If, as expected, President Cyril Ramaphosa does announce the opening of the rest of the economy this week, he might channel the British economist John Maynard Keynes and say when facts change, he changes his mind.
The businesses that have been on the receiving end of some of the less comprehensible lockdown regulations will probably beg to differ, even as they heave a sigh of relief that the government is finally listening.
For workers, investors and executives in tourism, alcohol, tobacco and airline industries — who hope Ramaphosa is about to announce that their companies can reopen — this will matter little in the end. In the ensuing relief, there might even be a return to the blaze of national goodwill that characterised the early stages of the lockdown.
Then, it was easy for most companies to praise Ramaphosa for acting quickly to contain the pandemic because the logic for the full lockdown in March was seen as unassailable. SA, for the most part, acted in line with international best practice and was, for the most part, praised in relation to floundering leadership in countries such as Brazil, the UK and the US.
The idea behind Ramaphosa’s risk-adjusted lockdown strategy was simple: buy time for virology experts to line up our health-care resources against Covid-19 and limit the economic cost of the order.
Then came arbitrary and nonsensical rules such as the initial ban on e-commerce retail and roast chicken at supermarkets. Subsequent steps to relax the regulations were marred by the supremacy of lobbyists’ interests rather than the health imperatives.
Despite all of that, the trajectory of the disease has given Ramaphosa cover to say the strategy is working. For the last few days, the daily confirmed infection cases have hovered around 3,000 compared with about 10,000 a week ago, prompting health minister Zweli Mkhize to proclaim a declining trend.
Ramaphosa can also hold up some half-full temporary medical facilities such as the one in Nasrec, Johannesburg, that the country’s health facilities are unlikely to be overwhelmed as had been feared when he imposed the lockdown. In addition, a field hospital in Cape Town is being dismantled and shipped to the Eastern Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal hospitals should be able to cope, Mkhize told the Sunday Times last week.
His critics, of course, will argue that none of this should be news and only confirms that he imposed too high a burden on an economy that was already saddled with unsustainable levels of poverty and unemployment.
It’s impossible to know how the health situation would have evolved had the government acted differently. What’s not in dispute is the economic catastrophe that is belatedly leading to a change of heart.
SA could end up without a national airline after Comair was forced into business rescue after more than seven decades of unbroken annual profits. It’s harder to make a case for SAA.
How much of the restaurant industry will remain is unclear, a tragedy for what is already one of the most unequal societies in the world. While key tourist destinations such as Spain and Italy, which have had bigger outbreaks, have been opened to visitors from selected countries for about two months, SA is still firmly closed to the world. Will a sector that supported more than 9% of all jobs in 2018 survive?
It’s time Ramaphosa shows the locked-down sectors that their hopes are not misplaced.
Of course, the worst thing we can do is to think the Covid-19 crisis is gone and return to old habits, which will only mean more infections and lockdowns in the future.
The government’s strategy has to move to making sure the behaviour and other changes — from the wide-scale wearing of masks and physical distancing — of recent months become a semi-permanent feature of everyday life. While there is talk of vaccines coming on stream, we have to assume that the virus is something we will have to live with for a while rather than conquer.
That’s why we have to find ways to allow almost all economic activity to resume, while taking maximum steps to ensure our collective safety.
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