Lockdown: did SA overreact?
As the lockdown drags on, people are getting restless and venting their anger at what they see as irrational limitations. President Cyril Ramaphosa needs to sense this mood, and react smartly
Just how does a country strike the right balance in formulating a government response to Covid-19? On the one extreme, you have the likes of Belarus, where fans flock to stadiums as the football season plays on. At the same time, in Jacksonville, Floridians amble down to the freshly opened beaches, uncertain whether to greet each other with warmth or misgivings in the first flashes of the summer sun.
In France and Spain, both of which recorded an average daily rise in Covid-19 cases of more than 3,500 a day in the past week, plans are afoot for nonessential workers to return to their posts.
Meanwhile, at home in Mzansi, you can drink wine, but you can’t buy it or sell it. You can smoke cigarettes, but you can’t (or shouldn’t) find them. You can sell chicken — just not if it’s cooked. And your dog is probably getting fatter than you.
Meanwhile, the country’s hospitals are largely empty.
Did SA go too far, too soon?
Let’s be clear: the country has one of the strictest (if not the strictest) lockdowns in the world, outside of that imposed by the Chinese Communist Party in Hubei Province.
The ANC government has set itself a high bar to implement its ambitious, albeit commendable, plan. The more stringent the measures, the higher the costs of implementation (and the more instances of rogue implementation).
But, perhaps more pressingly, the more extensive the interruptions are on business, the more costly is the economic stimulus package required to, at least in part, balance the fallout.
If you pull politics out of the problem, you can see why the government decided that if it was to err, it would do so on the side of caution.
Every country is vulnerable, but SA is disproportionately so. Its vulnerable HIV/Aids and tuberculosis-infected population, shortages of health-care capacity in some areas and congested living spaces for most of the population are factors that make SA ripe for a devastating Covid-19 epidemic.
Context is king. For this reason, we must reject the thinking and rhetoric that describes the government’s approach as irrational. Even its most controversial measures have a rational basis.
For example, the alcohol ban is premised on the high quantity of alcohol-induced trauma cases that arrive in hospitals, taking bed space we may need for Covid-19 patients.
However, the ban on wine exports is much harder to explain.
With cigarettes, other than the clear health benefit of reducing smoking during a respiratory-based pandemic, you want people to go to the shops as rarely as possible — something you can’t do if people are popping out every day to buy a "pack of entjies".
Similarly, while we want basic food products to be available, we don’t want to force additional staff to go to work to garnish up basic items into more luxurious products.
In itself, of course, this is not a sufficient justification for the government’s stringent measures. Each measure must be proportional to the problem it is trying to solve — and the means must be connected to the end.
In this case it demands that each measure should have a tangible benefit to the trajectory of the "curve" that outweighs the various types of costs incurred by imposing the measure.
Of course, it’s easy enough to say that each measure is justified just for "one life saved". But the dirty truth is that is not how one governs a country.
It is often the case that things are allowed that benefit the majority, even if it costs the lives of a few. Governments let us drive our cars, knowing road deaths will occur. It lets us claw down holes to mine for minerals, despite the fact that there will be fatalities. It lets us have sex, even though in some of those passionate moments of ecstasy, deadly diseases may be transmitted if we’re reckless.
Government has never been able to save all lives, and it is unlikely that it is going to start doing so now.
Which brings us back to the crux of this debate: does the stringency of SA’s lockdown yield a net gain to the people that proportionally outweighs the benefits of a less stringent version?
The debate is not, as some people erroneously interpret it, whether we should have a lockdown or not. It is clear that strong measures that provide for distance between people are needed; the only question is whether we’ve achieved the right balance.
Does banning buying cigarettes at the grocery store when you are doing a week’s shop reduce the number of infections to such an extent that it justifies shutting off an economic activity that yields millions in revenue at a time when the government desperately needs money?
The answer to such a question is infinitely more complex than it is made out to be.
Based on the evidence that the government had in its possession when the lockdown was first announced, it was met with almost unanimous support from rational thinkers across the spectrum.
At the same time, the Paternoster Group warned in the FM that this moment of "team spirit" and cross-societal cohesion would probably be short-lived, and social tensions would rise as the novelty of the situation wore off and the lockdown became more frustrating.
Now, as that reality emerges, it is vital to go back and check the basis upon which we formed our initial positive opinion of the government’s response. At the time, there was little information on how best to combat the virus, just a curve showing all the signs of an exponential trajectory.
What we did have, despite the lack of a detailed "how-to guide", was two guiding principles: first, if a government is unsure how to act in the short term, better the restrictions are initially too "thick" than too "thin"; and, second, if a government is unsure when to act, better act sooner than too late.
Maybe it can be argued (and rebutted) that the government went in too hard, too early. This is especially so given the amount of time that we are going to have to spend under some sort of lockdown.
While the growth of the curve mysteriously seemed to flatten in recent weeks, all the evidence (including the recent numbers) suggests a spike is unavoidable.
While the hospitals may now be relatively empty, there will probably be a time when we see the benefits of the alcohol ban, for example, when the capacity of the health-care system later comes under strain.
The government’s problem is that it has already used up a fair degree of society’s patience over the past four weeks — and it may come to a boil at a time that we need the utmost compliance. But equally, it would have been unwise for the government to start the lockdown at the height of the panic — we needed time to try out solutions, adjust to our new ways of living and educate society.
Social buy-in will be the determining force. Any opposition should be constructive, so as not to discredit or derail the overall shared objective.
But equally, we need the government to be flexible, to learn from trial and error, and be ready to swallow its pride and back down from interventions that later evidence demonstrates not to be the most effective response. It has already done this in respect of some of its initial measures.
It needs to give the carrot more importance than the stick — work with people, not against them. If it can do that, it will find support from a society that largely appreciates the measures taken to combat a highly contagious virus. If it fails, it risks a crisis on a scale unprecedented in this country.