A man walks in empty streets in Johannesburg on the first day of the 21-day lockdown. Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI
A man walks in empty streets in Johannesburg on the first day of the 21-day lockdown. Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI

As SA moves to level 3 of the national lockdown it is even more apparent that successfully phasing out a lockdown is vastly more complicated than imposing one. It requires carefully balancing trade-offs, handling fears and maintaining trust — all on the basis of shifting evidence and inadequate information, but with profound economic consequences.

Even if effectively implemented, well-intentioned economic support measures will not offset the socio-economic costs that have already been incurred; nor will they arrest the irreversible economic damage that is already evident.

Generally, how well countries fare after Covid-19 will be determined by how quickly their economies and societies recover from their respective lockdowns. As winter comes to SA the widespread business failures and mounting job losses in the country are worrying, more so because of the emerging humanitarian crisis. The long queues for food parcels, the intensified struggle for resources, the effort to survive in cold weather by those least able to cope, and the social tensions brewing under the surface all point to the fact that SA is starting to witness the harsh contours of a “winter of discontent”.

The human costs of the lockdown now cut like a knife through the wider debate about the pace at which the lockdown exit strategy should be rolled out, as well as its shape and size. Do those middle-class decisionmakers and elitist commentators who insist on a continued, drastic lockdown — but whose pantries are well stocked after their latest trip to the local supermarket — know what survival means to large swathes of the population?

Public trust is jeopardised if other agendas are grafted onto the core mandate of dealing with Covid-19

We are in great danger of losing our grip on reality, particularly if we expect strict adherence to often questionable lockdown rules in a country in which the socio-economic preconditions were already very weak.    

Bottom-up co-operation and compliance are now as essential as top-down authority. “It is now in your hands,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa. But as we rightly move to level 3 we also need to think about how best to keep the support of the citizenry in the face of a public health and economic crisis. To retain public confidence we must be quicker to recognise what is unworkable or counterproductive, whether it is a tobacco ban, other hard-to-understand regulations or the uncertainty arising from the possibility of different areas being put on different alert levels.

We must also beware of “mandate drift”, which breeds suspicion. Public trust is jeopardised if other agendas are grafted onto the core mandate of dealing with Covid-19. This simply fuels further, unnecessary controversy.

The general restriction on liquor sales was explained on the grounds that the number of alcohol-related crimes declined, which freed up hospital resources. The tobacco ban continues, with its own controversial rationale. And the overall lockdown was claimed  to be justified because it helped reduce road accidents. Are all these responses rational, or do they merely ferment resistance and even illegal behaviour?  

To what extent can we really go further against the grain in SA without stoking frustration and encouraging defiance? With level 3 the collective sights undoubtedly need to be raised in the phasing out of the lockdown. If they are not, there will be increasingly loud cries of: “Are these hardships really necessary?” If people’s concerns are not addressed and the process is not demystified, the rot will continue to spread, the implementation of the exit strategy will flounder and credibility will be forfeited.

Earlier patterns

An unprecedented crisis such as that of Covid-19 puts considerable strain on the risk-adjusted strategy. And as Ramaphosa has readily conceded, mistakes have been made. In many cases this has been due to muddled thinking, on the one hand, and overly enthusiastic crisis micromanagement aimed at quickly changing human behaviour on the other. The way to minimise the risk of mistakes and build confidence, though, is through consultation that is effective, not just nominal. This enables other and better options to be seriously considered. And expectations and communication need to be far better managed to carry the public along.

It is widely anticipated, quite rightly, that Covid-19 will break the mould of much erstwhile socio-economic behaviour and spur better ways of doing many things. But as exit strategies have been implemented in a number of other countries, citizens have also rapidly resumed earlier patterns of normal behaviour.

The lockdown in SA has also revealed how much human activity and society as a whole depend on those imperfect and much-maligned “market forces” that underpin the economy. The lockdown has demonstrated what happens when these forces are disrupted and income streams, however minimal, dry up.

The major costs of a dysfunctional economy have now fallen on those least able to afford it. Just as thousands of businesses will not reopen, so have many jobs been permanently lost. The fault lines in our society have been reinforced. With authoritative forecasts indicating at least a 5%-10% contraction in GDP and a recession in 2020, things will inevitably get worse before they get better as far as lives and livelihoods are concerned. And waiting in the wings in June are the emergency budget and renewed load-shedding.

Countless economic assessments have been made. Yet it would make for more informed decision-making regarding the exit strategy if, in tandem with the daily public health updates, there could be regular consolidated economic reports from a credible source. These could be weekly updates from the National Treasury or Stats SA conveying the latest data on job losses, business failures and loss of tax revenues as level 3 unfolds. We now need to look at data and policy responses through a bifocal lens. A healthy society and a healthy economy are ultimately interdependent.

In actioning a responsive and balanced lockdown exit strategy we must recognise that there are whirlpools on both sides, not on one side only. If SA wants to begin to transform the crisis into a symbol of hope and recovery, level 3 must be flexibly implemented and citizens themselves must take more responsibility for making it a success. Indeed, the Covid-19 exit strategy as a whole is not just a stern test of SA’s economic resilience and public health capacity; it is also a test of its democracy.

• Parsons is a professor at North-West University Business School. His book Recession, Recovery and Reform: SA after Covid-19 is due for publication shortly.  

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