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A moment in time

- Curiosity

Wits postgraduate students in Medical Anthropology share the effects of living under lockdown amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The students co-authored How a pandemic shapes the city: Ethnographic voices from South Africa, which was published on the website ‘Medical Anthropology at University College London’ on 11 March 2020. 

Anthropology is the study of people, culture, and societies and how these manifest, erupt and collide within socio-economic and political contexts. These vignettes reflect these collisions.

A moment in time ©

Ethnographic voices from South Africa

Like others globally, we have experienced sudden and severe changes to our world. South Africans found themselves thrust into rigorous, unprecedented social changes within a week of the first reported cases of Covid-19 in the country. Notorious for its inequality, South Africa provides a unique picture of this reshaping. We present eight perspectives of Covid-19 collaboratively but remotely from isolation.

2 April, Tamia

1 462 Covid-19 infections in SA / 1 011 490 globally

“DA calls for military ombudsman to investigate abuse by SANDF members during lockdown.” The unfamiliar silence I have been waking up to each morning is drowned out by laughter and cheers of township residents filming the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers forcing black men to do squats and push-ups in the street as punishment, for crimes unclear. What I see are videos of police and army violence in townships and city centres that are very reminiscent of apartheid. However, what concerns me is that the rationalisation of violence that we see now, under exceptional circumstances, is not new – the government did not need a state of disaster to deploy law enforcement during Marikana, for example. Does the modern state need ‘exceptional circumstances’ to introduce rationalised yet irrational violence upon certain portions of the population? 

3 April, Lesedi

1 505 Covid-19 infections in SA / 1 100 000 globally

On Black Twitter, I came across discussions around being black and how living in a black body at a time like this leaves you vulnerable to state power. What is the value of a black body? I began to think how the experience of blackness always comes attached with some type of inequality or injustice. Blackness feels like you are constantly faced with the after-effects of structural violence or an oppressive regime. The health and security systems in South Africa come with a history that has undeniably stained black lived experience. The deployment of the defence force and increased visibility of police on the streets hit a nerve with Black Twitter. What does this really mean for protection services and vulnerable bodies? Is the black narrative and experience of law enforcement ever going to change?

16 March, Elinor

202 Covid-19 infections in SA / 272 000 globally

When President Ramaphosa announced the State of Disaster it was part of a worldwide wave of closures. The next day, we learned that the semester break at Wits was being brought forward and residences would be emptied. The reality of the epidemic had been lurking for weeks, but as an international student living on campus, I felt suddenly and forcibly exposed. For the next few days, as local transmissions of Covid-19 increased, I ran around campus with other international students trying to secure emergency housing. Somehow Wits had taken a deadly pandemic with European hotspots just hours from my family abroad and made it more stressful. Wits made it hell by piling housing insecurity and hostile communications from people in positions of power on top of fears for my family and concern of my own risk of infection. People in power need to understand that the actions they take to enforce physical protections may trigger emotional responses and jeopardise mental wellbeing 

3 April, Lucy

1 505 Covid-19 infections in SA / 1 100 000 globally

On 5 March 2020, the first Covid-19 case was announced in South Africa. Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp were flooded with funnies. The #CoronaVirus Challenge encouraged us to craft ad-hoc protection gear out of underwear and tissues. Discussions, debates disputing developments, conspiracy theories, and rumours went viral. Yet reactions were mixed – extreme, irrational panic alongside minimising the virus in jokes and memes. Both preyed on fake news. These reactions suggest a lack of knowledge about this virus, as people tried to make sense of the information from various sources and social media. The Department of Health advised people to pay attention only to figures released by the Minister of Health. These responses raise questions both about the impact of an ‘infodemic’ and the danger of a single story – and who the storyteller is.

28 March, Edna

1 187 Covid-19 infections in SA / 660 700 globally

The lockdown is “necessary to fundamentally disrupt the chain of transmission”. So said President Ramaphosa as he declared a 21-day lockdown in South Africa. Key messages accompanying the decree were “stay home, self-quarantine, and self-isolate”, as was already happing worldwide. The question that rang in my mind was whether social distancing, self-isolation or quarantine were applicable in a South African context where the majority of people live together in overcrowded neighbourhoods. Historically, apartheid segregated people along racial lines and the majority of black South Africans still live in racially segregated, low-income, densely populated and transient townships. On average, seven people cohabitate, including the vulnerable elderly. The government should act fast to create more physical spaces – unused hotels, schools, churches – for use during the pandemic.

21 March, Erma

240 Covid-19 infections in SA / 304 400 globally

As hospital procedures altered to accommodate the pandemic, novel protocols emerged in the emergency unit of a Pretoria hospital. My partner and I found ourselves in a state of diagnostic limbo when our young daughter’s unknown Covid-19 status – due to delayed test results – complicated other medical interventions. This unexpected predicament prompted hospital staff, after much deliberation, to conduct the consultation reluctantly in our car in the hospital parking lot. That stormy night, two doctors swathed head-to-toe in protective gear performed their duty in the back seat of our car. Breathing sighs of relief, they confirmed our daughter’s ailment was nothing more than an ear infection. We see here how Covid-19 has contaminated and disrupted every aspect of social life, forcing us into moments of medical absurdity where the rules are unknown.

3 April, Georgia

1 505 Covid-19 infections in SA / 1 100 000 globally

Silence. I keep reading this word when surroundings are described during the global lockdown. The only sound you can hear are government money printers going Brrrr, according to American anthropologist, Lincoln Keiser. But our surroundings remain silent. When I scroll social media, I observe how people are thirsty for socialising. I wonder if the TikTok videos, posts and challenges are a coping mechanism for society and people’s new lives during Covid-19? Diary entries for the social media cloud? Hearing cars is history as I sit at my window. A pigeon pierces the silence as I cling to my laptop, hoping to return to ‘normal’, whatever normal was. But keeping my eyes and ears shut won’t change the financial markets and the social world. Now I remain fascinated by pigeon sounds when all else is silent. SILENCE, please. 

3 April, Dezz

1 505 Covid-19 infections in SA / 1 100 000 globally

Renowned as noisy and busy, Sunnyside Residence looks and feels different since the implementation of the 21-day lockdown. The different noises are reduced since news broke of Covid-19 cases in South Africa. There’s hardly any movement and the streets are ever so empty. Surprisingly, people seem unified by Covid-19. A lot of obedience and respect is being shown and this is pleasantly strange in Sunnyside. There’s many positive responses and collaboration in the fight against Covid-19. Differences in race, age, gender, and even nationality have been put aside and everyone seems to be complying and cooperating with the rules and regulations. This is an unexpected but reassuring response from Sunnyside! We are living through an incredible moment globally. The situation is volatile. Questions from the present are deflected to the future. What will our society look like post-pandemic? We are in constant dialogue with the spaces we find ourselves in and the pandemic with which we live. 

Master of Arts student-authors studying Medical Anthropology with Distinguished Professor of Medical Anthropology and Public Health, Lenore Manderson:

  • Tamia Botes explores narratives of voedvroue (midwives) in “coloured” communities in Joburg.
  • Lesedi M.S Chocho investigates sustainable production and consumption of high-end fashion in South Africa.
  • Elinor Bronnvik Engelking explores repatriation of African material objects from German museums.
  • Lucy Khofi researches women’s experiences of menstruation in an informal settlement.
  • Georgia Kellow focuses on urban agriculture and environmental anthropology.
  • Desiree Malope is exploring Kasi (township) perceptions and narratives of mental health.

PhD candidate-authors:

  • Edna Bosire, in the SA Medical Research Council/Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit, investigates concurrent interventions for diabetes and poverty at policy and clinic levels.
  • Erma Cossa, in Anthropology, researches medical anthropology and migration studies.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 10th issue, themed: #Mood how our mental health and wellbeing are impacted by the socio-economic, political, psychological, legal, ethical, cultural and technological interpretations of our world.