How to laugh at what scares us

  • Geoff
How long does it take a global catastrophe to turn into humour? In the case of coronavirus, not long. The online world is replete with hilarious songs and vignettes concerning the terrible threat this world faces.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Mar 19, 2020

American satirist Randy Rainbow with his refrain “someone could develop a cold” parodies a song from the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls and United States President Donald Trump’s evasive response to the virus. Israeli band Jam and Joplin has produced a darkly funny version of The Knack’s 1979 song, My Sharona, as My Corona, where everyone is masked. All these works have the sole intention of relieving some of the stress we all share in these difficult times.

Is this humour offensive or necessary? Gallows humour is often the only way one can respond to catastrophe. Falling apart is never a solution.

And then, there is a cultural response. Flash mobs of people singing from balconies and streets – ordinary people living in apartment blocks in Italy, Israel, and elsewhere – are testimony to the human spirit in a state of quarantine. Historically, some of the greatest works of art have their roots in human struggle, from Shakespeare to Charlie Chaplin.

In South Africa, while many theatres and arts festivals have glumly closed their doors, others are creatively rethinking their format to meet coronavirus head-on. The organisers of the National Arts Festival said on Tuesday that rather than cancelling the festival in Makhanda, they would do something bold. The festival will go completely online for the full 11 days from 25 June to 5 July so that it can continue to share its magic and hope. Organisers call it “an opportunity to connect when we are being asked to distance ourselves from one another”.

Similarly, while facilities for the elderly are in lockdown, cutting people off from their families, the staff of old-age institutions like Pretoria’s Jaffa Jewish aged home have posted happy videos on Facebook of residents at lunch and recreation for their loved ones to see. Communication technology enables connections beyond physical spaces.

Two types of leaders, whether political, community or otherwise, have emerged from the coronavirus scenario. One is motivated to recognise the harsh reality yet take action to make it better, saying that there’s always something that can be done. The other sees only gloom, and passes it on to others.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the nation on Sunday, eloquently imploring South Africans to resist panic while declaring coronavirus a national disaster, was the first type – statesmanlike and inspiring. It contrasted with other high-level figures such as Trump, who in the beginning blustered as usual, insisting that the virus was under “tremendous” control when his own experts said it wasn’t.

Ramaphosa said South Africa faced “a grave emergency”. But if everyone acted together, decisively, coronavirus would be beaten, echoing US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s famous phrase during the Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fortunately, the response from major South African figures and organisations, Jewish and others, has been to follow the spirit set by Roosevelt in 1933 and now by Ramaphosa.

Real leadership will be needed in the coming weeks or months, or however long it takes to defeat the virus. An urgent warning is necessary to people in political parties, factions of the African National Congress and others, who have spent many years stabbing each other in the back: your squabbles may be useful material for satirists, but your power-grabbing is neither heroic nor useful for the country. The virus will be defeated in spite of you.


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