Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Even after the recent restrictions on everyday life as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, from Friday SA will look and feel as if it is a different country.

While, thankfully, we have not had any fatalities in SA, the rate of increase in infections over the past week is cause for alarm. When we watch our television channels or read on the internet about the nightmare unfolding in European countries and then imagine that sort of escalation engulfing our fragile health-care system, it’s hard to make an argument for a stance different from that taken by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday night.

Our economy was already on its knees and shutting down most of it for nearly a month cannot be anything but extremely damaging. The president acknowledged as much but made the point that the lives of citizens are worth a lot more.

The lockdown is meant to save lives and it’s the right thing to do, despite the economic hardships. If the government is later shown to have overreacted, better that than have the blood of thousands of people on its hands because it put short-term economic calculations ahead of the wellbeing of South Africans.

It might not be good at it on a daily basis, but the main function of the government is to ensure the safety and security of citizens. After their typically inept reactions to the crisis, even Donald Trump in the US and Boris Johnson in the UK realised that. Unlike here, it took hundreds of deaths and thousands of infections before they got serious about containing the crisis, and the belated action was taken in response to political pressure.

A man was reported to have died after taking an unproved drug that was promoted by the US president as a potential treatment for Covid-19. The days when the world could count on American leadership during a time of crisis are truly gone.

Sure, there is a lot to be gloomy about, but we can celebrate that at least when the country needed leadership at a time of crisis, it had a president who was ready to provide it. Rewind about two decades and look back to what happened when the country needed to be united around fighting HIV/Aids. We are still paying for that failure because as the country with the highest number of infections, there is a big worry about the impact Covid-19 might have on a population with a very high burden of HIV and TB.

South Africans have had more than enough reasons to be disappointed with their leaders — from corruption that’s deprived us of a reliable energy supply to a lack of prioritisation that has left us with an unsustainable fiscal position. The ruling party as a whole, with its internal factions, is not fit for purpose.

But when it comes to the president, we can rightly be proud that we have a solid person in charge with citizens’ interests at heart.

If the saying that one should never waste a crisis is true, then this could be an opportunity for Ramaphosa to emerge on the other side with a new confidence that if he does the right things for the country, broader society will stand by him even when elements in the ANC seek to undermine him.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, the frustration with Ramaphosa was that he was too easily swayed by ideologues in the ANC and Cosatu and, as a result, key decisions on everything from how to secure energy supply to finally dealing with SAA were either deferred or simply dropped.

There will be debates ahead about the steps the government and the Reserve Bank have taken to cushion the economic impact of the lockdown. What it could do was always going to be limited, given the well-publicised fiscal constraints.

On Friday, Moody’s Investors Service is meant to issue the latest ratings review, another potential risk for the country’s battered markets. Perhaps after this the Reserve Bank can assess whether it has more room to provide monetary stimulus.

As citizens, we also have our responsibility, which is to respect the lockdown and do what is needed to make it a success to save lives. That will give us the best chance of life returning to some sort of normality in three weeks.