JOHN STEENHUISEN: Lockdown, not virus, behind economic crisis
DA urges the SA government to swiftly phase out the lockdown as it is wreaking catastrophic socio-economic damage
There is little to be gained and much to be lost in continuing with this lockdown. The DA calls on the government to swiftly phase it out and replace it with a regime of testing and localised containment coupled with reasonable safety regulations and an effective relief programme. We have provided detailed proposals for how this could and should happen.
The severe national lockdown of unspecified duration, coupled with inadequate, patchy support, is irrational, badly planned, badly executed, disproportional, unsustainable, unjustified and unjustifiable. It is more damaging than the virus itself. Bear in mind, locking down for another month will not eradicate the virus, it will merely delay the peak by another month.
Meanwhile, 25% of households do not have money to buy food and the number is growing daily. Keeping people under house arrest without providing an adequate safety net is morally and legally indefensible. It is downright cruel.
The SA government has failed to provide a rational, fact-based justification for an extended national lockdown. The initial three-week lockdown was justified by the need to build health care and testing capacity — and to buy time to learn more about the virus.
But six weeks into the national lockdown three fundamental questions remain unanswered: what are the mortality calculations underpinning the lockdown? Have we met our targets for building hospital capacity? What exactly will trigger an end to the lockdown? Unanswered, because all involve inconvenient truths.
The truth is, mortality estimates are too low to justify this national lockdown. Scant progress has been made in building hospital capacity — the government has clearly failed to achieve in six weeks what it initially planned to achieve in three. And the government has no handle on the data and therefore cannot make data-driven decisions. This is unconscionable, considering the cost and sacrifices borne by the citizenry.
Meantime what has become clear is that the government is failing to implement its promised economic relief programme. Prohibiting people from earning an income is only sustainable and justifiable if it is coupled with support, so that they do not starve. This has not happened.
Corruption and patronage
On the contrary, the government is intent on distributing food parcels rather than cash, which would be the quicker, cheaper, safer, logistically easier route to take. This has already become mired in corruption and patronage. To add insult, the government is also inhibiting non-governmental efforts to distribute food, seeking to centralise and control them. While the population remains sober, our government has become drunk on power.
Also clear is that this lockdown is wreaking catastrophic socio-economic damage. National Treasury estimates unemployment will rise by 3-million people as a best-case scenario (assuming the lockdown ends soon and the recovery is quick) and 7-million as a worst-case. Even on the best case scenario a 30% increase in unemployment is devastating. We are witnessing a terrifying dismantling of SA’s precious economy. It may not have been a global powerhouse before Covid, but it was what we had, and it provided life and livelihoods for many millions.
The government will have people believe the virus is causing this damage. It’s not. The lockdown is the real crisis in SA today, along with its architect, the ANC. Level 4 does not constitute a significant opening of the economy. It is in effect an extension of level 5, but of unspecified duration and purpose. A phased reopening of the economy should have been speeded up, not retarded, given that initial Covid mortality estimates have subsequently been revised downwards.
Australia offers a crucial insight into Covid’s fatality rate. Looking at resolved cases only, the mortality rate for those below 70 years of age is 0.2%. Since the true number of infections will be greater than the confirmed cases, the true mortality rate in the 0-69 age group will be lower still — significantly less than the 2%-4% that initially motivated the lockdowns around the world.
The scale of a response must be proportional to the scale of the disaster, and it must also be proportional to how we respond to other risks. SA clocked up an average of 62 road deaths per day over the five days of Easter 2018. Yet we didn’t close roads for Easter 2019, let alone shut down our economy and put people under house arrest. The brutal but unavoidable fact is that we make trade-off decisions involving human lives all the time.
Every day in SA an average of 82 people die from tuberculosis, a disease also transmitted by airborne droplets, and a further 57 are murdered, yet we do not respond with indefinite national lockdowns or military curfews. Every life destroyed by this virus is a tragedy. But so is every life destroyed by hunger, poverty, TB and other afflictions.
We need to muster the courage and good sense to face up to the reality that our meek acceptance of the ANC lockdown is driven by fear, not facts. The fear is fuelled by always-on media hype, while the facts are suppressed by government.
People lauded President Cyril Ramaphosa for his swift lockdown decision. But that was actually the easiest choice of all, and in effect a “copycat” approach — most other countries did the same, so the risk of getting it wrong was low. The real bravery lies in ending the lockdown now that it has become clear that is the rational and right thing to do.
It may seem compassionate to lock down the nation in response to Covid. But actually, it only delays rather than reduces Covid deaths while producing untold, unseen and uncounted destruction of lives and livelihoods. The real compassion lies in ending the lockdown.
The DA has no intention of standing meekly by as SA’s precious economy, the lifeblood of our nation, is fundamentally and flippantly destroyed. And nor should any of the people of SA. We must stand up for our rights and fight for our political and economic freedoms, as so many have done who’ve gone before us.
• Steenhuisen is DA leader.