A health worker talks to residents as they conduct screening during the 21-day nationwide lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus disease in Bo Kaap, Cape Town. Picture: REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham
A health worker talks to residents as they conduct screening during the 21-day nationwide lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus disease in Bo Kaap, Cape Town. Picture: REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Modern politics has increasingly become about extremes: heroes or villains, right or left, love them or hate them – and the Covid-19 pandemic provides the ideal breeding ground for those polarised positions to be accentuated.

But the truth is almost always somewhere in between, and so it is with SA’s Covid-19 response. The SA government no doubt faces many constraints, but despite this it has been able to take some notably positive steps in tackling this virus. Today we focus on reasons to be cheerful about what lies ahead, in terms of the virus’ impact. Tomorrow we’ll detail what we need to be concerned about. 

1. We acted early, and boldly 

It’s all about timing. When stories began to break of a novel respiratory virus in Wuhan at the turn of the year, many people turned a wilful blind eye, hoping for a cosy, comfortable resolution to a story that seemed more at home in Hollywood. The consequences of that approach are now clear to see, not least in the US: countries that acted too softly or too late have been ravaged by an unprecedented social crisis.

However, there is also a chance that one can act too early. No point locking down an economy unless it’s a necessity. As Rob Rose’s editorial this week suggests, the Swedish approach, for example, has been to coolly leave it until the last possible moment before instituting a lockdown – though Sweden’s population numbers and the strength of its health service likely reduce the apparent risks of leaving it late in its case. But as columnist Martin Wolf points out in the Financial Times on April 7, Sweden currently has lower unemployment arising from the Covid-19 outbreak than its neighbour, Norway, but it also has a higher death toll. This remains a fundamental, existential trade-off. 

So, like the final scenes in Titanic, you need to hang on until you simply must let go. There appears to be a small sweet spot – and SA seems to have nailed it. Better too early than too late, and the government took drastic action sooner than most. As a result, its boldness looks likely to pay off. There were roughly 12,500 reported cases in Italy before a full national lockdown, 8,000 in Spain, close to 7,000 in the UK before its relatively loose lockdown was announced, and more than 13,000 in the US before even localised lockdowns were imposed. Those countries have either gone through, or are going through, a phase where they’ve suffered up to and sometimes more than 1,000 deaths per day. In SA’s case, it took just 402 cases of infection for the government to realise that a radical risk required a radical response, and the lockdown was announced. By the time it came into force, we had 927 confirmed cases.

Yes, SA benefited from some lag time which allowed it to learn lessons from elsewhere. But the government made decisions based on science and in fulfilment of its most fundamental purpose: to protect the people.

2. We have a skilful ‘Front 2’

Judgment day is, in all likelihood, very much still to come for the Ramaphosa administration, if, as expected, the worst of the health crisis (and thus the social and economic crisis) is still ahead of us. However, the president’s three major addresses to the nation on Covid-19 were sincere, rational and confidence-inspiring. His popularity in the coming weeks will likely rise and fall in contrast to the curve, as the virus gives Ramaphosa the chance to display his savvy leadership skills, even as it exposes the weaknesses in his administration’s armoury.  In Ramaphosa, SA has a leader who is thoughtful and considered, who has the best the interests of the country at heart and who will genuinely try his best to avert the worst of the crisis. And, unlike some of the G7 leaders, Ramaphosa doesn’t constantly and insanely tilt at windmills. 

In the modern world of politics it’s hard to ask for more.

But one of the most impressive characters of all (globally as well as locally) has been health minister Zweli Mkhize. After seemingly being cast into political oblivion after his hapless 2017 campaign for the ANC deputy presidency, all of a sudden Mkhize has found himself in the perfect place at the perfect time (and Ramaphosa should, of course, get credit for appointing Mkhize to this portfolio). 

His refusal to commit fully to either of the main ANC internal factions at the Nasrec elective conference in 2017 – a politically disastrous choice then – is now a strength. It underpins his calm, clear-minded leadership in a crisis. 

3. SA has received praise from the international community

At a time when the majority of governments are being criticised for their slow Covid-19 response, SA’s actions have been met with praise. This is important – not just for our chances of knocking back the pandemic, but also for SA’s repositioning as a trusted force in the international political community. A decade of corrupt rule, sparking the economic decline and ratings downgrades that we see today, has severely tarnished SA’s reputation as a once respected role-player in international relations that punched above its weight.  

While the lockdown and its implementation will cause frustration at home, as the debate is polarised by inevitable partisan political affiliation, the best gauge of our response may be from outside our borders. Thus, the fact that SA’s response has been commended by reputable foreign agencies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and news organisations like the BBC is a sign that we’re on the right course. 

4. The numbers are trending well (but …)

Everyone is a bit surprised by the trajectory of SA’s numbers. It has also flummoxed the government. Pretty much all infected countries have followed a similar course: relatively slow growth in the early days, followed by a rapid spike around the 100 infection case mark when local transmission becomes established. Initially, SA followed the same trajectory and when over 200 new reported cases were announced on both March 26 and 27, it seemed apparent that the spike had begun. But almost no sooner had the lockdown been implemented than the spike stopped in its tracks. Since then, there has been no daily three-figure number of new infections.

It would be incorrect to suggest that this is a result of the lockdown, the effects of which will not be seen in the numbers during its first two weeks due to the built-in lag time. And it would be equally hasty to suggest it is evidence of a reduced infection rate. There are numerous potential reasons, including insufficient testing, backlogs at laboratories, closing the borders, the transition between imported and local transmissions, and the yet-unproven effect of warmer weather on the transmissibility of the virus. 

That being said, if there were a large bulk of unreported cases spiking in SA, we would see the results of that in the hospitals. Yet, SA’s admission rates are still relatively low. So while we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves by claiming victory in the fight against the exponential spread of the virus, the reduced numbers are certainly better than the alternative scenario.

5. The private sector has come on board

The key rational role-players in government and business know that they need each other to get through this crisis. 

For business, while it has suffered severe short-term (and some more lasting) effects, it has provided an opportunity to restore its credibility and reputation after the bruising campaigns orchestrated by Bell Pottinger and others to depict the sector as “white monopoly capital”. 

For the government, responding to Covid-19 is an extremely expensive exercise, especially where there is a massive strain on public expenditure. Crucially, the fact that some of SA’s prominent billionaires have donated substantial amounts of money, as have several other local and international donors, has bought the government time. Covid-19 has the potential to be a long and recurring crisis, and thanks to these donations, the government was able to avoid throwing the full fiscal kitchen sink at the problem from the outset. It has allowed it to keep large amounts of funds back, which can be used for emergencies at a later stage. 

* This is Part 3 of a daily series of political analysis by The Paternoster Group, an independent consultancy that provides corporate and other clients with political risk and political economy analysis as well as strategic advisory services. For more analysis and to subscribe to our fortnightly bulletin, contact mike.law@thepaternostergroup.com or go to thepaternostergroup.com

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