A closed Liquor City store in Craighall Park, Johannesburg, on July 13 2020. Picture: AFP/MICHELE SPATARI
A closed Liquor City store in Craighall Park, Johannesburg, on July 13 2020. Picture: AFP/MICHELE SPATARI

It’s not a big surprise that the government’s decision to restore the ban on alcohol sales hogged the headlines after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s latest address on Sunday.

It’s an emotive subject that elicits strong reactions, both as a symbol of the government’s growing encroachment into people’s everyday lives and the economic damage that it will surely cause. The supply chain that will be affected is extensive and workers from farm workers to bottlers and cashiers at retailers face an uncertain future.

This decision has rekindled debates about how much thinking and analysis the government embarks on before imposing regulations, with some of them clearly driven more by the influence of interest groups rather than science.

But, unlike the ban on tobacco sales that has been in force since late March, the imposition of the alcohol ban does have some merit in that it seems to be based on scientific advice.

The Medical Research Council estimates that banning the sale of alcohol for two months could reduce the number of trauma patients at public hospitals by about 50,000, freeing up resources for other patients, some of whom will have been infected with Covid-19. As citizens, business and workers, we may disagree with the final decision, but we can clearly see the logic.

But the president’s statement about taxis is plainly ludicrous. 

“Taxis undertaking local trips will now be permitted to increase their capacity to 100%, while long distance taxis will not be allowed to exceed 70% occupancy.”

Are we really supposed to believe that the virus discriminates between “long” and “short” distances? It’s not clear what arbitrary measure will be used to define the difference. This clearly has nothing to do with public safety or scientific advice and speaks more to the perceived political power of taxi owners and their ability to cause havoc when they don’t get their way.

“This is a fight to save every life, and we need to save every bed,” the president said, while at the same time choosing not to deal with one of the biggest potential danger areas. In his speech he emphasised the need for ventilation as evidence emerges that  the virus can be carried in tiny aerosolised droplets breathed out by an infected person in places that, in his words, “are crowded, closed or have poor air circulation”.

A packed taxi would seem to fit that definition perfectly. South Africans will also be baffled about why they can’t be trusted to safely visit relatives while a group of 49 people can congregate for funerals and religious gatherings, which have been recognised globally as potential “super spreader events”. 

Ramaphosa gave some credence to anecdotal evidence that the observance of physical distancing and other health protocols at these events is patchy at best. He said there have been cases where up to 1,000 people have attended funerals. Yet he gave no indication that the government might be considering a reversal of the policy on such gatherings to limit infections, and relieve pressure on resources.

From day one, the lockdown has been dogged by the arbitrary application of regulations based on political considerations or personal whims. These cases will do nothing to dispel that.

As the number of coronavirus cases have grown, politicians have behaved as if this surge, which they have been talking about for months, is a tsunami or act of god that has caught them by surprise. Ramaphosa perhaps foresaw the criticism that would come over the apparent lack of preparation by noting “the force and the speed with which it has progressed”.

Interestingly, he didn’t suggest that this was unexpected by his experts, only saying that it has caused great concern. In the absence of evidence showing the scale of the crisis is much worse than what was expected,
citizens have every right to be angry after being told to make sacrifices for a coming tsunami, the government was still caught napping.

In the end, Ramaphosa’s speech will probably be more memorable for what it didn’t address — the government’s failure to adequately prepare for a storm that it knew was coming.

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