President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses SA from the Union Buildings in Pretoria, on developments in SA’s risk-adjusted strategy to manage the spread of Covid-19, June 19 2020. Picture: JAIRUS MMUTLE
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses SA from the Union Buildings in Pretoria, on developments in SA’s risk-adjusted strategy to manage the spread of Covid-19, June 19 2020. Picture: JAIRUS MMUTLE

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his cabinet are right to take a harder stance on lockdown regulations. The coronavirus is clearly here to stay, as even the most determinedly optimistic scientists do not expect a vaccine to be available before 2021.

Without a vaccine or cure in sight, governments around the world have applied three key measures to try to curb transmission of Covid-19: testing and quarantine, imposing stringent lockdowns and getting people to change their behaviour.

SA simply does not have the capacity to test and trace on the scale required at this stage of the epidemic, nor does it have the scope to shutter large parts of the economy again without triggering a humanitarian disaster of huge proportions

All that leaves is behaviour change.

Ramaphosa dedicated a large part of his address to the nation on Sunday evening to admonishing South Africans for their irresponsible behaviour, and exhorting people to wear masks, wash their hands, and keep their distance from friends and family. So, too, did health minister Zweli Mkhize when he briefed the media a day later.

Whatever the reasons — be it denial, indifference or a refusal to give up the good life — it is clear that far too many people have simply not played by the rules. They have continued to mingle at large funerals and dinner parties, despite abundant evidence that such gatherings pose a significant risk of spreading the virus. Compliance with mask wearing can best be described as patchy. The same is true for businesses, which have varied far too widely in their diligence with hand sanitiser and cloth face coverings.

And he quite sensibly went a step further, making it mandatory for people to wear masks when in public and on public transport, and to hold businesses, schools and public institutions accountable for the behaviour of their staff and the people entering their facilities.

From a purely public health perspective, there is some merit, too, in placing restrictions on alcohol and evening travel to reduce the trauma load on public hospitals.

But the government needs to come to the party too. It is not good enough to simply say, “Trust us, we know what is best.” It needs to open itself up to scrutiny and provide the public with the evidence it uses to make its decisions.

It has consistently highlighted the appointment of a committee of scientific experts to advise the health minister on Covid-19, yet none of the committee’s more than 70 advisories have been made public. Nor has the government published the Medical Research Council’s report on alcohol that informed its decision to reinstate the sales ban and impose an overnight curfew.

It is unacceptable for a democratic government to be so opaque. Ramaphosa and his cabinet need to take the public into their confidence, release the inputs they have received from scientists and lobby groups alike, and show how they have reached their decisions.

They would not be the first government to take political decisions at odds with the scientific advice received, when faced with other considerations. Though these decisions may be difficult to explain, they nevertheless have an obligation to do so.

The extent to which people follow advice — be it using condoms, buckling up in the traffic, or wearing a cloth mask — depends to a large extent on where that message comes from and the respect they hold for that person or institution. Ramaphosa's flick-flacking on the sale of cigarettes, consultation with select lobby groups on regulations, and his government’s steadfast refusal to take the public into its confidence, does little to engender trust or respect.

Burying advisory reports may help the government to avoid being held accountable. But a government that does not trust its people will not be trusted in turn. And a public that has little faith in its elected leaders will regard its coronavirus advice with contempt, with devastating consequences.

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