Lockdown messaging must be sensitive to the plight of the poor and vulnerable

20th April 2020 By: Raymond Suttner

Lockdown messaging must be sensitive to the plight of the poor and vulnerable

Raymond Suttner
Photo by: Madelene Cronje/New Frame

The state of disaster and the lockdown has led to the curtailment of fundamental rights of people in South Africa. It imposes a duty on government to ensure that the powers that it now has are performed with care and responsibility, especially given the dire conditions under which many are living and the hardship that the lockdown imposes. It must communicate this sensitivity constantly.

Much politics is normally conducted as a form of public relations, without much content and reliant on imagery. This is part of the weakness of South African discussions of politics which seldom amounts to debate. In the present context, however, messaging and public relations have become very important.

Everything changed with the lockdown insofar as the entire country has been brought to a halt and confined to their homes (if they have homes) and a range of other restrictions. Interestingly, there appears to be widespread support for the lockdown as a decisive step to defend people's lives against the spread of the coronavirus. People of all strata appear to agree with the need to combat the virus, even if it requires hardship for them. It is a demonstration of confidence as well as goodwill towards governmental efforts.

In this context where security forces are in the streets or homes of people, it is important that government does not simply back the security personnel when allegations of wrongdoing are repeatedly being made and recorded. This is a pattern of governments in many countries and in South Africa, to show their soldiers and police that they are behind them. But now is a time to break with that convention for a population that is making great sacrifices. That is not to say that every claim of assault is valid, but government needs to demonstrate it is willing to bring wrongdoers to book.

Regrettably, the messaging on this has been ambiguous and sometimes callous or indifferent. There can be no joking about the use of force. It is serious, and people have already died or been assaulted in recorded cases. The lockdown does not remove our rights as human beings, and government must make clear that it understands that that is the case and that it actively defends our constitutional rights.

We are dealing with a very volatile situation where many are already hungry, and crowds protesting over lack of food have clashed with security.  It is hard to estimate how widespread hunger is. (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-17-the-biggest-lockdown-threat-hunger-hunger-everywhere/ ). I read of one person who had not eaten for a week, but how many others are there facing starvation in the country at large? Schools are closed, and children have lost a nutritious meal they used to receive.

It was not possible for government to prepare for all the implications of keeping people at home, given the speed in which the pandemic developed and required responses. At the same time, many of the hardships that people are experiencing relate to long-term neglect of the living conditions of the poor. The anger that people feel over hunger is anger over treatment now, but also residual unhappiness relating to neglect or ill-treatment over time.

Exemplary conduct by government, itself a form of messaging, is essential. We need, as citizens of the country to trust the government and to have no doubt that it acts sensitively and in good faith and will rise to the defence of citizens, should they come under attack, no matter from whom. At the level of verbal communications, careful messages are essential in the current lockdown, an unprecedented situation that is causing considerable hardship, albeit unevenly across South African society.

Many vulnerable people have been rendered more insecure, moved from the forms of shelter they had found and sometimes placed in new situations of danger to them as LGBTIQ people, homeless people, sex workers, drug addicts and others. In some cases, it is claimed that the sites to which they have been moved are not properly sanitised and have increased the likelihood of people contracting the virus or subjecting them to other illnesses or dangers.

For those living in informal accommodation, adjoining cities and townships, life was hard before the lockdown as they scraped together building materials to create one or other form of shelter against the elements. Regularly, before the lockdown, shacks were destroyed by fire or through cities often performing illegal evictions. They were not physically comfortable, but this was the best that many could find in the situation, and they were prepared to make what they could out of it, often losing their homes and belongings to demolition squads, but stubbornly continuing to rebuild, to make some semblance of a home for themselves and their children.

That these people lived in crowded "rooms" often without some form of heating or regular access to clean water or electricity, packed into small homes, already made them vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus given that there could not be any question of keeping a "social distance" from one another.

It is scandalous that in this situation there continue to be evictions on the basis that new "land invaders" are being evicted or that the places demolished are not occupied. Visuals demonstrate that this is untrue. Evictions are barred for the duration of the lockdown. All of this is happening at a time of great vulnerability and as it gets colder. (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-17-heart-what-heart-city-of-cape-town-must-answer-in-court-after-residents-are-violently-turfed-out-of-their-homes/ ). Government needs to demonstrate that it is sensitive to this and call the local governments that are doing the demolitions to order and show the victims that they do indeed care about them. The Western Cape High Court has, in fact, confirmed that evictions performed in Empolweni in Khayelitsha were illegal and that the building materials of the inhabitants be returned. (https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/western-cape/evicted-empolweni-residents-set-to-rebuild-after-high-court-victory-46868520 ). It is reported, however, that much of this material has been badly damaged or no longer usable. Government ought to compensate for this.

Many of these people are already living with TB, HIV or other serious conditions, sometimes not knowing that that is the case, but nevertheless more vulnerable to contracting the virus.

LGBTIQ communities and other vulnerable, marginalised groups previously found safe spaces where they could congregate together. Now with the lockdown, being together in such places is an offence, and it has meant that they have sometimes had to return to or seek accommodation with family who are sometimes hostile or unsupportive.

Likewise, the lockdown has exposed women who are abused to increased violence and indeed reported cases (that always constitute only a portion of that which has happened) have increased greatly. Government needs to indicate that it is sensitive to this and to look for a way of protecting those in these unsafe spaces.

In this context of social upheaval, hunger, insecurity, messages from the state need to demonstrate sensitivity. The word communication has for long carried more than one meaning, stressing on the one side sending a message, transmission from one side only. It also bears the meaning of “sharing something”, deriving in some cases from the word communion and where both parties are joined together in order to hear what is said, to be in dialogue. Now in our present condition, it is vital that government understands its communications not simply as telling the public that they can do this or that but also that it is a common endeavour to share what needs to be known, encouraging and listening to what people say about their experiences. (On the word communication, see David Morley in New Keywords, ed Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg and Meaghan Morris, 2005, pages 47-50 and Raymond Williams, Keywords, 1983 at pages 72-3).

Now that we know what we ought to have guessed, that people are starving, we are in more than one "state of disaster", insofar as it is reported that some are without food and have little prospect of eating in the near future. It is also reported that what is offered by the state is generally not getting to very many people who need food aid. Why have three to four  weeks of the lockdown not seen this addressed? And what precisely is being done to deal with it? In some areas, gangsters have taken on providing food to the poor.  They have seen a gap where they can display their "community spirit". They do this because government is not there. That is a message to communities and the government.

State violence continues to be perpetrated, not allegedly so but demonstrated by video footage. The state response remains ambiguous with the president not having conceded abuses, with the minister of police remaining callous and macho. The minister of defence displayed sensitivity on the death of a person, allegedly at the hands of the SANDF in Alexandra township. (https://www.iol.co.za/mercury/news/defence-minister-slams-sandf-strong-arm-tactics-during-lockdown-45772275 ).

While it may seem a lesser question of communication, more care needs to be taken about how the ban on alcohol and cigarettes is justified. It may be true that drinking and certain types of violence and crime are connected. It may be valid that cigarette smoking is a contributory factor to various health challenges. But it is important that the rationale for a ban during the lockdown is distinguished from what could be understood as a rationale for a permanent ban.

Sometimes it is stated that it is important to avoid hospitals being clogged up with people being treated in the aftermath of alcohol consumption., That is a justification for the expected overcrowding of hospitals as a result of the pandemic and that message must be distinguished from general opposition to alcohol consumption. The banning of alcohol and cigarettes is not a message for all time.

The reasons for people suffering inordinately during the lockdown relate to inequalities that precede the pandemic. In this situation, government (and its predecessors in office) bears some responsibility for their conditions. It needs to demonstrate compassion and not cruelty towards those who, because of their living conditions, do not easily comply with regulations.

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing to write memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the periods through which he has lived.