A South African National Defence Force (SANDF) patrol walks through the Noord Taxi Rank in the Johannesburg CBD, on April 1, 2020 during a lockdown enforcing operation. Picture: MARCO LONGARI / AFP
A South African National Defence Force (SANDF) patrol walks through the Noord Taxi Rank in the Johannesburg CBD, on April 1, 2020 during a lockdown enforcing operation. Picture: MARCO LONGARI / AFP

The government should soften its restrictions on who is permitted to work away from home during the lockdown, to mitigate its effect on the economy and give it the best chance of curbing the transmission of Covid-19, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) said on Thursday.

The lockdown was implemented a week ago, in response to SA’s growing Covid-19 epidemic. As of Thursday there were 1,462 confirmed cases in the country. Among the restrictions on travel and social interaction imposed in terms of the Disaster Management Act is a requirement for all but essential workers to stay at home.

A lockdown would only be sustainable if its economic fallout could be mitigated, IRR CEO Frans Cronje said. “If SA suffers serious economic regression and millions of people are rendered unemployed, there will be mass public revolt to isolation. Our advice is to … get as much economic activity back on track as soon as possible.”

The concept of “essential workers” should be replaced with an assessment of whether a person could continue with their economic activity without posing a health risk to others, he said. This could include people who could safely labour alongside others, or people in geographic locations that do not have local transmission of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, which causes Covid-19.

The IRR published a report last week sketching possible scenarios for SA’s Covid-19 outbreak and suggested a range of policy interventions to mitigate the socioeconomic effectsof the disease. These ranged from encouraging the banks to renegotiate debt repayment plans with their clients, to exempting people who had recovered from Covid-19 from the lockdown regulations. It also suggested using vouchers to pay for emergency treatment or isolation facilities for people who cannot afford it, and converting public infrastructure into temporary medical facilities.  

Cronje said while the IRR recognises that social distancing is the most effective way to “prevent a humanitarian health catastrophe”, it is increasingly concerned about the behaviour of the police and army in enforcing the lockdown rules. The lockdown risks serious human rights abuses, he said.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za