A man is searched by police officers in the streets of Yeoville, Johannesburg. Picture: WIKUS DE WET / AFP
A man is searched by police officers in the streets of Yeoville, Johannesburg. Picture: WIKUS DE WET / AFP

It’s the lockdown deadlock. People are getting restless, as human nature dictates. And the government has got itself into a fair bit of a pickle. So, a lot hinged on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s fourth Covid-19 address to the nation on Tuesday night – both to restore the credibility of the government’s strategy and approach, and to detail the fiscal response.

Given the delay in announcing the economic rescue package, the government’s credibility was being stretched. But once again, Ramaphosa rose to the occasion, with most commentators commending the scale and diversity of the instruments deployed, as well as the pragmatic willingness to access international finance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and elsewhere.

But attention now shifts to the next piece in the elaborate governance and policy response to the crisis. On the one hand, all evidence suggests that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic in SA is still to come. On the other, South Africans have now spent four weeks in one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world. The economy has, as a result, been rendered even more vulnerable to this global systemic shock, inevitably but unavoidably deepening the social crisis.

Since an effective lockdown depends on both consent and compliance, what is of more immediate concern is the growing distance between the government and the people in relation to some of the regulated restrictions.

A boiling point may be fast approaching. Something has to give.

In Tuesday night’s address, Ramaphosa outlined the fiscal parameters of the government’s economic response. The first three main points were centred on the increased health budget, food security and support for companies and workers. On Thursday, Ramaphosa is likely to elaborate, in some detail, on his fourth point: the phased opening of the economy.

Around the world this is where the debate has now turned to: the “exit strategy”.

As signs emerge of infection rates levelling in Europe, countries begin to experiment with various strategies of opening their economy (providing us with lessons from their experiences). Despite efforts by the EU to co-ordinate the continent’s opening, each country has a slightly different idea of who to make the proverbial guinea pig.

When and what exit strategy is feasible in SA?

The answer must hinge on the medical science – when is it reasonably safe enough to open parts of the economy, in terms of risk to lives? However, the more accurate question is now not so much “when” than “what”, since there will be no flick of a switch from the new to the old normal.

In so far as the “when” question can be answered, what we do have is this very interesting slide, presented by Prof Salim Abdool Karim at the engagement between the health ministry and the media on April 13:

For risk analysts, this slide is (on first appearance) critically important.

Why? Well, the truth is that predicting the course of this pandemic, and offering an insight into how businesses will be affected, has taken a fair bit of educated guesswork and instinct (along with copious amounts of research).

Yes, there has been lots of information to go on – but little that is truly concrete. This slide gives what appears to be an objectively quantifiable indication of when the lockdown could end. All we need is a week where the average number of daily cases does not exceed 90 and then the country will reopen, right?

No. Alas, and probably inevitably, it is not as simple as that. First, this number excludes cases detected from active screening, and when the government releases its daily numbers, it does not tell us how the cases were identified.

Second, the opinion of health experts advising the department of health does not always (even if in this case it usually does) translate into a government policy from the top. Karim may be able to tell us what the best thing is to do to keep Covid-19 infections at the lowest rate right now, but a more holistic view of what the best solution for the country is over time requires a different array of experts and decisionmakers.

The point is that while deference to the medical science and the expert advisers is an essential part of good political leadership, the bottom line is that political leaders have to make a political judgment call, and not one based “purely” on medical science.

Therefore, that slide shouldn’t be taken too literally. In fact, the government has eased some of the restrictions since the April 13 press conference, despite a new daily case average over the specified period of 95.8 – a number that has risen significantly since (though we do not know which of those cases are discerned from active testing).

So when can we expect the lockdown to end?

Not all in one go, is the answer. The government will be following a “risk-adjusted strategy” for reopening the country in a phased manner. A leaked discussion paper from the presidency, which is subject to change, does offer some insight into how this strategy may be implemented.

According to the document, the risk will be determined by the extent of the spread of the virus (which may differ by region), balanced against the importance of each sector to the economy, and considering the risk of transmission in each sector according to the operating model of its business activities.

This is a compelling and inherently rational approach. It balances “the continuing need to limit the spread of the disease with the need to get people back to work”, as Ramaphosa put it. Through this risk assessment, the government is considering five levels of risk (determined by the spread of the virus), allowing more extensive openings by sector as the risk deteriorates through the levels.

What this means is that we should probably expect substantial easing of the lockdown restrictions only when there is a significant decline or levelling off of infection rates, or when the government is confident that the health system is adequately prepared for a heavier caseload – another key element of the risk assessment.

When the public health-care system has what it needs for the next few months, the government will be more confident in opening parts of the economy. But it also needs confidence that it has tested a sufficient portion of the population to understand the extent and locality of our epidemic, and that it has significant future testing capacity to keep tabs on how the virus spreads in a more open environment.

So, the decision as to whether to substantially ease or end the lockdown is a complex one. Clearly, the infection rate will be the primary guiding factor – but there are several other conditions that need to be met for a safe, gradual exit.

The government would probably prefer not to jump too drastically between different forms of the lockdown. Ideally, an exit strategy would not mean switching up and down between “stages” of lockdowns, or switching frequently between full lockdown and an open country. This would be difficult logistically. So, even though the government does suggest five levels of lockdown restrictions, it probably does not wish to move from one level to a lower one unless it is reasonably confident it doesn’t have to return to a more stringent level in future.

That being said, the government will need to be prepared to return to a harder lockdown if its exit strategy leads to a “second wave”. This appears to be what is now happening in Singapore. Once the shining light in the global response heralded for containing the virus without a restrictive approach, it is now entering a partial lockdown as it reports record numbers of new daily cases.

The lesson is clear: be careful not to claim victory with too much haste. There is unlikely to be a formal, absolute end date announced anytime soon.

What next for SA?

SA is going to need to stay the course, even as patience with the government’s hard lockdown wears thin.

Yes, it may be that the government needs to ease up on some of the most extreme and barely rational measures that are proving socially and economically costly to implement, but that doesn’t mean the lockdown is not working – it just means that the government needs to reassess whether the current version is the most apt.

It is equally misconceived and reckless to suggest that the lockdown must end because it has “already worked” – all the evidence suggests the worst is yet to come.

Until now, the government’s approach has been to err on the side of caution – and it is not going to discard that philosophy. Therefore, expect the exit strategy to be unhurried, staggered and prudential.

As Ramaphosa expressly recognised on Tuesday, if the government’s approach is too rigid and inflexible, it risks losing credibility and the necessary social consent. And if that happens, it could pave the way for a more unruly phase in the crisis.

*The Paternoster Group is 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 subscription to our fortnightly bulletin contact mike.law@thepaternostergroup.com or go to www.thepaternostergroup.com

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