Should I stay? A Finnish expat's reflections on South Africa's lockdown

Lockdown Day 15 in South Africa, Thursday 9 April 2010. My phone beeps non-stop news, messages, situation analysis, statistics, reports and predictions of how COVID-19 crisis progresses in South Africa, my home country Finland and in the world. Numerous online meetings take place with discussions on my situation, the Finnish embassy’s situation, this country’s situation, the global situation – now, tomorrow, and in the long run.

In both South Africa and Finland, no one is certain how the current situation will unfold, nor what the long term implications of the crisis will be. This uncertainty mirrors my own experience. At present, I am isolated in my suburban home in Pretoria, and though frustrated, keeping myself well informed. But what bugs me most is the indecision about whether to stay put, or go.

I am an outsider in South Africa, recently posted to my country’s embassy in Pretoria. Diplomats are by definition outsiders in their host country, occupying an in-between land. They represent and are regulated by their home countries and are not fully integrated in the one they reside.

In the current language of crisis, I belong to the category of non-essential staff, and at the moment, I could travel home on a trip arranged by my government. There are no regular commercial flights leaving South Africa, but the European embassies have been working hard to ensure that all their citizens can fly home. This window, though, is closing soon. Thereafter, the only alternative for those wishing to leave will be evacuation flights with security and insurance provided by our governments.

Some of the facets that the global Covid-19 pandemic reveals are not only the personal, local and global vulnerabilities and vast global inequalities, but also the complexities around questions of identity and belonging.

It brings to the fore questions on where home is for a global citizen like me. Even though I am currently posted as diplomat, I have lived outside my country for most of my adult life. This year marks the beginning of my fourth decade in Africa. Despite my long stay on the continent, I am still considered a European citizen, a foreigner, a mzungu (common term for white person in several African countries), an outsider.

What the crisis has also shown us, is that, even when facing a virus that respects no borders in this era of great global interdependence, the world community’s response to the pandemic has been predominantly national. Countries are closing their own borders, repatriating their own citizens and protecting only people who live within their jurisdiction. What the world seems to have forgotten is that no one is safe, until everyone is safe.

So should I stay or should I go? Where would I be most safe? My country of birth Finland has been in the news a lot lately, not only because of our female-led government, but also for her alleged preparedness and resilience in the Covid-19 crisis. Some attribute this readiness to Finland’s heroic performance in the Winter War against the Soviet Union in 1939-1940.

Most of us Finns wonder though how we can simultaneously be the Happiest Nation in the World, and the best prepared for catastrophe? It could be due to the trust that Finns place in their government and its well-run institutions, that, in return, increase our levels of happinnes. This relationship is strengthened by the presence of a comprehensive public health sector that, we are assured, will take care of us. Home would most certainly welcome me, should I decide to go back.

South Africa, on the other hand, fares less well in resilience rankings. Insufficient structural reforms, and the poor socio-economic circumstances of the majority of the population – not helped by periods when the state’s governance role was hampered by mismanagement – have left the country inadequately prepared for a crisis of this magnitude.  

The country’s health system, its public institutions, and the economy are already stressed. The pandemic will only make the situation worse. The country’s credit rating has been downgraded to junk status, and this is on top of diminishing government revenues.

While the official numbers of Covid-19 infection are low for a country with a population of 58 million people – the country registered 1934 infections at time of writing – South Africa is thought to be far from the peak of the infection curve. The South African government is facing a dilemma confronting all other countries around the world: what will kill us first, the virus or its remedies?

Like other countries, South Africa has adopted lockdown measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, initially for 21 days and now extended for a further two weeks. This is certainly slowing the spread and saving lives, as the daily increase in new cases has dropped from 42% to 4 %. The South African government’s rapid and decisive action has garnered much praise across the political spectrum, and may ease the situation to some extent, but it is not enough.

Despite some important economic interventions to prop up the economy, overall the measures will have negative consequences on people’s livelihoods. Unemployment and poverty will rapidly increase, as business in tourism, transport, services, the public sector and other areas closes down. The immediate effect is more people going hungry and desperate.

A recent survey of 233 South African small and medium enterprises (SMEs) conducted by the Center for Development and Enterprise, highlights the magnitude of the task: 95% of respondents cannot pay their workers anymore, 50% believe their business will go bust, and 93% do not have any alternative income sources. Government’s tax relief, grants, loans and other measures offered by financial institutions are not reaching many SMEs, especially informal microenterprises that play an important role in providing livelihoods to many dependents.

South Africa’s extreme inequalities also mean that the effects of the lockdown are experienced very unevenly. The implication of this is that some people will and can comply with the measures, whereas others – for whom the lockdown may mean an immediate loss of livelihood – will experience it as an imposition.

In a country that has seen a rise in popular protests, this may be a catalyst for further unrest. Given the apartheid and post-apartheid history of scapegoating perceived outsiders for widespread social and economic ills, there is also a fear that social conflict against certain groups might increase.

So should I stay or should I go? I came to South Africa to work, to establish a home, and to promote good relations between our countries. Due to the pandemic, my work has now become of secondary importance, and can be performed remotely anywhere in the world. As to what I can do to combat the virus and to ease the plight of those in vulnerable situations in South Africa, here too I am an outsider, locked up in my solitary existence.

I do not have personal networks in the communities that might need help, or close contacts to those who are helping the vulnerable. Nor I am invited to join the various social campaigns beyond donating money, spreading awareness on preventive measures, and marketing the contributions of my country to the global community.

I can only admire how the people of South Africa have once again mobilised and organised the community health structures (many inherited from the HIV epidemic), and set up new ways to help each other to survive this pandemic.

A coalition of civil society organisations, joined by many experts, have called for the extension and increase of social welfare grants – for example the Child Support Grant – as the best measure for relief. Extra services such as provision of water and temporary shelters in densely populated areas, and measures for the protection of health workers have been established. Solidarity is again showing its strength.

For me the question remains: how do I show my solidarity? Where would I be of most help and less of a burden?

Darling, you got to let me know,
should I stay or should I go?
If you say you are mine,
I’ll be here ‘til the end of time,
So you got to let me know,
Should I stay of should I go?

The Clash (1982) - Should I Stay Or Should I Go

Iina Soiri is a political scientist from University of Helsinki, currently working as Education and Science Counsellor in the Embassy of Finland in Pretoria, South Africa. She is a former director of the Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden, and has lived and worked in five African countries.

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 or association.

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