BY PHILLIP SANTOS
The decision to travel by air or public road transport in Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic has mortal implications.
My wife and I had the privilege of experiencing these two options in a single trip during the ongoing pandemic.
Our journey to Zimbabwe for the end of year holidays placed us at the interstices between the world of the haves and that of the have nots.
The first part of our journey from Windhoek in Namibia to the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa was by plane, and the latter part to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe was by bus.
As passengers entered the airplane at the Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek, they were sprayed with what was evidently a strong alcohol concentrate and handed another sachet of the same sanitizer to clean their sitting area once settled inside.
During the flight, the attendant constantly monitored and reminded people to keep their masks on.
Upon arriving at OR Tambo Airport, our temperatures were checked, and further sanitisation administered.
The airport terminal itself was largely empty allowing for perfect social distancing conditions.
Moreover, there were several points for self-sanitisation across the terminal to reduce travellers’ and airport workers’ exposure to the virus as much as possible.
Everyone we met at the airport was putting on a mask, thanks to the vigilance of the airport authorities.
Although we failed to get a connecting flight to Zimbabwe, we were lucky enough to secure the last two seats in one of the reputable trans-national coaches, which we were to board at Park Station in Johannesburg.
When we got to the station, we immediately noticed that the situation there was so far removed from what we had just witnessed at OR Tambo International Airport.
Park Station was crowded, a significant number of people were not wearing their masks properly, if at all.
There was a lot of shouting (itself a sure way to spread the virus), social distancing was non-existent and there were no self-sanitising points inside the terminal.
As we checked into the bus, it emerged that some people had not been tested for Covid-19 at all, the bus crew was not insistent on people wearing masks despite the fact that some people were coughing, to say nothing of the inevitable chit chat among passengers.
Moreover, there were no sanitisers to at least promote hygienic behaviour onboard the bus.
Just as we thought things could not get any worse, when we arrived at Musina, South Africa’s last town before the Beitbridge border post, we were shocked by the traffic gridlock that had set in there.
Three to four lane queues went on for about 10km.
It was extremely hot and we were told two people had already died in the queues within the last two or so days.
We witnessed one death, a Zimbabwean woman who died in the afternoon and whose body was left lying on the roadside until about 7pm.
Some people, mostly Zimbabweans, preferred to walk from Musina to the border carrying their bags full of whatever goodies they could afford.
There was evident indifference towards the plight of travellers and commercial truckers by South African authorities, who to be fair to them, may have been overwhelmed by the number of travellers taking advantage of the open borders after months of restrictions to international travel.
Through some aggressive maneuvering, our drivers managed to whisk us out of the cauldron but when we arrived at the Zimbabwean border, we heard stories about two or so people that had been eaten by crocodiles trying to cross the Limpopo River into South Africa.
These three moments in our journey were quite revealing about the state of affairs in contemporary society, especially as far as this illuminates on how inequality has shaped (and continues to do so) the way people from different classes in society experience the Covid-19 pandemic.
To be sure, the news media covered these dramatic developments but most news stories that I came across about the experiences of travellers at Beitbridge during the festive season focused on people’s desperation in their exposure to the elements, the deaths that were happening and what was largely seen as the indifference of South African authorities towards mostly Zimbabwean travellers.
Not much attention, if any, was given to the structural elements laid bare by the denudational forces of the pandemic.
This begs the question about what kind of journalism it is that we truly need in these troubled times.
It goes without saying, that journalists have done a very good job of showing how marginalised communities have been affected by the pandemic and the measures put in place to contain it.
But what more can, or should journalists do?
One thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us is that structural inequalities have mortal consequences for vulnerable groups in times of crises and must, therefore, form the basis for expanding the frame of reporting social issues.
The contrasting experiences evident in the scenarios referred to above show who is considered indispensable on the one hand, and on the other hand, expendable.
In decolonial and Fanonian parlance, those whose daily realities are consistent with the former are argued to be in the zone of being and those with the latter in a zone of non-being.
The indispensable group exists and operates in spaces where they are afforded utmost care to protect them from pernicious viral infections and the expendable are left to tempt fate in the most hazardous conditions. Economic factors are the fundamental vector of discrimination in this regard.
Those endowed with the economic wherewithal to afford travelling by air enjoy minimal exposure to the coronavirus and those outside this loop can only afford modes of transport whose operations are not strictly monitored and where malfeasance is sanctioned at minimal cost by the irredeemably venal law enforcement agencies in the region.
The sort of journalism that can rise to the occasion under these circumstances must focus on the structural organisation of society and the way this produces social groups that are treated as indispensable while others are treated as expendable.
It is one that transcends the seduction of event based drama, one that does not take the event as an end in and of itself, and one that provides oversight at all levels of social organisation beyond the visible.
The journalism that we need is one that examines the inscription of structural factors on everyday experiences and drives public discourse towards interrogating such factors.
It asks questions about why certain things are the way they are at particular points in time and in certain places.
It looks at events as gateways through which to understand the basis on which such events become possible, and their implications on vulnerable groups in society.
It goes further to examine the conditions that produce both such vulnerable groups and the privileged with a view to having such social asymmetries addressed.
In sum, the journalism that we need is one that pays attention to structural factors which render some people more valuable than others as this is the core problem of democracy in both advanced democracies and authoritarian polities.
- Phillip Santos is a senior lecturer in the Communication Department at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The article expresses his personal views.
*It first appeared in The Accent, an initiative of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe