BORIS Johnson has written us all a letter which will appear on our doormats sometime this week. The Observer front page tells us ‘tougher lockdown may be necessary’, and the letter will reinforce last week’s guidance: ‘I urge you, please, to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.’

Last week’s guidance – that we can shop for basic necessities, have one form of exercise a day, go out for any medical need, or travel to and from work if we can’t do so from home – was issued on Monday evening (23 March). Gatherings of more than two people in public spaces are banned, we should maintain a distance of 2m from one another, and exercise should be done alone or with members of your family, not in groups. Is a gathering of two a group? And of particular concern to me, is a run with a friend who doesn’t live in my house allowable if we maintain the 2m rule? If we huff and puff when we run, and if we talk (becoming less effective at 2m with strong wind and increasingly dodgy hearing) are we more likely to spread the virus (if we have it) than if we walk in silence?

We find ways of maintaining 2m, instinctively reverting to single file when the path is narrow, and solving spatial awareness conundrums when we meet other people. Three-way meetings pose particular challenges. Others out for their daily exercise react variously: averted head and eyes, a smile and ‘thanks’ (no please don’t talk to me, you can nod or wave …), or complete disregard of the 2m rule (becoming increasingly rare). We’re all getting good at metric measurement; yesterday’s Farming Today (Radio 4, 6:30am) helpfully told us that 2m is about the length of a cow.

Last Sunday I stealthily got in my car and drove to my friend’s house, we met each other outside somewhat sheepishly, and set off for what was a great run – cold, even snowing a bit – but lovely: trees, streams, fields, a bit of sunshine, even a quick game of Pooh sticks (at 2m), and a sit down outside at the end (at 2m), with reflections on the balance between physical and mental health. We know that good mental health boosts the immune system, and good mental health is enhanced by social contact.

So please, Mr Johnson, don’t take away our outdoor exercise; and please, anyone who might, don’t define two as a group.


PHYSICAL exercise has been a major issue here, too. When our lockdown was announced for Friday 27 March, Dr Zweli Mkhize, minister of health, made provision for outdoor exercise. Within hours our thuggish minister of police, Bheki Cele (who was once dismissed as national police commissioner for corruption), was saying ‘There shall be no movement … there will be no dogs that will be walked’ at a truly disastrous press briefing addressed by surly and aggressive Cabinet ministers.

But a couple of days later minister of transport, Fikile Mbalula, urging township dwellers to walk to the local spaza shop rather than take a taxi to a distant supermarket, provided the loophole. A shopping list, plastic bag and a till slip are passports to exercise. I tried it on Sunday, keeping to side roads, and it worked like a charm. Why are doctors not shouting the odds about the importance of exercise, especially as gyms are closed?

But a day later a man phoned in to SAFM to say that he had been admonished for having a braai on his property with his family. So my joke about being arrested for cutting the lawn or the hedge was not as silly as it sounded. Rationality can fly out of the window in circumstances like these.

Predictably, the South African official approach has been authoritarian and militaristic. The president looked ridiculous in camouflage when addressing troops and other ministers are favouring khaki. But it’s not just for show: soldiers with R4 rifles invaded Alexandra township (Johannesburg) over the weekend and as someone pointed out, they don’t use rubber bullets. The minister of defence threatened ‘skop, skiet and donner [hit, shoot and thrash]’. It all feels eerily like the emergency days of the apartheid era in the 1980s.

On the basis of very limited evidence and press reports the lockdown is working in middle class areas. But elsewhere in townships and informal settlements open space is being contested because there the lockdown represents an existential threat for economic, social and cultural reasons; especially to those living hand-to-mouth. Will more people die of starvation than Covid-19? So far there have been three deaths in South Africa and over 1 000 cases, and the first has been reported from Khayalitsha, the enormous Cape Town township.

A great blunder was committed by the government’s stay at home policy. Many newly unemployed workers interpreted this as an instruction to visit their ancestral homes in rural areas, visits that traditionally require supermarket shopping sprees. Inter-provincial journeys have now been banned, but the swelling of the rural population could soon threaten fragile health and food supply systems.

Lockdown makes every day anonymous and turns last week into ancient history. There’s a lone saving grace for South Africa. The drought has lifted over much of the country resulting in a bumper crop of maize.

Written by Penny Merrett (Sheffield) and Christopher Merrett (Pietermaritzburg)