A Few Meals

With the deadline of Lockdown Part 2: Level 4 Boogaloo mere days away, I think it is safe to say that the uncertainty of the last few weeks remains front of mind. The announcement by government of the easing of restrictions appears to have done very little for the nation’s confidence, with most people on the street failing to see the difference between what is, and what will be.

Hooray, the smokers will say, and honestly, few else.

It is trite that our government is trying to walk as fine a line as possible between keeping its people safe and keeping them employed. The strategy it has taken can only be called divisive, with liberal minded supporters praising the value the ANC has placed on human life over money. However, it is no revelation that there are those who are deeply opposed to the ongoing lockdown, whatever form it takes. They argue that any stifling of the economy, especially now, is far worse than any hypothetical toll the virus may have had in the absence of a lockdown.

It is hard to remain impartial throughout all of this. I am incredibly lucky in my current situation. A trickle of income is still open to me and food remains on the table. Likewise, my immediate family are in no danger of starving, and the privilege of my existence shines brightest when I read the news.

But I am part of a small percent. A very small percent.

When I taught History, a recurring theme in our classroom discussions was always how did people became violent and fearful. It is a prevalent theme throughout our past and one which still tramples mud in the news today. What is it that separates civilization and anarchy? The well-behaved elite and the boisterous poor?  

It’s a few meals. That’s it really.

Don’t tell me things are fine when you are fed. The mob reacts on its stomach and it does not sleep until it has eaten. Spend a day without food and you will understand fear.

Food, in this context is the synonym of safety. The two are interchangeable concepts in a society that largely doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. The death toll at the time of writing is yet to reach triple digits. Yes, it is a testament to the incredible discipline of our lockdown, but it is also a figure that carries absolutely no weight the moment you enter a township. What does a low-income worker care for the lives of a few dozen strangers when he has not been allowed to earn an income in weeks? It is not that this person is cruel, it is that they are close to starving.

Which is arguably the biggest problem our government is facing. It is asking people to listen, remain calm and obedient based on a threat which, to the average man, looks like little more than a hypothetical. The millions of deaths which this plague might cause is a fantasy that a woman who cleans dishes for a living simply cannot understand. She has children that need clothing, a son who will have to repeat matric and nowhere to go with her fears. The gossamer filaments of such a hand to mouth existence will never be able to support a potential tragedy, only one that is real and at their door.

And therein lies the problem. While we have all been locked up in the last few weeks, the weight of all of this has only been felt in our pockets. It has not entered our homes and taken away loved-ones. The irony will be, that if the lockdowns are a success and countless lives are saved, these same people on the street will not see it as a victory. They will look at their empty bank balances and ask themselves why it was they had to suffer in confinement for a ruined economy. They will not see the low mortality rates as a sign of good governance, but one of a poisonously paranoid government that failed them for what will likely be the last time. The cost on these people will be greatest and a success against this plague will come at too high a price for them. That is the situation of the average man.

These people are going to miss out on many meals and they are not going to understand why. They are being told to shut themselves in and rely off the generosity of a government which is notorious for failure. Even now there are grumblings that the UIF fund is not keeping up with the sudden demands for grants. Stories of looting and protests over food parcels have already begun to trickle into the media. These are not the actions of the immoral and savage, but of people who are hungry.

It is not right to condone what are objectively criminal actions. However, we need to understand that we are about to experience a clash in ideologies between people who have and people who don’t. The less people are eating, the worse this will become. Arm-chair critics of the poor will use descriptors like “animals” and “savages”, unaware that they too would be in those throngs of starving crowds given enough missed meals.

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