A man walks through Johannesburg’s Brixton Cemetery on March 31, days after a nationwide lockdown came into effect. Picture: ALON SKUY
A man walks through Johannesburg’s Brixton Cemetery on March 31, days after a nationwide lockdown came into effect. Picture: ALON SKUY

As SA enters the Easter long weekend 2020 under Covid-19 lockdown, the question on many lips is whether the scheduled three weeks ending on April 16 will be sufficient to disrupt the spread of the novel coronavirus and “flatten the curve” of infection.

The experience of the rest of the world, much of it at least a week or two ahead of SA in the progression of the pandemic, indicates that the answer is “probably not”.

It is now clear that if imposed early enough, strict social distancing — including confining all but essential-service workers to their homes and in effect shutting down the economy — is the most effective means of preventing a nation’s health-care facilities from being overwhelmed due to the exponential nature of the disease’s spread if left unchecked.

Unfortunately, it is becoming equally clear that extreme social distancing comes at a terrible cost to society, not least the economy. This is especially true for developing countries and those, such as SA, that have already run out of fiscal space to soften the landing for individuals who lose their jobs and companies that do not have the resources to survive the shutdown.

Spare a thought, then, for President Cyril Ramaphosa as he consults a range of experts and considers the potential costs and benefits of lifting the lockdown before making the decision. The risks are many, both to SA and its people and to the president himself. Get it right, and the country could limp out the other side of the biggest disaster of a generation with a good chance of recovering in time and getting back on track. Get it wrong, and either many more people could die needlessly or the damage to the economy could be fatal, or both.

In many ways, Ramaphosa is damned either way, because even in a best-case scenario, there will be considerable hardship in the wake of Covid-19 — both in terms of the loss of loved ones and the loss of jobs and livelihoods. We will never know how bad things might have got had the wrong decisions been made and the worst-case scenario come to pass. Memories are short, but there is no shortage of political opportunists — both inside and outside the governing alliance — who will have no compunction plunging the knife into the president’s back.

Ramaphosa’s famed cautiousness and instinctive urge to consult widely before acting seemed a millstone around his neck before the pandemic; now it could be his saving grace.

The president indicated on Tuesday that a “proper, scientific” assessment of the effectiveness of the lockdown will be made over the next few days, and that this would inform the decision on whether it will have to be extended.

It has also emerged that the government is consulting social partners behind the scenes to get a clearer picture of the true social and economic effect of the lockdown, specifically on informal traders, small businesses and the mining sector.

Fortunately, though the lockdown extension decision is generally referred to as a binary one, it does not have to be. On the contrary, it is becoming obvious that it will be possible — indeed advisable — for the restrictions on people’s movements and businesses’ activities to be lifted in phases. There are too many unknowns to simply end the lockdown and allow things to go back to normal overnight. And at the same time, perpetuating the stranglehold on society without relief risks permanent damage to the economy, as well as social unrest.

Already there are reports of liquor stores being looted and taxi drivers and informal traders throwing caution to the wind as the reality of being unable to make a living bites on people who have up to now survived hand-to-mouth. And such lockdown rebellion will only have been encouraged by communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams’s brazen violation of the lockdown regulations, even though Ramaphosa did not waste time disciplining her.