Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Humour, anxiety and fear in the face of the lockdown

A widely shared meme-riddle predicts that in just nine months, we will know those who flouted the extreme social distancing guidelines. The answer to that riddle is this question: how long does it take a bun to cook in the oven?Before the lapse of the nine months, however, we have to suffer through a 28-day national lockdown that most perceive as torture. Yes, it is torture until you put yourself in the frozen rugby shoes of Uruguay players and officials who survived a plane crash in the Andes for 72 days. Your food supplies are from a supermarket, are kept in a well-stocked kitchen and some of them chill in the refrigerator. The sole food supply of the survivors was in the form of corpses chilling on the snow, that they had to hack and eat raw meat pieces from. You can watch TV and with winter only setting in, get under covers in a double bed.

Survivors of the 1972 plane crash watched the sky day and night, in forlorn hope that a rescue team might burst into view and slept out in the open. The WhatsApp in your iPhone gets flooded with variegated forms of comedy to lighten up a day that feels 72-hour long. Phones didn’t have cameras and weren’t mobile when that plane went down and the situation was too grim to make jokes about. The ordeal of the Uruguay rugby players and officials began with a literal earth-shattering blow – yours began with a cup of coffee and buttered bread on April 3. The point: count your blessings.Top of your blessings list is that you have been luckier than those who have succumbed to the frightful little devil that we have been led to believe looks like a cud ball (segotlhola) stuck with pieces of blood-soaked humerus bones – COVID-19. COVID-1 aka coronavirus aka 2019-nCoV aka SARS-CoV-2 has introduced its own vocabulary into global public lexicon and the online Merriam-Webster dictionary now has “A Guide to Coronavirus-Related Words” page.

Increasingly nowadays, one hears “flexed elbow”, “panic buying”, “flatten the infection curve” and “extreme social distancing.”Educational psychologists recommend a pedagogical approach through which instructors move from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Given that some people have plenty of house-arrest experience that has occurred in a Mills & Boon/Days of Our Lives context, it would really have been helpful to explain lockdown to this particular group of people in terms of this kind of house arrest. For elected officials, “extreme social distancing” can be explained in terms of what they do with voters after they are voted into office. The entire Botswana parliament would not be in quarantine if health officials had told them to keep between themselves, as much distance as they keep away from voters.Partly motivated by the Setswana saying loso legolo ditshego (laughter is the best medicine), there has emerged a whole new genre of COVID-19 humour which largely manifests itself through widely WhatsApp- and Facebook-shared memes. Some are brilliant, most are unimprovably banal.

Countries across the globe have also imposed national stay-at-home orders and the comedy mostly reflects this experience. In one video of a video being played on a laptop, an on-duty female stripper is gliding down the pole and at the touchdown mark, a hand that stays off the frame (reflexively?) tosses $1 dollar notes at the screen. The notes land not on the bare body of the stripper but on the keyboard. This is how unbearable life has become in America. Another is of a bearded man in his 40s driving a stationary toy car that comprises of himself, a laundry basket lid as the steering wheel, his mouth as the exhaust pipe, a can of aerosol spray as the hooter and the sitting-room floor as the road. There is also what someone has called “coronavirus fear porn”, digitally-manipulated images of the virus that are designed to put the fear of God in those who watch them. One, designed to reinforce the stay-at-home message, is of reddish COVID-19 virus particles floating in a deserted street. Humour has health benefits but the more health-conscious people are worried about what the forced sedentary lifestyle is doing to their physical health.

They are sharing exercise videos and tips that would be most suited for indoor exercise. Even more worrisome is that a strict stay-at-home order enforced by sjamboks-wielding patrol officers makes it impossible to jog in the morning. The net effect will be that while that order helps contain the spread of COVID-19, it will imperil the health of people whose medical conditions require them to maintain good physical health. That concern is being expressed by one too many netizens online. One other grave concern that has been expressed relates to the COVID-19 permit which has come to function almost like a traffic light: one minute it indicates go, the next prepare to stop and then stop. Within a very short period of time, groups of workers have been essentialised and de-essentialised and each new list of essential-services cadre differs from the last. As clumsy has been official communication on how people should prepare themselves in terms of stocking up on lockdown supplies. In early March, people were advised not to hoard food supplies because supermarkets would stay open throughout the lockdown. The result was that some people didn’t hoard food. They now wish they had because of subsequent more stringent stay-at-home rules.

The COVID-100 permit is meant to limit the number of people out and about as a way of flattening the infection curve. However, the quality of decision-making that was exercised with regard to its acquisition is highly suspect. One needs a permit to leave their house and such permits are obtained from not enough places and crowding in one place has been outlawed. This necessarily funnels people to certain points, which creates flash mobs, which can function as virus vectors. Online, one too many people construct scenarios that demonstrate how ridiculous this requirement is. One is of people who ask why they have to travel across town to join crowds they can’t control to get a permit, risking arrest when it would have been easier for them to buy from a virtually empty supermarkets across the street. This sort of decision-making defies Logic 101 and whatever’s the government’s wishes, promises or timeline, the tasks of flattening the blunder curve and flattening the infection curve will follow in the most natural order.As with anything in a capitalist society, the worst affected group is that of the poor. What has become very clear at this point is that the permit guidelines have a Marie-Antoinette element.

There is a view, shared by some on social media, that people shouldn’t even be allowed to go to the supermarket because by now they should have bought enough food and put it in the fridge. That immediately which reminds one of when a potential Bangwato kgosikgolo rapped subsistence farmers in the north on the knuckles for having the audacity to complain about elephants destroying their crops when they had not wall-fenced their crop fields. Not everybody has a fridge and for most poor people, that means having to buy fresh produce (like meat and vegetables) from shops on an almost daily basis. There is reason to believe that complaints about foods having run out in some households is genuine and farther down the road some people will have to choose between dying of hunger or getting infected with coronavirus.President Mokgweetsi Masisi has naturally assumed the second role of chief crisis counsellor but whatever language he chooses to use, there is always lot of anxiety in some quarters. When he gave a live address on Btv from the State House on March 30 to announce the 28-day lockdown, he used English. He used the same language when he gave another live address from parliament that had convened in Boipuso Hall at Fairgrounds. In other but fewer instances, the president has used Setswana. When he delivered his parliamentary address on Wednesday with a “good accent” (comment from Sweden on bwgovernment Facebook page), some Batswana were not at all happy.“Ke kopa another address in Setswana,” pleaded Neo Tlhaselo, in real time on bwgovernment.Either mirthfully or otherwise, Nikolas Archie Segale Nong retorted to comments such as the latter with “Ba tla a reetsa dikgang tsa Setswana.” He basically meant that those who couldn’t understand the English would listen to the Setswana news bulletin on state radio on and TV.

It wasn’t just elderly people without western education who couldn’t follow what Masisi was saying. Some 10 or so minutes into Masisi’s address, Relebogile Tumetsane complained that “English e re tshware ka diwashene” (“The English has grabbed us by the scruff of the neck”). Elbows flexed in a non-COVID-1 context, the president was indeed flexing his semantic-gladiator muscles in such fashion as to cow both the petite bourgeoisie and hoi polloi alike: “paradoxical cul-de-sac”, “topsy-turvy phenomenon”, apocalyptic”, “Stigmatic perception” and “deleterious consequences.” While some may have made fun of this (“appocallipto”, “acop what?”), the troubling reality is that the self-indulgence of presidential speechwriters is not helping: everyone really wants to understand every word that a president says about a disease that is keeping them indoors.However, there are also those who complain when Masisi uses Setswana – foreigners mostly.

Any other day it would be opportune to remind those among them who have lived in Botswana for more than three years that they should be fluent in the language by now. This is certainly not the day and this group also has a right to be provided with coronavirus messages in a language it fully understands.We have been told a lot about how fearsome COVID-1 is but there is social media commentary that suggests that some fear their landlords/ladies more. The possibility of the state of emergency, through which a lockdown can be imposed, being extended has led some to ask how they are going to pay their rent. Such fear is mostly expressed by low-income earners who also want to know how they will benefit from a wage subsidy that will be administered by the Botswana Unified Revenue Services. Indeed, how would an airtime-and-sweets street vendor, who is not on BURS’ database but is needier than those who are, benefit from such subsidy?

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The Telegraph October 21

Digital edition of The Telegraph, October 21, 2020.