A plague journal

A plague journal

I didn’t think I was going to write for thepost about the Coronavirus crisis. But there we are. First, a bit of writerly remorse. Over the last few weeks my column has been taken up by a piece on the joys of holding dinner parties and of eating out, in Lesotho and elsewhere. Given that you guys are now enduring one of the most severe Coronavirus lockdowns in the world, this might have seemed insensitive. Sorry for that, but just file the foody tips away for better times! In my defense, I have to point out that, unlike Muckraker and some of your other columnists, I don’t write on up-to-the-minute affairs, and so my pieces are composed and submitted to my long-suffering editor weeks in advance of publication. Food for Thought was packed off long before the lockdown was imposed in the UK, where I now live and scribble, and the lockdown in Lesotho came weeks later.

I can’t imagine what you guys are going through. Are you allowed out to shop for essentials (food, medicine), or to take exercise? How are livestock being cared for? How are you coping with schooling from home, as so many families don’t have internet? All this, and the drought, too, and the inexhaustible piles of ordure (that’s a polite word for crap) dumped on your heads by your politicians. Surely Lesotho deserves a break!

I keep up with events in Lesotho through your press on internet and through the one paper in the UK that takes your country seriously, the Guardian (a solidly socialist paper, of course). One story that intrigued me was the calling out of the army to the streets of Maseru to deal with “rogue elements.” I don’t know the background to this. It may have been, as in South Africa recently, that there was looting by people who had no food (and one bears in mind that the Republic has one of the deepest levels of economic inequality in the world). Or it could have been anti-government protests. Whenever these occur in Nigeria, they are blamed on “disgruntled elements” (“disgruntled” being Nigeria-speak for “rogue”). If Lesotho’s politics are headed down the same road as Nigeria’s, may the good Lord protect you. (As an aside, you should know that Lesotho and Nigeria are the two countries in the world I love the most. Often, Basotho or Nigerian friends ask me, which of the two countries is the better? Some weeks ahead in this column I shall be addressing that question, which is rather like “would you prefer an apple or a screwdriver?”)

But for now, back to Covid-19. As I said, I can’t imagine how you are coping. In the UK the lockdown has taught us a lot. We have a crisis in the government’s mismanagement of our superb National Health Service—but at least our leadership is incompetent and not plain evil as in the United States. Most people are behaving responsibly in respect of the social distancing regulations, and that’s remarkable given that, notoriously, the Brits don’t like being told what to do. When I go out for my daily exercise and shopping, I notice pedestrians are keeping well apart from each other, but are calling out to each other “how are you?” and “can I help you?”.

Because we are such a reserved, stuck-up lot (well, not me), greeting people in the street in this country used to be regarded as being deeply intrusive, rather like asking a handsome stranger whether he’d like to come for a drink with you. Next time I see a scattering of other pedestrians in the street I’m going to call out cheerfully “Khotso, bo’m’e le bo ntate” and see what reaction I get.

Then there is the question of how to keep oneself from going insane. Books are great, of course, though difficult to get hold of for those who have no kindle facility or cannot order through internet and where there are no libraries or bookshops (or, in the case of the UK, where our excellent libraries are in lockdown). The choice of book to get one through the pandemic can be surprising. Best sellers right now are, apparently, Albert Camus’s The Plague and Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, I suppose on the basis that to read about even more devastating scenarios than the present one is kind of cheering (in the same way that when Trump was elected, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 went through the roof). A friend of a friend has decided that this is just the time to read the eight-volume Penguin edition of Dostoyevsky, purchased by her long ago but never opened since. My reaction: Dostoyevsky is, of course, one of the world’s very greatest writers, but he is as grim as one can get. Why not set him aside for the time being and get hold of something really cheerful, such as Dante’s Inferno.

Less facetiously, the most cheering thing to come out of the pandemic is all the wonderful tales of kindness and helpfulness. And that is all over the world, because, as socialists rightly maintain, people are essentially good. I especially liked the story that came in from the Cape Flats, of a minister of the church persuading gang members to take time off slaughtering each other in order to distribute supplies to those desperately in need.

Chris Dunton

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