EDITORIAL: President trips on his economic response to virus after an energetic start
The government’s lack of urgency on a rescue strategy for the economy risks the legitimacy of its Covid-19 strategy
It’s one month and two days since President Cyril Ramaphosa first declared a national state of disaster, signalling that the Covid-19 global medical emergency had hit home.
While coronavirus had already entered the national consciousness after the initial outbreak in China late in 2019 and the horrifying numbers of deaths reported in Italy at the time of Ramaphosa’s first big announcement, it still felt distant and we were largely going on with our lives as normal.
Just over a week later, the president gave another night-time address to the nation, with a more alarming message. The country would effectively be shut down for three weeks, a move he said was “necessary to fundamentally disrupt the chain of transmission”.
Infections in SA were a still modest 400, though this was approximately a six-fold increase since his previous address. That number has since risen to 2,605, meaning SA has the biggest number in Africa, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Exactly two weeks after the country entered the first lockdown, Ramaphosa extended it by another two weeks. That was on April 9. These dates are absolutely relevant if one wants to assess the cabinet statement that came out on Wednesday. On April 9, the president stood in front of the nation and said “your lives have been severely disrupted, you have suffered great hardship and endured much uncertainty”.
And then six days later, after a “special” cabinet meeting, all our leaders could come up with was that they were still working on a recovery path and that they would present us with a plan which would be completed before the next gathering of the executive, set for April 20.
That is a full month and five days after the declaration of the national disaster and 10 days before the extended lockdown is due to end. And in the meantime, the country is mired in the deepest economic crisis experienced by anyone who is alive. It might not be unreasonable for citizens to tell them not to bother.
Governments across the developed world have drawn justifiable criticism for not moving fast enough to recognise the severity of the danger posed by the pandemic, or at least not being straight with the public.
Reports are already emerging that governments in the UK and the US received warnings from medical experts as early as January. Despite that, Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the UK, refused to take the pandemic seriously, at least not in public. Not long before he was infected himself, ending up spending seven days in hospital, he was bragging about shaking hands with people, including those at a hospital with Covid-19 patients.
Ramaphosa cannot be accused of such recklessness and complacency. He has rightly been praised for the leadership he showed in tackling the health crisis head on. But he is slowly but surely eating away at that goodwill with the mismanagement of the economic response, which will result in a growing number of people questioning the legitimacy of government actions so far.
If you read that 10-million Americans have lost their jobs because of this virus outbreak, it doesn’t bear thinking of what the impact has been here, where a large part of population survives hand to mouth and where we had a 30% unemployment rate to deal with it even before this shock.
The steps that have been taken so far have been too small and have been bogged down by bureaucratic incompetence. The stories of businesses and individuals being unable to access the promised help are too many to list here.
If another symbol of this government’s skewed economic priorities was needed, it can be found in this: the drafters of that otherwise empty statement found space for SAA, which once again gets more attention than the millions of citizens who risk starving to death as a result of the lockdown.
Wednesday was a lost opportunity for the government. Ramaphosa needs to pull up his socks or risk his strategy losing legitimacy.
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