caused high levels of penury and starvation and weakened still further the immune systems of many. Most damaged will be the very young who, it is now known, are not under threat from this latest Corona virus.

Because schools and early childhood development centres were also closed, hungry children were instantly deprived of their one meal a day in a country where more than a quarter of all young children are “stunted” by malnutrition. Yet when internationally acclaimed researcher Professor Glenda Gray noted that there had been a post lockdown increase in cases of malnutrition, she was castigated.

What Gray also said was that many lockdown regulations were “seemingly thumb sucks”. She was right and the term she used was the same as the apparently petulant description given by trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel to estimates by prominent economists of the economic damage the lockdown was doing.

Patel never gave any reasoned response to the careful calculations presented by the economists. Nor has he yet tried to explain some of the decisions that are part of his ministerial responsibility.

Yet how better to describe, other than “thumb suck”, regulations regarding the sort of footwear or undergarments one may purchase? Or even the wholly irrational — and still unexplained — five-week long ban on the export of wine that lost the country an estimated R175 million a week in foreign currency?

To its credit — but only after some shameful vacillation — the SA Medical Research Council, which Gray heads, this week cleared her of any wrongdoing. That some within government had demanded that she be investigated is very worrying and is a threat to our hard won freedoms.

We should all of us insist that it is our right to demand reasons why and never simply to do and die — or simply as we are told. Especially if it means that children may starve to death.