On 31 December 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan City, China. ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2’ (SARS-CoV-2) was confirmed as the causative agent of what we now know as ‘Coronavirus Disease 2019’ (COVID-19). Since then, the virus has spread to more than 100 countries, including South Africa.
Whilst the measures taken to combat and curb the virus have been drastic, and in themselves often the cause of immense problems for the arts industry and its participants, the pandemic has also produced remarkable examples of humanitarian and artistic responses world-wide.
For more specific information on the pandemic and its impact in South Africa, see the Wikipedia entry on "2020 coronavirus pandemic in South Africa" and the official COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal
COVID-19 and theatre, film, media and performance in South Africa
The pandemic is still playing out and the full economic, artistic, social, political and psychological impact of this catastrophe is can only be assessed and understood over time. For the interim we place the following brief summary of some issues, based on a slightly longer report written by Gaerin Hauptfleisch and Temple Hauptfleisch at the request of the editor of the online journal Critical Stages (published by the International Association of Theatre Critics) and to be published with other reports from different countries, in June 2020.
In a swift response to the COVID-19 international pandemic, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a full national lockdown starting on 26 March 2020, initially for three weeks, but extended to five later, and then gradually relaxed after 30 April, though not enough to re-open theatres and other public venues yet.
All theatrical events, festivals and musical concerts have been affected by this, venues officially bidden to close their doors and productions and public events either being postponed or cancelled – with no idea of the duration of the lockdown.
The lockdown of public events or performances also includes educational work for schools, industrial theatre and/or promotional work – all staple income-generating activities for performers, writers and directors.
Besides the devastating effect this crisis has had (and will continue to have) on the economy of the country and its citizens, the most ominous implication of this lockdown for freelance artists, technicians and related staff, as well as theatre owners and managers, is exceedingly simple: since no work can be done and thus no income can be earned – the bulk of the artistic community can currently be described as unemployed, with no way of planning ahead. Hence theatres and festivals may close and never reopen, artists be forced to seek other occupations, etc.
Responses from the industry
To counter some of the more devastating of these problems , some artists - in the music industry in particular - have started using online resources to release music and also offer masterclasses during the pandemic. Similarly, certain theatre practioners and venues have followed this lead and also started streaming performances, run online events or released archived productions to watch online.
At least one schools festival will operate online with participants sending in videos of their work, largely poetry, monologues etc. As for the professional festivals, the most radical attempt comes from the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown (now known as Makhanda) which is going virtual, hoping that by presenting work within a digital space they hope can continue to support artists and the arts in 2020.
Responses from the Government and other institutions
The central Government has set-up a relief fund of a hundred and fifty million rand for the Sports, Arts and Culture sector. Artists were invited to apply for funding for cancelled or postponed projects with supporting documentation. A number of other organizations and funding agencies have made similar offers of support, notably BASA (Business and Arts South Africa) and the South African Theatre Benevolent Fund. These aid schemes are currently being processed.
2020 coronavirus pandemic in South Africa
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