SA cannot afford to try to extend everyone’s life indefinitely
There is no empirical justification for retaining the Covid-19 lockdown or for the president’s claim 80,000 lives have been saved by the lockdown
There are a number of uncomfortable questions everybody seems to be afraid of asking about the Covid-19 pandemic, and the economic havoc it is causing in the lives of healthy, hard-working people: how much is a life worth, and to what extremes are we prepared to go to save everybody?
What is the true human, economic, social and medical cost of hunger, social instability and protests, unemployment, business closures, malnutrition and lack of education as a result of hard lockdown or nonsensical, bureaucratic “risk-adjusted” rules?
For those who do the calculations, modelling and projections and then advise or influence decision-making, there is no real accountability for their effect. Although leaders say the dilemma is not about “lives vs the economy”, in reality it is.
It is said that the first casualty of war is truth. The “war” against Covid-19 is no exception. The uninformed have latched onto this crisis with vigour. Voices ignoring science are spreading hysteria as the gospel truth without critically analysing the facts of this pandemic.
According to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) 2019 Malaria Report, 405,000 people died from malaria in 2018, 67% of whom were children under five years. In 2018, a total of 770,000 people died of HIV/Aids, but we do not see those figures on our television screens on a daily basis.
Worldwide it would appear that the people leading the battle against Covid-19 are mostly medically qualified people, but their advice has significant economic consequences. Doctors are, by nature and in accordance with their professional ethos, concerned about the sick. The healthy are, by definition, not their primary clients.
The unintended consequence of this inherent predisposition towards the sick results in the healthy being neglected by the leaders of the war against the pandemic. The economic consequences of government measures advised by the medical and scientific profession are well known — economies, income and livelihoods have been brought to a depression-like standstill.
There is no definitive truth or test for best guesstimates, nor accountability. Those who make them and those who make decisions based on them simply explain, after the fact, how they got it wrong. There is, therefore, no empirical justification for retaining lockdown measures or for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s claim that 80,000 lives have been saved by the lockdown.
This is a real life example of a variation on the classic thought experiment in ethics modelling called “the trolley problem”. The metaphor represents a classic clash between two schools of moral thought. You are standing on a bridge. A trolley is running out of control towards a group of five people tied to the tracks. If you push the fat person standing next to you off the bridge in front of the trolley it will stop and you will save five lives. What do you do?
Now zoom out to how leaders are attempting to manage Covid-19. It is quite obvious that most world leaders would not have the stomach to push the fat person off the bridge and save the five people tied to the track. They are quite happy to sacrifice the economies of their countries to save 0.43% of the population — 435 people out of every 100,000 are infected by the virus, and of that 435, only 26 die, based on the figures for the US as at May 14.
There are only two certainties in life, according to the late Benjamin Franklin, namely death and taxes. It is also a scientific fact that eventually everybody is going to die. It follows that you cannot “save” a life but, at best, prolong it by years, months or days.
While leaders in SA and other countries try to convince us that it is not a question of lives vs the economy, the reality dictates the exact opposite. The enormous cost of the lockdown measures needs to be weighed up against the benefits derived from saving or extending the life of potential victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. c
There is another SA disease where government’s intervention might save far more lives than its efforts for Covid-19: the national disease of murders (57 people a day) and road accident deaths (1,617 during the 2019/2020 festive season alone).
The cost of the lockdown is extremely difficult to accurately assess. According to the Sunday Times of May 3, some economists estimate the cost at between R13bn and R20bn per day. The trade and industry ministry disputes this amount, but offers no alternative estimate. This in itself is quite concerning as it would imply that government, acting on the advice of medical professionals, is flying blind in respect of the economic consequences of its actions.
For the sake of argument, let us assume the cost to the economy is R10bn per day. The cost to date would therefore be R500bn. Add to this the R500bn rescue package and the total cost to date would amount to R1-trillion. This was the country’s total annual budget not many years ago. In other words, we are wasting almost an entire year’s budget on a dodgy seven-week “vacation” for all, under the guise that we are “saving” lives. We are, in fact, endangering the very lives we claim to be saving.
To make matters even worse, we are subjected to Verwoerdian enforcement of weird and wonderful regulations issued at will by the so-called “National Command Council”. This sounds eerily similar to the apartheid era “State Security Council” — the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Here is a personal reality check: two of my clients had all their symptoms for Covid-positive confirmed by the testing authority. They were, however, told, not enough tests were available, they should stay and home and call for help if they experienced difficulty in breathing. They have two teen children.
Leaders have a difficult job, but do not forget they applied for it, get paid handsomely and become household “celebrities”. So they have to lead and make difficult decisions after considering the advice of all the experts on aspects of our daily lives. The president must also hear the desperate voices of the people who live under government’s rules.
Here is the true moral test for the president and the National Command Council: if the lives of our people are so important to you, I dare you to take the International Monetary Fund loan and sacrifice our “sovereignty” for the sake of our people. If you cannot stomach that sacrifice, we would all know the emperor has no clothes.
• Bestbier is a director of an audit firm LPD in Stellenbosch.