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OPINION: Slow and steady could just do it

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All I am suggesting is that we could consider slowing down, being a bit more careful as we get closer to a vaccine and a possible cure for Covid-19

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THINKING back a few months, to the days when the Diamond Fields Advertiser was still a daily print edition, I remember the pressures of the deadline.

And I am ashamed to admit that it was in this high-pressure climate that I think that I must have driven my colleagues up the wall with frustration, especially on Thursday evenings.

You see, I have an annoying habit of, instead of powering through to the end of a task, I slow down when I am in sight of the finish line. At a newspaper, this will probably never be a good plan, especially on a Thursday night when you are working on the weekend edition.

On a Thursday evening, there were extra pages to complete and the team would be exhausted from the long work week. As the deadline approached you could almost hear the weekend beckoning you with its sweet voice.

Everyone would be just about done when I would get up, take a walk out of the office and go into the corridor outside to stretch, breathe and clear my head. Then I would get a drink of water and return to my desk.

Once there, I would generally go into sloth mode. I would double- and triple-check the most insignificant details, making sure that I never missed anything.

While I was doing this, being slow and careful, I have to admit that I could hear the weekend’s bongo drums playing in the back of my head. But I focused on not making mistakes.

Do you know what the worst part of all of this is? Sometimes, despite my caution and care, I would make mistakes … one or two big ones on a few occasions.

When the boss calls you at 8am on a Friday morning to growl at you, you tell yourself, as the beads of sweat trickle down your back, that next Thursday evening when the finish line is in sight, you will be even more careful.

Now, at the risk of sounding as if I am sucking up to the boss, let me say that to have someone growl at you when you mess up is not all bad when you look at the bigger picture. Simply because you tend to be more careful next time …

So why would I bore our dear faithful readers with a story about how sub-editors glare at each other on a Thursday evening? Yes, I am trying to suck up to you now.

I am sharing a boring story simply because I would like to suggest that we all adopt the approach of slowing down as the finish line approaches.

South Africa has recently gone through levels of lockdown and adopted precautionary measures to prevent the spread of a virus that I still find hard to believe. Eight months ago we were shaking hands, hugging and kissing our friends. Eight months ago we could visit, travel and shop without a care in the world.

But no more … well, at least for some.

I have noticed with alarm that as we ticked down from Level 5 to Level 1, the diligence of people also dissolved.

I watch how people walk past sanitising stations these days as they enter a mall. I notice how the people on duty, who are supposed to apply sanitiser to shoppers’ hands to kill as many virus particles as possible, spray the tiniest trickle of sanitiser onto the hands … it’s as if people these days, under Level 1, are just going through the motions, seeing as they believe that the coronavirus is almost a thing of the past and the end is in sight.

I also see far too many noses poking over the top of face masks.

Then on Wednesday I went into three stores at the mall looking for hand-sanitser. Eventually, at the last store, I found it hidden near the back of the store. I am sure the other shops had sanitiser, but it was pretty hard to locate. I didn’t like this, seeing as hiding sanitiser away may give the shopper the impression that the virus is less dangerous or that we can afford to relax our vigilance.

At least stores could consider placing a sanitiser display in plain sight for paranoid people like me, I thought.

Look, all I am suggesting is that we could consider slowing down, being a bit more careful as we get closer to a vaccine and a possible cure for Covid-19.

Seeing the casual attitude of some people made me think of the story of Henry Gunther, an American soldier who fought during World War I. Henry had been demoted from sergeant to private for expressing his frustrations about conditions in the trenches in a letter he wrote to the folks back home.

After his demotion, his friends said it seemed that he spent the rest of the war trying to prove that he was courageous and worthy of his lost rank. He spent the rest of the war trying to regain face after the embarrassment of losing his stripes.

It was to this end that he volunteered for dangerous assignments and it was in this capacity that he performed one of the last acts of hostility of the Great War.

I read an account of the story. It goes something like this …

At 10.44am on November 11, Henry Gunther’s regiment received orders to stop all hostilities in 16 minutes’ time. The war would end at exactly 11am. “Hold the lines at the spot, and neither advance nor give way to the rear,” read the message.

Sixteen minutes before the end of the war and Gunther must have thought that these last few minutes were all he had left to regain his honour and prove his allegiance to the United States.

He knew of two German machine gun squads manning a roadblock nearby and the enemy soldiers were just sitting there counting down the war’s remaining minutes. Gunther must have thought that he could use the situation to redeem himself once and for all.

Suddenly, the Germans saw a shadowy figure approaching out of the fog. They fired warning shots and Gunther threw himself to the ground but continued to crawl forward through the mud.

The Germans watched the American soldier who suddenly leapt up and charged at them with his fixed bayonet. Gunther’s comrades yelled at him to stop as did the bewildered Germans in broken English.

They screamed at him that the war was just about over!

Didn’t he know the war was just minutes from its end? Didn’t he care? If Henry Gunther heard the pleas to stop he ignored them. He kept charging …

Then, a short burst from the German gun struck the American soldier in the left temple.

His body collapsed in the mud and he died instantly. The time was 10.59am.

Henry Gunther was the last American soldier to be killed in World War I … a minute before the war officially ended.

Had he slowed down this story would definitely have had a different ending.

We are sitting with a golden opportunity before us not to make a similar mistake to the one Henry Gunther made.

Yes, it is frustrating to be cooped up. Yes, it is absolutely awful to be separated from friends, family and loved ones. Yes, it’s stifling not to be able to go where you want to and do what you want when you want … and yes, it’s definitely suffocating to have to wash your hands at every turn for 20 seconds and wipe down everything you bring in from the store … and so on, and so on.

But in a few month’s time, we will look back as survivors and realise that it had all been worth it.

My heart breaks when I think of people who have lost loved ones to this pandemic, and that’s why I believe we have to do all we can to prevent as many infections as we possibly can in every way we can. I have friends who are medical professionals and I think about them every day. What are they going through?

We can spend the next few weeks or months of lockdown throwing all caution to the wind, and run the risk of boosting a surge in infections. Or we can spend the time preparing ourselves mentally and even physically for the challenges ahead when we are all going to have to band together as a species to lift our badly hit economies out of the doldrums.

I urge everyone, especially those who do not believe that the coronavirus is such a big deal, to consider those who are being careful. Let’s for once think of those we consider weaker than ourselves.

I believe that we can get through this nightmare if we don’t, at the eleventh hour, charge headlong into danger … at least history seems to teach us that much.