It does all seem unreal.
When a world leader and head of a major country has to look his people in the eye and tell them that many of them will lose loved ones, when billions of people are united in a fear of something few understand and even fewer have personally witnessed the effects of, when a country and its economy risk grinding to a sudden halt, reality has indeed become unreal and frightening.
Last evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa made a special appearance on television to address South Africans on the additional drastic measures his government is taking in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The 21-day lockdown reinforces the message he gave on 15 March when he said that South Africa was ‘facing a grave emergency’.
On that occasion, he added – and this is critical – that if we ‘act together’, immediately and decisively, ‘we will overcome it’.
On this, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) is in full agreement with the president.
Vital and urgent
The range of measures he announced then, and last night, all form part of a vital and urgent effort. Time is not on our side, and immediate, decisive action is critical.
Acting together, as Mr Ramaphosa said, is the key.
But the Covid-19 threat has manifold and grave implications – not just for the health and physical wellbeing of South Africans, but also for their livelihoods, and their ability to withstand the considerable social and economic stresses the coronavirus outbreak is exerting and will continue to exert for months to come.
In the light of the scale of this crisis – the ‘grave emergency’ of Mr Ramphosa’s phrasing – the IRR is placing its full research and analytical capacity at the disposal of the urgent search for policy solutions and proposals to guide South Africa through a time of near-unparalleled crisis.
Central to these are the fundamental reforms the absence of which has placed the South African economy and society as a whole in a much weaker position.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will be felt by many South Africans and will affect many aspects of South African life. While the immediate medical response to this pandemic is our primary concern, the broader consequences in the socio-economic sphere must also receive urgent and solution-orientated attention. It is in this latter arena that the IRR will seek to play a leading role.
Drawing on its unequalled research and policy expertise built up over more than 90 years, the IRR will be devoting its attention over the coming days to crafting executable policy proposals in six key areas:
- Healthcare access and stability;
- Income security;
- Social stability;
- Financial stability;
- Economic stability; and
- Balancing state power and civil liberties.
Policy interventions and sensible thinking about solutions in these areas will be vital in mitigating the vast socio-economic consequences South Africans are likely to endure for the duration of the current circumstances created by COVID-19. In line with the approach of the IRR, a longer-term view on a post-crisis period must also be considered.
The IRR will seek to produce a range of reports and proposals under each heading as a means of offering practicable solutions to the complex crisis we now face. All our proposals will be considered in terms of their practicality, necessity, logistics, costing, and consequences, and the details published in reports we believe stand to make a positive contribution to the collective effort President Ramaphosa described as being vital to South Africa’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
The president was correct when he told the nation on 15 March: ‘We have never been defeated by anything when we were united; united, we are strong, but divided we are weak and can be defeated.’
In this spirit, the IRR is determined to contribute by crafting effective solutions to the difficulties the country now faces. We are convinced that collaborative and constructive measures can succeed in matching President Ramaphosa’s challenge to the country that ‘it is up to us to determine how long [the epidemic] will last, how damaging it will be, and how long it will take our economy and our country to recover’.
In this time of crisis, I am reminded of a fondly remembered story I read in my childhood, and a detail which, today, provides an unexpected, unlooked-for, yet welcome inspiration when the world seems to be turning upside down.
Amidst the intensive research of recent days, discussing pressing issues with experts and mapping out the complexities of what the Covid-19 pandemic might mean for South Africa, a telling exchange from that story of my childhood came to my mind, and seemed to encapsulate perfectly what many South Africans are feeling at the moment.
It comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings and it speaks to me now more strongly than it ever has.
In the quest to destroy evil against great odds, Frodo Baggins, the hobbit, utters the words so many people have asked in times of difficulty.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
But it is the far-seeing Gandalf who looks beyond the terror and uncertainty of the moment, and whose words offer a priceless lesson to us, too.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”