A few weeks ago President Cyril Ramaphosa effectively ended SA’s lockdown. Tanzanian President John Magufuli didn’t impose one in the first place. They both came to the same conclusion: lockdowns are a losing strategy to contain the coronavirus.

Why? Because you can’t achieve better health outcomes by costing people their jobs or incomes. Making people poorer is a sure-fire way to ensure the coronavirus continues to spread. Data from the US confirms this.

I recently examined Covid-19 and demographic data from where I live in View Park, an unincorporated city in Los Angeles County. It is an interesting community in a number of ways. About 85% of the residents are black, and 35% earn more than $125,000 a year. Up to 65% earn between $60,000 and $125,000 a year, while 45% have a college degree and 23% have a master’s degree or higher. The median age is 43, which is old for South Los Angeles and old for the county. Beverly Hills and Bel Air have similar median ages.

In figures updated to November 11, there were 184 Covid-19 infections in View Park, and three deaths attributed to those infections. The predominantly white communities of Beverly Hills and Bel Air, with an economic profile similar to View Park, had 816 and 112 reported infections respectively. The number of deaths was similarly low; Beverly Hills had 12 and Bel Air none.

Compare those numbers to some of LA county’s poorest (and best-known) black communities. Watts reported 2,251 Covid infections and 35 deaths. Compton had 4,762 cases and 82 deaths. We find a similar profile in LA’s predominantly Hispanic communities. For example, Boyle Heights, which is 94% Hispanic, has had 5,133 cases and 77 deaths.

Translated in terms of effect this means:

  • Beverly Hills and Watts have similar size populations, yet Watts has almost three times the number of infections and almost three times as many deaths.
  • While View Park is about a third of the size of Watts, it has 12 times the infections and nearly 12 times the number of deaths from the coronavirus.
  • Beverly Hills is about a third of the size of Compton, which has almost six times the number of infections and nearly seven times the number of deaths.
  • This disparity is also reflected in data on the predominantly Hispanic community of Boyle Heights. Beverly Hills is more than a third of the size of Boyle Heights, yet a resident of Boyle Heights is more than six times more likely to contract the virus than someone living in Beverly Hills and almost 6.5 times more likely to die.
  • To further punctuate the disparity, when the infection and mortality data for View Park, Beverly Hills and Bel Air are added together and compared to the infection and mortality rates for Watts alone, the totals for Watts are significantly higher. There are more than twice the number of infections and deaths for Watts than for all three wealthier communities combined.

In trying to understand the recent surge in infection and mortality rates, maybe a good place to start looking is at income disparities and the loss of incomes as a result of the lockdown, rather than simply looking at factors such as race. I would suggest the same for the rest of California, elsewhere in the US and Africa.

The adverse effect of the lockdowns has been horrific. For the poor, and working poor in particular, it has been devastating. Those in wealthier communities are more likely to have jobs, businesses or other streams of income that protect them from the economic disruptions caused by lockdowns. They are also more likely to have savings or investments upon which to draw to insulate them and see them through.

Conversely, those living from pay cheque to pay cheque, with little or no savings, are more likely to suffer disproportionately from measures that disrupt their ability to earn a living. When we look at data on Covid-19 infection and mortality rates, what we find is that the well-to-do are not physically immune to the virus, but they are more likely to be immune to the lockdown.

In the US, talk of lockdowns is again the lead story on the evening news. Washington state recently entered a month-long lockdown. New Mexico has shuttered all but “essential” businesses. Los Angelinos are beginning to stockpile supplies in fear that another hard lockdown is imminent. Maryland and Illinois governors have signalled the possibility that lockdown level restrictions are on the horizon.

African leaders need to share with Americans (and Europeans) the chief lesson they’ve learnt about lockdowns as a way to contain the coronavirus. The challenge they’re facing is not “jobs or lives”. Jobs are lives. If you don’t have a job, you can’t buy food. If you can’t buy food, you can’t eat. Is your immune system going to be stronger as a result of going hungry? The World Health Organisation is pretty clear on this score: “Those living in, or near, poverty are less likely to be able to afford nutrient-rich food and are also more likely to suffer infectious diseases.”

Hunger aside, if you don’t have a job, how do you pay the rent (or mortgage) and keep a roof over your head and that of your family? If being hungry didn’t stress you out enough, how about adding the thought of being homeless? When the infection rates are disaggregated based on income and employment data, what we find is that the surge is more likely than not a reflection of policies that have starved and stressed out the poor and working class.

If the West stays in the lockdown lane, what they are seeing now will be the tip of the iceberg. With another lockdown comes another wave of layoffs. As new people fall victim to hunger and homelessness, there will be another surge. In fact, it might have already started based on recent data on retrenchments in sectors such as the airline industry, hospitality and gaming, the wholesale and retail trades, manufacturing and real estate. Together they employ about 68-million people. If lockdowns are not curbed soon, folks in these sectors are sure to be the next casualties of the coronavirus crisis.

The political climate in the US has become so polarised as a result of the Trump presidency that even now that he’s been voted out it’s still hard to have a rational conversation about much. With the election, Americans saved their democracy from Donald Trump. Relative to the virus, they need to be saved from themselves.

Albert Einstein is purported to have said that continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result is a sign of insanity. To continue making people poorer by depriving them of an income, which is what further lockdowns would do, and expecting better health outcomes is insane. That is the lesson the data (or science, as some like to say) and common sense should have made clear by now.

• Stith is nonexecutive board chair of the African Presidential Leadership Centre and author of ‘A View from the Other Side: Locked Down in SA’.

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