In the first of a series focusing on the work of photographers during the coronavirus crisis, Jerome Delay trains his lens on South Africa
We’ve become used to the images of western cities around quarantine. In the empty streets of industrial and post-industrial societies tightly connected by globalisation, absence has become one of the most powerful metaphors of the coronavirus.
It’s a very different story in countries where inequality and poverty are much more acute; where access to a safe and distanced space in which to isolate is limited by poverty, social status and economics, and intimate social connections have a different importance.
As part of a series on photographing coronavirus in these places, we have spoken to photographers or asked them to submit their impressions of the images they’re capturing, and the challenges that they face in documenting the pandemic among the world’s impoverished.
Jerome Delay, who is based in South Africa for the Associated Press, is a veteran of covering war, social conflicts and outbreaks of disease. Many of his images on the coronavirus outbreak have drilled down into how the disease, and the social disruption it has provoked, has been experienced by some of the country’s poorest citizens.
Among Delay’s striking images are several depicting a roundup of homeless and sometimes drug-addicted South Africans, including a group rounded up and taken to the Caledonian sports stadium in Pretoria to be housed in tents.
But if documenting outbreaks of disease – including Ebola virus – is familiar to him, more jolting has been the experience of covering a serious epidemic in the place he calls home.
“One thing that helps,” he told the Guardian by phone while waiting for permission to photograph inside a hospital, “is that I have three tours of duty doing Ebola.
“The social distancing, the handwashing and keeping healthy, none of that’s new. The difference is that this is happening in my own town – to people around me, and to people who I know. So there’s no escaping from it.”
In South Africa, like other places, the disease first appears to have arrived in force via those more connected to the international hubs of finance, business and globalisation.
“One of the hotspots has been the financial centre, people who had travelled to Hong Kong and Singapore, places like that, and who had come back and gone to parties.”
And if, as he notes, life has not changed much in well-to-do places like the suburbs of northern Johannesburg, where “people live indoors behind high walls”, that is not the case for those living in crowded poorer neighbourhoods or on the streets.
“In the townships, even up to a few days ago, people would see me, a westerner, and shout: ‘Corona! Corona!’ because they thought it was a disease of rich white people. Now people ask if I know how they can get tested. It’s beginning to sink in.”
While South Africa has been quick to introduce tough movement and isolation restrictions to control the spread of the disease, the prism through which that is viewed, in a country with a strong memory of the apartheid era, has been very different.
“It’s very different to what’s happening in the west. It’s a different beast. This country has a big history of inequality. [In one sense] that’s why people are trying do the right thing. But there are still ghosts floating around.
“Some people are being forcibly removed home, to open spaces. Even if it is an informal shack it brings back some bad memories – that, and the police telling people to get indoors.”
He describes photographing homeless people rounded up at the Caledonian stadium earlier in the month, at the beginning of the country’s lockdown.
“All these homeless people, mainly drug addicts on heroin or whatever they can get their hands on, they were rounded up on the street in Pretoria and taken to the stadium, where there was nothing but a few tents to accommodate them.
“Some local NGOs tried to help them by giving them methadone so they would stay cool but, apart from that, there was almost nothing. While I was there the municipality gave out four hygiene packs for 700 people. When I was there the main concern, when people spoke to me, [because it is viral] was how can they stay clean.”
Among the more striking images from the stadium is Delay’s picture of Henry, who he found sitting in a rubbish bin.
“I saw this guy in a trash can. You know, it’s starting to get cold here. When I first noticed him, he was sitting on it. Then his legs went inside. He was protecting himself.”
Inevitably, perhaps, the conversation turns to a comparison with his three stints photographing Ebola, and his own personal safety concerns.
“With Ebola you have a lot less chances of catching it. Unless you fall head first into a bucket of vomit next to the bed of someone who is dying, the odds of catching it are slim – but the chances of dying if you do are very high. With coronavirus the odds of catching it are very high, and the odds of surviving high.
Delay catches himself. “But I’m in a bad age group. I’m 60 in a couple of weeks. I’ve had a heart attack. Basically, I’m in trouble if I catch this thing! So I socially distance from people, I maintain hygiene and I look after my health.”
So what precautions has he been taking? “I wear a mask. The only problem is that there’s a shortage of masks and it’s been difficult bringing masks into the country.
“So we’ve been looking at ways to reuse the better quality ones we have. The one I’m wearing now, I’ll put it in the oven for 30 minutes and then I’ll hang it up for 72 hours. I wash my hands every five minutes and try to keep my distance.”
One issue for the photographers is navigating the warning not to touch one’s face in a profession that involves repeatedly holding a camera up to the face.
Delay says he cleans his cameras constantly. “I’ve got gallons of sanitiser I ordered online when the virus first popped up.”
Source: theguardian SA