Relaxing the lockdown soon looks possible and necessary
SA’s demographics make it especially difficult for the government to respond appropriately to a pandemic such as we are experiencing. This is because what is appropriate for the relatively affluent is impossible for the poor.
The affluent can safely isolate, avoid queues when shopping, work from home, do amusing and educative stuff on the internet, dig into savings and so on.
The poor live in crowded multigenerational households, where some members must travel to work (or beg). They have no or limited-data access to the internet and no savings from which to continue the perennial struggle to feed their extended families.
Since there are far more poor people in SA than affluent ones, any prolonged lockdown is unsustainable. Fortunately, the evidence from within the country and around the world — all of which is admittedly limited and ambiguous — suggests that the harms of a prolonged lockdown in SA would far outweigh the limited harms of relaxing the lockdown. Hopefully this is what the government will soon do.
It could be done by allowing all shops to reopen and trusting them to put their own safety rules in place as they were doing before the lockdown. Certainly, drive-through takeaway and home delivery food sales could resume. So could businesses which repair cars, phones and computers.
Indeed, the presumption should be that any business should be able to reopen that does not involve keeping large numbers of people in proximity where they are likely to cough and sneeze over one another, such as in cinemas, places of worship and conference centres. People should also be allowed to resume taking exercise outdoors, though perhaps not in gyms. After all, prohibiting walking for exercise is itself a serious health hazard.
Bear in mind too that all this would still be going only part of the way towards the approach Sweden is following of having no legally enforced restrictions on normal activity.
Meanwhile, South Africans should note that the coronavirus crisis has had unintended and benign political consequences.
First, it has given us something like a much-needed coalition government of national unity. Second, no-one can blame this disaster on apartheid, colonialism, corruption, capitalism or communism.
Third, we are now in the same economically catastrophic situation as the rest of the world, so there will be no shame in asking for the help from international sources, which we were going to need anyway but would have been politically difficult to accept.
Fourth, President Cyril Ramaphosa has hugely strengthened his position as a real national leader and his opponents at the top of the ANC have been correspondingly weakened.
Fifth and finally, as in all other countries we are being urged to recognise that we really are all in this together and so need to co-operate across all divides. This is especially good since we are not being asked to band together to kill or immiserate other people but instead to help keep each other alive.
Moreover, the magnitude and complexity of the threats we face means it is not only the citizens of sovereign countries who are all in this together: the whole world is in it together. It will consequently be necessary for our government, and every other government, to harness many forms of ingenuity, experience and expertise wherever it may be found: at home or abroad, and regardless of race, creed or class.
It is helpful that at the moment it doesn't look like the virus is actually going to kill that many in SA as a proportion of the country’s total number of inhabitants. Whatever the number turns out to be, however, it is to be hoped that this experience of collectively combatting a pandemic will lead to much more focused and practical collaboration afterwards by everyone.
Such collaboration is, indeed, our only hope when it comes to addressing what was before, and will remain after this disease abates, SA’s number one moral priority: the assault on poverty.
• Dr Collins taught philosophy and politics at the University of Cape Town and was professor of public policy studies at the University of Salford, UK