Report card: rating SA’s coronavirus response in 4 categories
Rating the government’s response to Covid-19
Given the pain inflicted by the coronavirus on much of Europe, the aphorism ‘perfect is the enemy of good’, commonly attributed to Voltaire, a philosopher of the age of enlightenment, is relevant.
Covid-19 demands a multidimensional response by governments across the world. Guided as much by trial and error as by any ‘exact science’, each will have strengths and weaknesses
There is no manual, no playbook and no obvious short-cut for dealing with the pandemic. And there is certainly no “perfect”.
So how is the SA government doing so far?
Covid-19 is the No1 issue that will make or break the Cyril Ramaphosa presidency, and so far he is very much making it.
For months before the pandemic, Ramaphosa frustrated many observers with slow progress on some of the biggest reform issues and some confoundingly dilatory decision-making. But when SA needed it most, he delivered. He has revealed himself to be a skilled, calm and compassionate leader who takes the stage at our times of greatest concern but delegates well in areas beyond his expertise.
That leadership has heaped confidence in and credibility on SA’s Covid-19 response from within the country and the international community. While some other world leaders have used the stage for hubristic grandstanding and campaign-orientated sloganeering, Ramaphosa has focused on addressing the problem.
Cabinet cohesion, executive leadership and cooperative governance:
As much as Covid-19 provided an (unwanted) opportunity for Ramaphosa and some members of his cabinet to rise to the occasion, it has also brought into sharp contrast the weaknesses that permeate his administration. While some countries have opted for a small “comms team” of key role players in government and public health experts, Ramaphosa perhaps erred in giving the early stage to a wide range of ministers, some of whom were thoroughly exposed. At times the core message was obscured by contradictory and bombastic statements that sowed confusion and detracted from Ramaphosa’s carefully crafted message.
When it comes to co-operative governance (between the national, provincial and local spheres of government), there are two key dynamics. The first is the interaction between the national government (and, therefore, the national leadership of the ANC) and its structures in provincial governments. The second is the rocky relationship between the ANC and the DA in the Western Cape, the only province the former does not govern.
On the Western Cape front, while there is political differentiation and isolated spats, there is also good reason to be positive. Both the constitution and the Disaster Management Act require co-operation between national and provincial governments in this type of scenario. Health minister Zweli Mkhize and Western Cape premier Alan Winde have both spoken positively about the manner in which these two structures are working together.
Respect for the Rule of Law:
Emergencies and disasters (there is more than a semantic distinction) do not result in the suspension of the rule of law. Instead, they take their force from it and the requirements it sets for a state of emergency or disaster to be invoked and sustained. Measures which curtail rights have to be necessary (for example. justified by evidence and science) and, secondly, proportional – in other words, the measures may go as far as needed to combat the problem but no further.
No doubt Covid-19 requires measures that impede our fundamental freedoms. The measures that have been imposed would appear to meet this constitutional requirement and while some may seem overburdensome, they are not unreasonable or irrational. The courts would likely allow the executive considerable discretion if and when constitutional challenges arise.
Nonetheless, some breaches of the law are abundantly obvious in the implementation of the measures, and there are clearly several weak links in the armour of the public service, displayed by abhorrent acts of abuse of power by certain members of the SA National Defence Force and the SA Police Service. This cries out for both condemnation and accountability – but to date these have been lacking.
Civil peace and social compliance
Given the multiple pressure points that a crisis such as this imposes on the body politic and society in general, our assessment is that there are substantially increased political risks in SA. The inequalities and divisions in society may be exaggerated by the lack of universality of health services. Anger and frustration may be fuelled by prolonged lockdown measures and heavy-handed police and army enforcement.
Economic Impact and Stimulus Package
And then there’s the economic recovery package – or lack thereof. The main weakness in the government’s response so far has been the absence of a carefully considered and credible government-led package of the kind of measures that countries are putting together to help stem the economic haemorrhage caused by the pandemic.
This isn’t to say the financial cluster has done nothing: the SA Reserve Bank moved early to cut the interest rate, and lowered the base rate by a further 100 points yesterday. The Bank also introduced some quantitative easing. Meanwhile relief packages have been provided for small businesses, though with limitations regarding rollout and availability, and there are plans to use the Unemployment Insurance Fund to assist affected workers and micro-businesses.
But now we need something far more detailed and deliverable that brings it all together within the national budgetary framework. National treasury is working hard behind the scenes; given tight fiscal constraints, somehow finance minister Tito Mboweni has to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Without far-reaching infrastructure to “trace, test, track and treat” the lockdown will fail to serve its fundamental objective – delaying the transmission of the virus and buying the government time to put in place mitigation measures.
Widespread testing has proved to be the most effective weapon in the fight against the spread of the disease. Without it, governments cannot understand or adequately tailor their response. On this score SA hasn’t hit the heights of those countries that have had the most successful initial response, hence the amber light. But testing capacity has been enhanced, especially in the public sector, which trailed far behind the private sector’s testing capabilities in the early days.
There is some way to go still to reach the government’s own target of 35,000 daily tests. But testing capability is also very resource driven, and the fact that SA fares well against comparable economies is also positive.
SA does have sufficient supplies to meet short-term needs of frontline health workers. However, the government has admitted it may not have the PPE and medical equipment needed to handle the peak, if and when it comes. For example, the department of health reports that it has less than half the ventilator capacity that is required, and severe shortages of PPE in the medium term.
A two-week extension to the national lockdown was the only rational decision to make. It allows the government to buy more time for testing systems to be rolled out properly and to acquire the equipment it needs to handle the strain a higher infection rate will place on the health-care system.
Beyond the present five weeks, however, it is questionable whether SA’s lockdown in its current form (one of the most stringent in the world) is economically and socially sustainable. In his most recent address, on April 9, Ramaphosa indicated that the extra two weeks will be spent figuring out how to execute a staged lifting of the lockdown to prevent the economy from ossifying completely. It will also allow some cases to trickle through the health-care system and create some herd immunity before the virus peaks, which the department of health is now predicting will be in September in a worst-case scenario.
On Easter Monday we heard from the impressive team of health experts advising the national command council that the threshold for easing lockdown measures will be a daily average of roughly 90 new cases.
The total number of infections reported by SA in recent weeks is promising, but there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical about the accuracy of these statistics.
Shortly before the lockdown it looked as if SA was on an exponential trajectory similar to that seen in the hotspot areas of the outbreak. But the infection rate then apparently dropped. The reasons why this may have happened are numerous and unproven, but it could include the results of early border closures and contact tracing and a lag between imported transmissions and the exponential growth of local or community transmissions being established. Testing capacity also has a major bearing on the numbers.
While there is a strong suspicion that the numbers don’t reflect the true extent of the outbreak, if the government were hiding a huge number of cases we would see this in the hospitals and the mortality rate. Yet hospital admissions are still very low, as are the numbers of deaths.
So we give SA’s trajectory a green light here because the spike in cases has not arrived as many feared. Nonetheless, the outlook is downwards because there is evidence to suggest that the situation may yet worsen – as confirmed during the engagement session held by the department of health on April 13.
There is no sign of the curve flattening yet, but there are some indications that the numbers are levelling out in some of the hotspot areas in Europe as well as in Asian countries where the pandemic first hit.
*The Paternoster Group is an independent consultancy that provides political risk and political economy analysis as well as strategic advisory services. For more analysis and subscription to our fortnightly bulletin contact email@example.com or go to www.thepaternostergroup.com
To subscribe, for free, to the FM's lockdown newsletter click here.
Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.