People run away as a police vehicle approaches them during clashes with residents of Tafelsig, in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town. Picture: AFP/RODGER BOSCH
People run away as a police vehicle approaches them during clashes with residents of Tafelsig, in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town. Picture: AFP/RODGER BOSCH

In liberal democracies, governments rule by consent, not diktat. When elected leaders overstep and implement rules that make no sense while imposing unnecessary hardship on citizens, this consent gets withdrawn. Disobedience and unrest can very quickly replace compliance.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced governments into areas of our lives that, in normal circumstances, would frighten us, but which most reluctantly accept because right now they are necessary. Nothing is normal any more. Until we have a vaccine (or even an effective treatment regimen) we are helpless against this new threat. True, most of us would recover from Covid-19, but millions would not, and that would be too high a price to pay for continuity.

However, among the sensible restrictions a zeal for heavy-handed regulations is starting to show, threatening the efficacy of the global fight against Covid-19. By banning the sale of alcohol and tobacco products and outlawing outdoor exercise, which have a tenuous bearing on the actual fight against the coronavirus, overzealous SA bureaucrats are encouraging people to rebel and are, in effect, undermining the ostensible goal of keeping the number of infections down.

Reports of a crime syndicate targeting liquor stores and other outlets in the Western Cape should therefore not come as a surprise. There have been numerous incidents of looting and at least 14 people, including police officers, have been arrested for breaking into liquor stores. The unrest triggered by SA’s onerous lockdown regulations has made headlines around the world.

The regulations are clearly undermining the government’s otherwise sensible and science-led approach to combating the pandemic.

Apart from costing the fiscus billions at a time when governments need every cent they can lay their hands on, bans simply drive trade underground. Unregulated black markets are already flourishing as illegitimate traders take advantage of the new vacuum in the market. People will not stop smoking and drinking just because their government tells them to. But they will lose the protection proper regulation gives them. 

Over-the-top legislation that bans everyday items, even in a global pandemic emergency, is the wrong approach and will have unintended consequences that can be hard to unpick

Another significant impact of illegal trade is on the jobs market — legitimate producers are forced to close, putting people out of work and potentially forcing them to find employment in the black market. As illegal trade thrives, the networks that facilitate the movement of these goods and services become more closely aligned with organised crime syndicates.

Forcing people to either change their behaviour or be left alone to face the threat of illegal trade only serves to put consumers at risk from unscrupulous business practices.

There is certainly a sensible health debate to be had about responsible consumption of alcohol, especially at a time of crisis. However, unproven draconian legislation cannot be the solution, particularly at a time when you are trying to minimise the impact of crashing economies and failing job markets. Citizens must surely be allowed simple pleasures, even if they are not good for them.

Prohibitionists are exploiting the crisis to push policies that will undoubtedly make the situation worse. If they get their way we can expect them to argue that any short-term bans should be made permanent.

SA is not alone in adopting a draconian approach. A mayor in the Philippines also ordered a temporary ban on the sale and purchase of cigarettes. In Malaysia, cigarettes and alcohol are not on the essential goods list. If legitimate stocks run out, they run out and cannot be replaced.

That is why education and co-operation, not legislation, provides the best way forward. Over-the-top legislation that bans everyday items, even in a global pandemic emergency, is the wrong approach and will have unintended consequences that can be hard to unpick once the emergency has subsided.

Governments should not look at introducing new bans on anything. Bans will not help the economic and financial recovery, which is expected to be tentative at best; it won’t safeguard jobs or bring much-needed cash into the state coffers to stimulate the economy; nor decrease the psychological impact of the lockdown, which is challenging for everybody concerned.

Governments and public-health bodies have a duty to look after their citizens, but it is vital that they also legislate for a recovery through proportionate regulation. Any economic recovery could die on the vine if overzealous legislators try to score cheap political points in the name of public health.

• Wray, a former executive editor at BDFM in Johannesburg, is a freelance writer based in the UK.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.