Quiet roads in an industrial area in Johannesburg during the Covid-19 lockdown. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
Quiet roads in an industrial area in Johannesburg during the Covid-19 lockdown. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

The question of whether to lift the lockdown and how has become crudely politicised. Those who advocate opening as much of the economy as possible are demonised as callous and selfish with a low regard for human lives. There is frequently a racial and political undertone: the privileged, who can seek private health care, stand accused of having little regard for the black poor who they are eager to damn to Covid-19.

On the other end of the spectrum, criticism of the hard lockdown has taken on racial overtones among white South Africans. The anger over the reversal of the ban on tobacco unleashed a torrent of abuse against minister of co-operative governance & traditional affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of which much was misogynistic and racist.

Because the DA has from the start called for a softer lockdown, the argument to open the economy has been categorised as a DA position; while supporters of President Cyril Ramaphosa, anxious to defend him, have prompted many in the ANC to champion the hard lockdown.

We are, though, at a critical point in managing the epidemic. New decisions must be made from a position of knowledge and fact and not fought from political corners. It is also important that the whole of society — or at least, the vast majority — are persuaded of the logic and legitimacy of the next phase. Behaviour change is at the heart of any strategy to keep transmission rates from spinning out of control.

The lockdown, almost everyone agrees, was important and useful. The first rationale for the lockdown was to slow transmission by isolating infected people and tracking, tracing and testing their contacts. The second was to slow down infection rates so that the health system could scale up and prepare for the epidemic.

For a time, it looked as if the tracking and tracing approach was effective. In the first two weeks of the lockdown, case numbers fell. But so did the number of tests being done, making it hard to determine exactly how successful the strategy was. This debate is no longer important. What matters now is whether tracking and tracing is still working and still containing the epidemic.

There is growing consensus among epidemiologists, including government advisers, that it is not. The contacts of the contacts and so on are now too numerous to track quickly. Also, with a growing backlog of tests in public-sector laboratories, it can take as much as seven days for the result of a test to be received. The epidemic cannot be avoided, it can only be slowed down.

The second important piece of information to consider in determining the next phase is that the virus is going to be with us for a long time. Based on the behaviour of other flu viruses it is expected that the novel coronavirus will continue to infect people for at least the next 18 months.

The third consideration is the economic hardship brought about by the lockdown. Even with social assistance topped up and wage support provided, the collapse in incomes is already catastrophic. So is the collapse in tax revenue without which the government cannot provide public services.

It does appear counterintuitive that the time to ease the lockdown comes just as cases and mortalities are on a much steeper rise. Having sold the necessity of a hard lockdown so well, the public will need to be persuaded that the change in strategy is timely. Accompanying that message will have to be a renewed emphasis on the importance of social distancing and personal responsibility.

Since the start of the crisis, President Cyril Ramaphosa and health minister Zweli Mkhize have displayed exceptional leadership and courage. It was not an easy call to lock down so early when — compared to the rest of the world — SA had so few cases. It was a decision made on the advice of experts on the basis of science.

It is time for Ramaphosa and Mkhize to listen to those same experts again and act with courage once more.