If men want to be heroes, they should do the dirty work

Whenever someone asks me what kind of film genre I enjoy the most, I always answer without hesitation, 'disaster movies of course'. For me, the greatest thrill is in the impending doom that disaster movies bring, the frightening tsunami overwhelming unsuspecting beachgoers, the volcanologist warning of a catastrophic eruption that ordinary, pie-eating townsfolk refuse to hear, or the sudden arrival of voracious aliens from out of space, against which, humanity with all its advancements have not thought to prepare for.

I love disaster movies because, in them, humanity always survives. Disaster movies tell us that tragedy is inescapable but that there are always capable, reasonable heroes, families coming together and the triumph of human ingenuity over adversity. Disaster movies are also special because they bring the thrills, chills and spills in a manageable package. One can watch the film and then walk away relieved that such a nightmare is not part of our daily reality.

Devastatingly, the coronavirus pandemic is not a film. We do not know when it will end, and we are not sure of our heroes. It is part of a rapidly unfolding nightmare that is likely to haunt humanity for years to come. It will be remembered, as disasters often are, in painful conversations, in grieving, and in the post-traumatic stress that will visit those directly and indirectly affected by it.

Those unfortunate enough to experience severe physical effects from the illness will be fearful for years to come of every cough, chest pain and fever. They will ask their doctors and themselves if it is 'the same thing again', in the same way that survivors of life-threatening illnesses ask whether the pain they are experiencing is the same illness.

I know this because I survived a pulmonary embolism three years ago. It took me a year to recover, and three years later, I still doubt every little ache and twinge I feel in my ribs or my sternum. Beyond the illness itself, there will be incidences of stress evident amongst those fearful of being out in public, and of touching everyday items. There will be fear of intimacy, especially with those we meet for the first time.

But for me, as a woman and as a mother, I am aware of the enormous responsibility of these times for women and mothers. It is something that rarely makes the evening or even daytime news. On our shoulders, and despite a long history of women's liberation, rests the burden of being the ones who guarantee cleanliness.

A very long time ago, I unthinkingly read Mary Douglas’ classic work Purity and Danger, an account and analysis of pollution and taboo. As I clean my home today in ways that I could never have imagined, I am reliving the anthropologist’s ethnography.

Each surface has its ritual, for each surface retains the virus for a specific number of hours or days. I am developing taboos for the house. No-one must enter with shoes from outside. Shoes must be scrubbed with disinfectant and laid in the dying autumn sunshine to dry and further eradicate the virus. All who have been compelled to go outside must strip themselves of their clothing, and wash their bodies and hair before being allowed to come back into the communal fold.

All floors are to be cleaned with a water and bleach solution to ensure that even the floors are nominally free of the invisible offender. No grocery bag can be left on any table. The table must be sanitised and so should every single item in the bags, the bags must be disposed of and everything wiped down or washed with the strongest cleaning solution one can find.

I iron every item of clothing and cloth, seeking to kill the virus with unrelenting heat. Nothing must be left to chance. Motherhood is no longer about holding one’s child and kissing damp, soft foreheads. Motherhood has become a war against an unfeeling, unseen, unpredictable enemy that visits a mild fever on celebrities and devastates the poor and low-income family.

Ten years ago I did anthropological fieldwork in Madagascar. It was shortly after a military coup led to the ousting of a then democratically elected leader. The poverty levels in the country were unprecedented. As I wrote then, people were selling wild animals and semi-precious gems on the street. Children were begging for money in the city, and everyone was trying to eke out a living in very trying circumstances.

Travelling into the forests and across the lakes of the big island, I noticed that taboo signage were still very prominent. These reflected taboos created more than 100 years ago.  Such taboos were adhered to even though the original reason for creating and respecting them had long past. The reason for this is that in Madagascar protection from evil and illness rests on unwavering belief in the supernatural. Remembering Madagascar, I wondered if and when mothers would shift from the mere cleaning rituals of corona times and how such rituals would eventually unfold in belief and taboos. We are all developing strong belief in the power of chemical sanitising agents, but what other beliefs are emerging at this time? And what beliefs should we dispense with?

In disaster movies, the heroes are almost always men. Powerful presidents proclaiming that the world has been saved. Young able-bodied pilots taking to the skies to kill the aliens before they reach the earth and ruin Independence Day. Men in Black, erasing the memories of gullible citizens and protecting them from the frightening reality of an open and radically uncontrollable universe.

Women, on the other hand, are rarely public, filmic heroes. They struggle away in the background, as sidekicks, caregivers, nurses, cleaners, mothers, grandmothers and sisters. The belief is that women are natural caregivers and cleaners.

If they are essential workers, women are doubly burdened, not only with the duty of care which they must provide to the public, they must also bear the responsibility of ensuring that those who remain at home are properly taken care of. There is no back up for them, or if there is, it is rare indeed.

In South Africa where I live, millions of women are living in an unending disaster movie, where men in power pretend to be heroes but continue, in many instances, to perpetrate unimaginable violence on them. For such women, the coronavirus is equally deadly, but they have long experience of the plague of oppression.

A plague apparent in the one communal toilet they must share with many others, the care they must provide for sick bodies and in the appalling hospitals and schools which they and their children are forced to attend. For women in such circumstances, Mary Douglas' understanding of dirt as "matter out of place" does not matter at all. It is a trifling middle-class concern.  

So, as I soak yet another shoe, wipe another door handle, another floor, wash another coat, another plate, another cup, another knife and another fork. As I iron, wipe down, spray, cook and boil everything until the steam causes me to sweat. I realise that if South Africa is to effectively deal with the coronavirus, it has to engage with the plague of oppression – a monumental task.

All disaster movies require courageous protagonists. Those who strike out against impossible odds to restore humanity and cosmic balance. I feel that it is time for men to stand up and pick up the mop. It is time for them to alleviate the burden of cleanliness and care on the shoulders of women and girls. It is time for them to pay their maintenance dues, to take up their fatherly duties and to protect children instead of adding to family woes. It is time to dispense with the belief that cleaning and nurturing is women’s work.

It is also time for leaders to focus on regimes of care to recoup monies lost through corruption and mismanagement, so that funds can be released to urgently support millions of people caught in the trap of poverty and overcrowding. Care of course, is global. As the world battles coronavirus, world leaders whose nations have historically benefited from the labours of the poor may soon find out what it means to owe a debt of care.

For the rest of those enjoying the uneasy comfort of middle-class life during corona times, it is time to rethink what care really means. For some, this difficult time involves much-needed deep self-care, however we would do well to remember that there are others, in more dire circumstances. Many of those others, are women.

Rosabelle Boswell is an anthropologist and writer. She is Professor of Ocean Cultures and Heritage, Nelson Mandela University, and Honorary Professor of Anthropology, University of Cape Town. She published several books on identity in the Indian Ocean region. Her latest offering is the poetry book Things Left Unsaid (Langaa RPCIG, 2020).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution.

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