When Covid-19 first struck in SA policymakers reacted promptly, implementing one of the world’s strictest lockdowns for five consecutive weeks. Despite that, and the gradual easing of the restrictions thereafter, the curve of infection rates has taken shape independently of economic lockdown interventions. By all accounts, those interventions have produced extensive opportunity costs and unintended negative consequences. But with infection rates again on the rise, policymakers are confronted with difficult decisions once more.

The decision in March 2020 to impose a hard lockdown was well received, but the subsequent formulation and implementation of regulations under the National Disaster Act were haphazard at best. Perhaps the starkest manifestation of the economic impact is reflected in a R300bn shortfall in expected tax revenue. This amounts to nearly 30% of SA’s annual budget of more than R1-trillion.

Important questions about Covid-19 governance responses remain unanswered: were the regulations pertaining to lockdown levels consistently implemented, or were they arbitrary and unfair to the poor? Was lockdown warranted? Until these questions are dealt with, policymakers may continue to devise and implement strategies with high opportunity costs and unintended negative consequences.

For instance, HIV/Aids and tuberculosis (TB) testing rates have decreased during the past few months, raising the risk of more immune-compromised citizens dying than would otherwise have been the case, even as Covid-19 continues to spread. Malnutrition has increased in the wake of deepening poverty, further compromising immune system health. In addition, thousands of children missed their vaccinations as parents face stark choices between earning daily bread and taking their children to a local clinic. A measles outbreak would result in far higher excess deaths than Covid-19 has inflicted.

A critical dimension of these questions is how much freedom (and future health) citizens should be expected to sacrifice for the greater good in the context of a pandemic. Logical criteria have to be formulated by which trade-offs are made to produce the least-worst long-run outcome. Only once these are established is public adherence to regulations likely to occur in good faith. Consistent, transparent and equitable interventions establish trust; autocratic and arbitrary impositions break trust, rendering interventions invariably counterproductive.

In this respect, it is important to think of Covid-19 not as a single global pandemic but as a simultaneous outbreak of innumerable local epidemics, each one slightly different. Context-specific understanding of local dynamics really matters. Infectious disease outbreaks unfold differently in different communities, according to social conditions that local people understand. A densely populated township has a different infection rate trajectory to a middle-class suburb, a village, a refugee camp or community of nomadic people. Therefore, it is particularly important for local communities to be fully involved in planning and implementing epidemic control measures.

Asia, Europe and North America all adopted much of the same epidemic control policy — a form of lockdown. African governments followed suit, but it is not clear that lockdowns were appropriate in our contexts. In SA, for instance, deep societal inequalities — a function of our apartheid past — seem not to have been sufficiently considered. Social distancing is impractical for people sharing communal water and sanitation facilities, or living in high-density townships.

Moreover, these same disadvantaged citizens’ livelihoods are made even more precarious by economic restrictions. For most black communities, with people living from hand to mouth and reliant on earning cash in the market to buy food from day to day, a week of lockdown can be the difference between survival and starvation. The measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus exposed a wide range of systemic problems right across the continent, from water shortages to overcrowding to a lack of sanitation.

The largest effects of the pandemic were and still are felt by informal workers, through lockdown measures that limit or prevent them from working. The problem for informal traders starts with their means of travel to and from their work stations, as they rely heavily on public transport. The first people to experience police brutality from the imposition of lockdown were informal workers. Enforcing these restrictions presents a significant challenge for the police: ethically, should officers have rigidly enforced social distancing and other measures, or should they have been more cognisant and considerate of the local context?

The impact of lockdown regulations on the informal sector is just one example that raises the broader question of whether the government has sufficiently considered the foreseeable economic and social consequences of its lockdown decisions. On a macro level, SA started the year with the economy in a technical recession, after a 1.8% decline in the fourth quarter of 2019 on a preceding 0.8% quarterly decline. GDP dropped 16.6% (annualised to -51.7%) between the first and second quarters of 2020, and 5.2-million workers left the workforce. While third-quarter GDP figures showed growth of 13.5% (annualised to 66.1%), Stats SA rightly points out that the economy as a whole is 5.8% smaller than at the end of 2019.

During an economic crisis small businesses are the most vulnerable to collapse as they have fewer resources with which to adapt to a changing context. The ITC Covid-19 Business Impact Survey, conducted from April 21 to June 2, revealed that in Africa two out of three businesses were severely negatively affected by Covid-19; 75% of respondents reported reduced sales and 54% had difficulty accessing inputs. While service companies such as software and internet based firms have managed to thrive during the course of the pandemic, others have been hard hit. In hospitality and food services, 76% of surveyed firms said partial and full lockdown strongly affected their business operations.

In relation to the main questions pertaining to Covid-19 governance the jury is still out on whether lockdown slowed the spread of the virus, while evidence shows it had a disproportionately detrimental economic impact on the poor and marginalised, who have no reserve cash flows to sustain themselves.

Ultimately, SA needs further fundamental reforms to achieve more robust and inclusive growth. Policies need to support marginalised communities through improved quality of education, health, transportation and an enabling business environment. In short, this requires improved governance at every level, something the Covid-19 lockdown approach appears to have simply eroded.

• Ngqwala is data analyst in the Governance Insights and Analytics Programme at Good Governance Africa.

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