Full Catastrophe Learning Amid COVID-19

Zimitri ErasmusCovid-19

I returned from a conference in California, in the United States, on 9 March. Two days later, I was among the overly-privileged “overseas travellers” to “high risk countries” who might have brought the COVID-19 virus home. I self-isolated for fourteen days. I got tested. I am unsure whether the health professional inserted the swab far enough to reach my pharynx. I left the testing scene with guilt because the swab in my nostril made me sneeze. The health worker wore a mask, a shield, and gloves. Bent at the waist, swab in hand, she administered the test while I sat in my car. I worried that I might have sneezed into the space behind her shield. Six days and $80 later, my class privilege delivered the negative results of my test-in-the-parking-bay. As I write, mass screening for testing starts in poor communities.

What does poverty mean here? Patrick Bond notes that before the current crisis more than sixty percent of South Africans lived on $2.80 a day and the national unemployment rate was forty percent. Our public health system had already virtually collapsed and it can account for only 4,000 ventilators in the entire country of nearly 60 million people (CounterPunch 04/03/20). According to “flatten the curve” theory, South Africa is at the beginning of the curve with the known number of people infected now climbing to 2,000. It is day fifteen of Lockdown.

On 15 March, President Ramaphosa declared a national disaster. Eight days later he instituted a 21-day national lockdown from 26 March to 16 April. Within a matter of days, the C-19 People’s Coalition—a civil society organization initiated among activists in Cape Town—distributed a Programme of Action. Neither my university nor my union endorsed it. A colleague in the Health Sciences expressed concern about the lack of soap and water for hand-washing in townships and informal settlements. I searched the web for hand-washing stands like those set up at public transport hubs in Kigali, Rwanda. One supplier imports stands from the US. These come at exorbitant prices. A local manufacturer supplies stands to shopping malls, weddings, and other large businesses and gatherings. Made on order, these are less expensive but still costly. It takes about a month to manufacture one hundred stands. Both suppliers are out of stock. A foot-operated “tippytap” with soap on a rope is the simplest, least costly, and quickest way to make hand-washing stands. A friend called a friend whose friends are keen on getting “tippytaps” made and delivered to those who need them most. We wait to hear from them.  

The Coalition has formed several working groups and is organizing. It sends messages about solidarity funds, produces pamphlets with information about COVID-19 and preventative measures in multiple languages, distributes hot-off-the-press government statements, and much more. Since Lockdown, messages raise concerns about army and police brutality in the state’s effort to enforce the global command: “stay home.” Gender-based violence rises. The “undeserving poor” have gone cold turkey literally and metaphorically.

Email messages from the Vice Chancellor’s Office, the Dean, the Head of Department, the Wits University Library, and my colleagues turn my attention back to the university. Various “continuity plans” and scenarios for learning and teaching during and in the wake of this pandemic circulate through my mailbox. Faculty scramble toward “preparedness” for the two week transition to emergency online remote teaching. On its heels comes one week of online orientation for staff and students. Faculty are told that the university opens virtually on 20 April to resume its delayed and disrupted second quarter. This schedule feels like a fantasy as Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States soar to the crests of their COVID-19 curves. If South Africa is early in the curve, where might it be at the end of April, where might it be in May, in June?

In the Department of Anthropology at Wits University, we now supervise postgraduate students by telephone, WhatsApp video calls, Zoom, and Skype. Our fourth-year and Master’s students are unlikely to do in-person “traditional” fieldwork this year. Many of our students—post- and under-graduates alike—have unreliable electricity supply, low bandwidth, and no computers. Under these conditions, zero-rated access to data clawed from major service providers—Telkom, MTN, and Vodacom—is of little use. Many, including those now evacuated from student residences, live in small homes with their families. Female students help care for elders and for younger siblings now home all day because schools are on early and extended recess, too. How is online teaching and learning possible in these conditions? We envisage students sending us photographs of work done with pencil and paper. We worry about just assessment. We imagine a new entry on students’ transcripts: March-December 2020, Learning disrupted due to COVID-19.

Reminiscent of the British Empire, the Democratic Alliance (DA), an opposition political party with its roots in apartheid, publishes a “Blue Book” of proposals and observations for fighting COVID-19. It proposes that South Africa continues basic education through interactive online learning; learning and teaching groups; drop-off points for printed material; and the use of television to broadcast lessons. Despite the conditions I sketch above, the DA expects universities to continue the academic programme through online teaching, it expects students to “catch up” on learning lost, proposes that buildings, lecture halls, and laboratories be disinfected, and that the Minister of Higher Education ensures that tertiary teaching and learning is digitized. It frames the formalization of online learning as a deterrent to disruptions such #FeesMustFall and a measure for reducing the cost of the higher education. On its part, the governing party adopted the bourgeois concepts of “social distancing,” later “physical distancing,” and “personal hygiene.” But “physical distancing” is impossible for the homeless, for residents in informal settlements, and for most of our students who live in small and over-crowded homes. The Minister of Human Settlements has a “solution”:  “de-densification.” Is this apartheid’s forced removals in a different form?

While students elsewhere in the world apply for fee refunds on the grounds that they did not pay for emergency online education, the Chief Financial Officer sent students here a reminder that “payment of fees is essential to ensure the continuity of Wits University.” I’m part of a small group of academics from about four universities who meet weekly on Zoom to discuss principles, practices, complicities, and possibilities for university teaching and learning at and beyond this Corona-moment. We feel that we have no option but to teach online as best we can. Our conversations subtly imply a near future in which some of our students and those among us might have died alone, might be severely ill or in mourning for lost loved ones.

What, how, and why do we teach under these conditions? To “complete the academic program”? To support our students for whom tertiary education means a glimmer of hope for employment to support their families? Because education is an essential service? Because “we must win the war” against this virus?

Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions, recently tested positive for COVID-19. Sweating profusely in a video post on Twitter, he declares: “the virus must fall.” On day twelve of Lockdown, the news reports that the season for the initiation of boys to men is suspended. On day fourteen, President Ramaphosa announces a two-week extension on the Lockdown. He becomes the first head of state to announce a one-third cut in salaries for senior government officials for three months. This money is for the Solidarity Fund. Should we demand back-salary cuts for the twenty-five years during which the same poor people were poor?

About the Author

Zimitri Erasmus

Zimitri Erasmus is an associate professor of Sociology who teaches in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is a leading scholar on the politics of “race.” Her research focuses on creolisation, anti-racisms, and the politics of knowledge with a view to disrupt colonialism’s ethnological thinking and to search for new ways of thinking about “the human.” She is the author of Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa.

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