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The good, the bad, the awful – lessons from lockdown

The day that lockdown started, our road was deathly still. No cars passed our gate where usually they would. The traffic ceased, almost immediately. The 27th of March, 2020.

But what lay ahead? We could not have known. Oh, the irony of all that time ‘spent at home’.

Did we learn important lessons? Use the time well? Did we?

Only time will tell.

© Tom Foolery
Early in lockdown, a powerful spoken-word poem went viral. Titled, The Great Realisation, it has had almost 7 million views since it was released on 29 April 2020.
Crises can be life changing

A month into lockdown, what felt like forever, we had each reached many individual realisations. From four weeks of having our freedom stifled, it was around the one-month mark that I really felt part of my community, as if many were accessing a deeper sense of humanity and truly appreciating freedom’s value.

Many people shared their reflections and lessons learnt. One video was presented as a letter, read out from the coronavirus itself – ‘Dear humankind – it went viral like Covid did.

Some spoke their realisations out loud or wrote them on private pages.

Others shared them on social stages.

But the reality for most people was not a poetic reflection of improving their work-life balance. For most, it was a daily struggle for survival – for money, food, personal space, to move around safely.

Sandwiches and stimulus packages

On 21 April, less than a month after lockdown began, the President announced a stimulus package of 500 billion rand – a taxpayers’ donation to ease the economic effects and suffering.

In the middle-class suburbs people started making sandwiches for strangers in their cities. The support networks seemed to grow stronger, the kindness and care lingered longer.

Then by 29 April, South Africa moved down to level 4, but not much different from before. Subtle changes aimed to allow an economy that was seriously tanking. Everyone soon figured out what they could and couldn’t do. And like most things, people muddled through.

Around this time, many people had realised that things in society had to be done differently too.

The reality for far too many was too awful to comprehend. When will widespread hunger end?

The bad was very bad for those most affected, and with reflection, we can also see the good.

© Jeffrey Abrahams
Soup kitchens’ increased and more people got involved.
The awful – hunger, unemployment and increased inequality

Many people lost jobs or livelihoods, and hence their income which is of course a necessary for food security.

A series of recent WWF reports, titled Urban lockdown lessons, reveals the reality of the “too many”. That 47%, of 7 000 people surveyed, ran out of money for food in the first month of lockdown already. That in poorer neighbourhoods, 70% of people rely on informal traders to buy their food. Yet the government locked down on this too. Only those with a license could operate, and these traders had to get a license from the municipality. So much for ‘stay safe at home’. Instead, people who used to rely on informal suppliers had to travel even further to get their basic foods – and the informal traders and spaza owners had to travel to get a permit for their livelihoods to be re-enabled – all impacting more on the poor.

But the report was not all doom and gloom – there were glimmers of opportunities – how cities and towns can become better prepared for future shocks, and build urban resilience in the face of climate change too.

The bad – lack of space, green areas and safe transport

Poor households don’t have access to nearby leafy parks and green spaces, particularly those living in townships and informal settlements who live in small dwellings in close proximity to others. This highlights the need to create green spaces in our cities that are accessible to all (a point emphasised in WWF’s report series). The one report shows this, and other examples, of how nature-based solutions can both kickstart our economy and enable job creation while supporting the environment and better enjoyment for everybody.

Public transport woes also got worse during the lockdowns. Reduced access to certain modes of transport and the heightened awareness of virality made shared transport feel like precarious small spreader events where people had no other option but to put themselves at risk.

While we were told to stay home or stagger our travel times, with curfew and flexible working schemes, this didn’t last very long. Under pressure from a well mobilised mini-bus taxi industry, it was not long before mini-busses were allowed to operate at 100% capacity.

A temporary positive shift in society’s behaviour was that many more people walked around their neighbourhoods in the morning time when we were again allowed out between six and nine. Cycling was another safe option – with positives for a low travel footprint – that could be promoted during the pandemic. Yet neither walking nor cycling, got a mention in our Covid-19 regulations.

We actually need to accelerate ‘low carbon and transport-related social inclusion goals’ according to one of the WWF lockdown lesson reports. In fact, the report states the case that opportunities to address existing transport challenges were not taken up and potential shifts to climate-positive opportunities not encouraged. Is our government – local and national – enabling what’s best?

Debates about regulating the taxi sector continued, with no clearer way forward than before.

And with a lack of safe public transport options many people had to use minibus taxis where they were exposed at crowded taxi ranks and crammed into minibuses at full capacity where physical distancing was hard to do.

© Rich T Photo/ Shutterstock
By June 2020 there were reports that that some taxi associations intended to increase fares by 172% to cover losses.
The good side of lockdown – benefits and realisations

Beyond the extra time with family for those who could shift to working from home, it seemed for the first while that there was an increased sense of community Examples of neighbourhood sandwich drives and feeding plans, mostly coordinated through local ‘CANs’ – community action networks that get things done where local government themselves haven’t managed to get their game on.

Then there is the deeper appreciation of nature – of realising just how much we all need to see, and breathe in, the beauty of wide-open spaces, noticing smaller creatures and green tall trees.

For those who had holidays or day trips planned, the enforced lockdown kept them away from nature reserves and trips to the beach. These restrictions made us realise the tangible benefits of being barefoot, of being outside in fresh air, of being able to move freely. The rejuvenating power of the sea. Of the need for nature’s silence and her many free activities.

It is possibly only the privileged few who can talk about lockdown with this kind of positivity.

It is probably harder to see for the hungry-tummy, out-of-work majority.

But all is not lost, yet, for Covid is still with us.

How can we comprehend its lessons?

© Shutterstock
Trees help to green up public spaces and cool down our cities.
What positive actions did you initiate in 2020?

I am not talking about the driveway marathons, extreme book reading or ‘Netflix and chill’.

Did we learn any real lessons? Connect into our wider community? Confront our own human will?

Did I shift any habits where I could do more for others, my community, our planet? Or maybe still will? Use the headspace to fix the world’s ills?

And for the wider country – what did I do for the majority? And what can I do still?

Into 2021 and beyond…

With many months of the year ahead of us, and the pandemic still around, there’s time to adapt our behaviours and be an example of positive change in our homes, our families, our communities.

What did 2020 teach and what can I do better into 2021? This is a question I’ll continue to act on.

When we lift our eyes from our own struggles, we see that lockdown has made explicit the many pervasive inequalities and exclusion in our society.

Now, as we emerge, and the conversation is on doing things differently and green economic recovery… this is the opportunity to address those inequalities by continuing the good practices that sprung up under lockdown. From individual donations or sandwich making to recognising the need to establish urban green areas. We need our cities to rethink our public transport and where we situate our poorer neighbourhoods, as well as prioritise nature spaces that are accessible to everyone to allow them to exercise and get fresh air.

Sue Northam-Ras Photo
Sue Northam-Ras, Communications Manager: Environmental programmes

Sue believes in making information valuable by writing and shaping content in a way that gives it meaning. She packages the environmental content for WWF South Africa.

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