Dark times ahead

We haven’t seen the full effect of Covid-19 yet, and when we do, fingers of blame will hone in without due diligence.

I’m going to put my boot in. This thing’s not over; not by a long shot.

When lockdown is over and the coronavirus takes hold in densely-packed townships and informal settlements, running rampant amongst those denied the luxuries of isolation and working from home, it’s going to enjoy its second breath.

And when people start dying by the dozens, even hundreds – and they will – South Africans will look for someone to blame. Social media has thrown up potential candidates: whites or ‘the rich’ – the two terms are apparently interchangeable.

But surely, that wouldn’t happen? After all, such claims are irrational. 

Think again. In an Undark article, science journalist Sarah Wild refers to the challenges facing fact-checking organisation Africa Check who try and monitor the hundreds of fake news stories crawling into social media every day; stories such as ‘African blood and black skin prevent Covid-19’. That’s obviously rubbish, but it doesn’t matter when people lack the basic requirement to filter false news – rational judgement.

You probably think that’s an unfair claim, so let me reach for a simple pen and paper and write one word: religion

Make sure you’re sitting down for this. For any religion to claim it is rooted in reality it has to provide a non-fictional cornerstone. Obviously. That is true for any religion whether that cornerstone is a single deity, multiple deities, spirits, or any other fantastical entity or entities. And let’s be clear here, if you think your religion is the only religion with a claim to the truth, then you really need to get out more.

If a religion is to claim that reality is exclusive, it has to provide unequivocal evidence it is, and, critically, that all the others are false. Simply claiming yours is the one true religion simply won’t cut it. Good luck with that.

The only thing true about gods and spirits is that they are all kindred characters within the metaphysical domain; i.e. they’re not real

The only thing true about gods and spirits is that they are all kindred characters within the metaphysical domain; i.e. they’re not real. You can thump your chest, wave your arms and wail as much as you like, but your belief is just that – a belief without physical evidence. It’s part of your personal world. Viruses, on the other hand, are part of the natural world. They are real for everyone, irrespective of belief. They are observable and measurable. We can analyse them, decode them, replicate them, and, if we’re lucky, protect ourselves from them.

Their impact on humans is predictable. That’s cause and effect for you. The technology and medicine we need to tackle them, similarly, wouldn’t exist without our ability to measure and replicate cause and effects within the natural world.

On the other hand, any effects of the metaphysical are claimed to be causal after the fact – “It’s starting to rain, praise be to Binky the Magic Unicorn!”

Viruses follow the laws of nature; beliefs follow the ebb and flow of human ignorance

This is why viruses are so dangerous: viruses follow the laws of nature; beliefs follow the ebb and flow of human ignorance. It is folly to believe that viruses must adapt to our whim or belief structures. Invoking the protection of a fictional deity won’t work, and while cultural idiosyncrasies may be guarded by a constitution, viruses can’t read. And if they could, they probably wouldn’t give a shit.

That religions still exist and are so widespread is not evidence that the myriad different deities or spirits prayed to are equally real, just that humans – with the possible exception of philosophers and free-thinkers – are either incapable or unwilling to exercise rational judgement. Suspending disbelief for 90 minutes while watching a movie, and crying when the main character dies is one thing, suspending disbelief your entire life, convinced another fictional character is interested in your every move is irrational.

It is with this lack of rational judgement that humans must now cast their verdict upon a virus. Unfortunately, we’ve been here before: HIV. The rapid spread of that virus with such devastation in South Africa and elsewhere has been made possible not so much by the virus as by humans’ reaction to it. Because HIV was – and still is – so dangerous, we have to adapt. That’s relatively easy: use a condom if having sexual intercourse with multiple partners. People unable or unwilling to adapt either pay the price or leave others to do so. That’s not commentary on any culture or belief system, it’s science.

The fake news running wild in social media will probably fuel the spread of the virus beyond anything we’ve seen so far in South Africa

So given the history of our relationship with dangerous viruses and the lack of rational judgement shown by the religious, the fake news running wild in social media will probably fuel the spread of the virus beyond anything we’ve seen so far in South Africa. Blame will need a name; any measure of corroboration from an authority would help fuel that blame.

Enter a supposed paragon of rational media. On 31 March, the Business Day published a piece by journalist Katherine Child that started thus: “The coronavirus, which first entered South Africa in wealthy people returning from ski trips to Europe, is now beginning to seep into communities from where it’s likely to spread rapidly.” Katherine should know better.

The next day, Brandan Reynolds – the cartoonist for the Business Day – tapped into this vaporous sentiment with a cartoon showing a plane flying over shacks. The plane is dropping coronaviruses, and on its nose is the name ‘The Rich’. I have a deep appreciation for the work of Brandan. I have interviewed him, and he is a humble man of remarkable talent. I will also defend his right to express himself and his purpose to provoke comment, but he should do so responsibly. 

Image: Brandan Reynolds, Business Day

Business Day’s sister publication Financial Mail isn’t guilt-free. On 9th April, columnist Justice Malala started an otherwise excellent opinion piece on conspiracy theories and fake news thus: “We know how the story of all these Covid-9 conspiracy theories will end. We have seen it all before. The story ends with the deaths of mainly poor people while the elites that manufacture these conspiracies and implement their harmful “solutions” escape unscathed.” Justice fails to provide evidence that ‘these conspiracies’ are the work of ‘elites’. That’s academic now; the damage is done.

I hope that I am wrong, and that in the face of the rampant spread of Covid-19 that is to come, South Africans will remain calm, refute false narratives, dismiss the few wild words from seasoned journalists, and embrace the realities of science.

I’m not holding my breath.