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Guest Contributor

The neighbourhoods of Fordsburg, Mayfair and Mayfair West are characterized by a multitude of nationalities, small businesses on every high street, and various cultures and religions living side-by-side. On any normal day, you’ll hear the call to prayer from the mosques, on a Saturday night the boom of the bass from the taverns on Brixton High Street, and on a Sunday morning the hymns from the various church services.

Parking on Mayfair’s Church Street is a scarce commodity without the assistance of one of the many car guards. People are usually bustling through the shops, buying anything from fresh Indian vegetables and medication, to Turkish Delight and new rims for their car. You can hear a variety of languages being spoken – Sotho, Chichewa, English, Somali, Afrikaans, Urdu, Amharic and more. Mayfair is impossible to drive through unless you are familiar with its rhythm, because cars usually double park and the streets are packed with pedestrian traffic.

There is a park near the Brixton cemetery, usually filled with people playing football, and with homeless men taking naps in the sun. There’s an informal taxi stop, where men looking for ‘piece jobs’ wash the taxis and pass the time.

The first time the reality of Covid-19 sank in was when we received a message via WhatsApp that the mosques were closing. The call to prayer, which usually includes the message “Come for prayer”, now says, “Pray in your homes.” There is no more thumping music on a Saturday night, and the Sunday services are heard no more.

The night before lockdown, Fordsburg was like a scene out of The Purge. All the wholesale and retail small businesses were open until late. People were running through the streets to race for the last available groceries, cars ignored traffic signals, and ATM queues snaked around corners. On a positive note, there was a well-heeded call to support the small businesses in the neighbourhood, especially those that would be closed during lockdown.

I ventured out for a little grocery shopping, after just over a week of being indoors. I was weirdly nervous, as if I was preparing for a supply run during the zombie apocalypse. The streets were relatively empty, with few cars and fewer walkers. Church Street was a ghost town, the only businesses open were a butcher, a spaza shop and a couple of pharmacies. Mayfair was quieter than I have ever seen it, with a few beggars still trying to survive, and a few children playing outside. The park was quite empty, as was the carwash-taxi stop.

People who don’t have transport are struggling to get bread, due to most of their local small spaza shops being closed. I can imagine that the reason why many of these spaza shops are closed, despite being able to apply for essential service status, is that trying to get accredited would bring up unwanted questions around identification, licenses and immigration status for some of the shopkeepers.

Business not quite as usual

The question is, though, where did all the people go? Mayfair is notoriously overcrowded. People on the community WhatsApp groups say that there are over 100 people living on some of the small properties, which used to be three-bedroom houses. The house behind where I live has four informal rooms in the yard, in which probably about 30 people live, including children, sharing one bathroom. People say that in these overcrowded properties, there are parties going on, with people unable to observe social distancing in such cramped spaces. They say that there’s a steady flow of traffic, with dealers still selling drugs through their windows.

And the homeless? There are so many people without homes in these suburbs who sleep in the shop doorways, parks and cemetaries, and who rely on begging. For now, they are for the most part, nowhere to be seen. As I was putting my bin out, a man stopped me to ask for something to eat. He said that he was taken to a temporary shelter in a recreation centre, but they’d only received three slices of bread in 4 days, so he left to try to find his own food. He said, “See where we live, in a city where there are people who have a billion rand to spend on one family, but there’s nothing for us.”

Flaws exposed

The Covid-19 outbreak is exposing a plethora of flaws in what we consider to be the normal system. These flaws always existed, but from our places of privilege we have been able to sweep them under the carpet, or ignore them. As the government tries to gain control over the movement of people, in the inner city suburbs, lockdown is exposing issues around safe and adequate housing, drug dealing and addiction, homelessness, immigration, food security, the lack of protection for the informal economy and more.

In an ideal system, in times of trouble, all people would be cared for. It’s not like the funding for it doesn’t exist. It’s that wealth is being hoarded by a select few, who could give just 1% of their wealth away and remain exceedingly rich. Some of these select few have been commended for contributing billions, but not all of those contributions are donations. Money will be available as loans to small businesses, a business plan for this crisis to make the billionaires even richer.

In an ideal system, wealth and resources would be used constructively to build a society where all can prosper at the same time. And in times of crisis, when government needs to tell us to stay at home, everyone could have a safe place to stay and mechanisms would be in place to ensure that there is a steady supply of necessities available to everyone.

In an ideal system, it would be immoral for someone to be exceedingly rich while his neighbour lives in poverty.

Though the defects in the system have always existed, they are being exposed on an unprecedented scale as government is suddenly scrambling for the bare minimum to be able to take care of a huge indigent population. On the one hand, some people are commending leadership for taking immediate action to somehow protect the vulnerable from the spread of Covid-19. On the other hand, cynics would say that the fast action is an attempt to mitigate the effect on the economy, which already favours those on top and is a debt trap for the workers who are currently on the front line. What’s saving us is a global phenomenon, where capitalist systems are having to rely on socialist policies, such as nationalising hospitals, to survive.

Simply put, a true focus by government on human rights would have meant that in a time of crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, we would have been in an ideal position to enforce lockdown, without a fear of economic collapse, because value would be placed on human life, not profit. The pandemic is highlighting the flaws in a system which has always relied on all people, but only served the few.

After Covid-19, as activists, we should not let the dust settle before demanding real change that will ensure that future crises will be better prepared for through compassion and humanity.