In the township of Masiphumelele near Cape Town, a major fire leaves thousands homeless. Who will now protect them from the corona pandemic?
In Masiphumelele, Christmas will be particularly hard this year. Late on Dec. 17, an inferno broke out in the poorest part of the township about 30 kilometers south of Cape Town, where some 10,000 people live without adequate water, toilets or electricity. A strong wind caused a fire that had only caught a few huts to spread to a huge uncontrollable area. Everything happened so fast that hardly anyone was able to save even the few belongings.
In the panic flight from the flames, many families were separated. Old people who fell were carried along by younger ones. There were injured, but miraculously no dead. It was not until after midnight that more than forty firefighters, assisted by a helicopter from Cape Town, managed to bring the fires reasonably under control.
In daylight, the extent of the disaster becomes visible: of more than 1,000 huts, only ash and scrap is left. Around 4,000 people have been left homeless. Some have waited for morning on the roadside wrapped in blankets.
Others are already back, poking through the ashes for scraps. A mother with a baby on her back cries out for her daughter, “She’s only four … we were torn apart trying to escape.” A boy sits on the remains of a refrigerator: “That’s where our hut was. I have to be careful so no one steals our place.” An elderly man nearby rummages through a pile of junk: “There must be my passport here somewhere … in a tin box. I’m from Zimbabwe, without a passport I’m nothing.”
Help comes from neighbors
On the evening news, Dan Plato, Cape Town’s mayor, explains, “We have been cut off all disaster funds by the national government. We have to make an emergency application first now. It will be a few days before we will be able to help the victims of the fire.” Many neighbors in the township, including those from suburbs near the township, are providing initial emergency aid – with food and clothing, first for children and women. Some emergency shelter is being provided in churches. The township’s community hall, managed by the city, remains closed – because of Corona regulations.
Ah yes, Corona. During the night, hardly anyone of the victims or helpers could take it into consideration. Earlier in the week, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa had already announced new lockdown rules, saying a second wave of corona had now reached South Africa. The numbers of new infections have risen from less than 1,000 to now already again more than 10,000 per day. So far, more than 24,500 people have died.
The evening after the fire comes new bad news from Health Minister Zweli Mkhize: “We have scientific evidence that there is a mutation of the coronavirus in South Africa. It’s much more contagious than the first one and also seems to be making more young people sick.”
Yet hopes had been high since mid-September in South Africa, when the numbers of new infections had dropped significantly and the upcoming summertime here would allow people to be outside more. As of Oct. 1, international air travel was allowed back in for many countries with few restrictions, just in time for the vacation season.
The second wave and a mutated virus
But something was brewing: After a party of mostly high school graduates with over 1,300 young people, 984 tested positive for Corona. Now comes the new mutation of the virus under the designation 501.V2, which is considered mainly responsible for the second wave: “Highly contagious, also affecting more young people and with more serious course of lung diseases.”
It is still unclear how much South Africa will now change international travel regulations again. Beaches in the country have already been closed for the current summer vacations.
by Basit Abbasi