COMMENTARY: Laughter may not always be the best medicine, but right now it’s my saving grace

As of Friday, COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has infected more than 240,000 people worldwide and killed over 10,000. Our country is taking strong measures to contain the virus, and the situation changes not daily but hourly.

All of us have been asked to do our part. Our front-line heroes are working around the clock to care for us, putting themselves at great risk in the process, while my task is a much simpler one — to stay home and help #flattenthecurve.

But as the days go on, I feel more anxious. As the global tallies rise, I sometimes feel overwhelmed. For many, anxieties are running high in these unprecedented times — my saving grace in the new world order of this virus has been humour.

One of my father’s favourite sayings is “you can laugh or you can cry,” and I’ve been doing my best to do more of the former as I navigate our new normal for the unforeseeable future. Make no mistake: I do not think this is something to take lightly, not by any means. I understand the severity of this virus, especially for our most vulnerable, including my own diabetic, elderly father.

That said, I see the value that laughter and humour play as a coping mechanism and as a way of showing resiliency and agency. Laughter creates a sense of community in times of uncertainty, and I have personally felt its positive effects this first week at home.

As I’ve watched this pandemic unfold across the globe, checking in with my family and friends living near and far — from the U.S. to the U.K., India and Australia — the common thread is the reliance on humour to ease some of the tension. I’ve even been sent the same joke in different chat groups, just with a few tweaks or sometimes language changed to fit the cultural context.

In South Africa, humour and satire are used so often to comment on current affairs that the phenomenon has been dubbed “pavement radio” by historian and human rights activist Stephen Ellis. COVID-19 has proven no different — South Africans took to social media almost immediately after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed with a series of jokes and memes, ranging from political to inspiring in tone and nature.

From the barrage of toilet-paper-hoarding memes to the struggles of working from home with our children (and trying to maintain some sort of schedule with said children), handwashing 101, grooming nightmares and more, the commentary shared on social media has helped lighten the mood and provided a sense of community.

There is an underlying meaning in the humour.

Some may scoff, but it’s important to take popular culture seriously. Understanding how people use humour to alleviate their anxieties can help those in charge address and respond to those fears. This week, our political leaders have repeatedly reassured us that there is no shortage of TP and other household supplies, and now some of our retailers have also placed limits on these products. Our social discourse has played a role in that.

The unfiltered, no-holds-barred discussions in my friend chat groups reached new levels — and a new range of emojis — this week as we opened up candidly on everything from our health concerns to economic uncertainties, with a healthy dose of humour sprinkled into the conversation to alleviate one another’s stresses.

There has also been a change in how I am spending time with my children. We are usually always in a rush — rushing to school, ballet, basketball, birthday parties — this week we weren’t in a rush to go anywhere. However, slowing down the pace has meant the kids are leaning a lot more on us parents for entertainment.

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