I didn’t decide to study journalism to save lives. I ran out of options after plan A – construction – proved to be a dead end and then fell back on my only “talent” which was writing. Journalism seemed like a great way to make a quick buck doing cool shit and telling other people about it. Then I met Janine Lazarus.
Our first assignment within half an hour of day one in news writing class at college was to find a contact for a randomly assigned person. I got Cyril Ramaphosa. What followed was about 20 minutes of calling every person I knew who could possibly have a connection to him. It was 2003 and smartphones weren’t a thing.
I got his personal assistant’s number. And as I wrote the details in my contact book, I knew that my life was changed forever.
Good journalists tap every resource at their disposal to tell important stories in a compelling way. The compelling writing is the easy part (although inspiration can be a fickle muse), the real challenge is finding the important story.
In the National Command Council briefing on lockdown Level 3 regulations, cigarettes wasn’t the story. Not even close. It was a hot topic, but it was still a hangover from the back and forth when we transitioned to Level 4.
Minister Dlamini-Zuma, who coordinates the country’s COVID-19 response as per the powers granted under the Disaster Management Act, has also addressed the topic on numerous occasions at this point. Which then makes it even more strange that the poorly worded question asked at the 1:20:00 would be from the country’s biggest online news resource.
I don’t blame the journalist here, I blame the editor who clearly set the agenda for the pre-scripted question.
Look, when the news is coming out at the pace that it is now journalists are well within their rights to pre-draft stories that make assumptions based on other sources and research. But when you’re using the policy around cigarettes as your lead question when the country is trying to manage a disease that primarily attacks the respiratory system, you’re kind of missing the point.
Lockdown has been a rough ride for South Africa. We were already on the brink of economic collapse before the advent of SARS-CoV-2. And then we had to shut our borders to stop the virus coming in.
It didn’t start here. COVID-19 was brought in by those who were by the means of travelling around the world. Business travelers and tourists were the initial carriers. And then it spread. It’s now most prevalent in the townships of Cape Town.
I mention Cape Town because that’s where I live and while driving past the airport today, I saw a full-on soccer match staged on the side of the highway by a group of children. No masks. No social distancing. A lot of sweat.
One of my father-in-law’s labourers lived in Khayelitsha. He died of COVID-19.
There are places in this city where it is impossible to social distance or even wash your hands. A few metres away from the soccer match was a group of children retrieving water from a pit. I can only imagine that the trench they were carrying the bucket from had filled with water during the rains. One morning in traffic I saw someone squat and take a poo near that trench.
Cape Town is called the Mother City because the country was first established as a civil society here, way back in 1692. It was the blueprint for the inequity that this coronavirus is thriving on. Travelers and tourists came through Table Bay and spread thoughout the country, telling the natives where to live and how to serve them.
The men of the village were put to work in aid of the great expansion. The women had to learn to cook the foreign food and tidy the imported trinkets. Their children had to fend for themselves and try assimilate into the new society.
Cape Town doesn’t have more cases because it tests more frequently or vigourosly. Cape Town has just the right mix of inequality where there is constant contact between the haves and have nots. You can’t get to the airport without passing by abject poverty, for instance.
And therein lay the important stories. How those communities are being kept safe from this virus. Those are the communities that wouldn’t think twice to buy a pack of cigarettes and share it. But they would reconsider spending their last money on inflated prices instead of just the change from the food purchase.
Yes, I have shared a soggy check blunt (rolled with newspaper of a page from a phonebook) with strangers in the back of a shack. These things happen. People are still gonna smoke, but that is a far smaller minority of the community than you think.
The government we have now are tuned into the actual plight of the man on the street. Not the one running in the latest connected shoes, but rather the person living on the street who picks up the discarded cigarette butt to salvage the last skuif for a moment’s relief from his uncomfortable reality.
But those stories don’t sell.
People want to stay in their echo chambers where the biggest problem they face is not having the freedom to indulge in their luxurious addictions. They want to side with misguided politicians who acknowledge their anxieties about sending their children back to school when they have been “doing fine” with the online lessons, no matter what the paediatricians are saying about how low the risk is for young humans.
The scores who flock to the website want to walk their dogs, buy their wine and smoke their preferred brand of cigarette. That’s the economics of the people who pay the media bills, and the voices talking that particular game are winning the points, so who cares about actually reading through the resources that government sends out that explains the important protocols designed to keep society safe?
Something inside me died when a story covering the Western Cape infection hot spots was illustrated with screen grabs of the virtual presentation.
Would that journalist be able to track down a contact for Cyril Ramaphosa in a time before the Internet as we know it today? Do they consider what would happen in the event of an uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak among the homeless in Cape Town? Do they have the agency to voice those realities and concerns to their editors?
The media you consume is tailor made for you and thousands like you and designed to make money off your outrage. COVID-19 is showing us how broken it is.