Pandemic politics: where to next for SA?
The government’s sometimes questionable rationale around lockdown regulations is corroding the social compact that is needed to manage the coronavirus crisis
May Day marked the first phase of SA’s exit from lockdown. But just where does this step lead? Which path does the country take next? And how long will it take to return to some semblance of "normality"?
These are just some of the questions hanging in the air.
As a concept, the government’s five-level risk-adjusted exit strategy is admirable. It is a sensible balancing of interests, well aligned to international best practice and based on reliable scientific models.
But the devil in the detail has disrupted its core focus. There are several measures that appear objectively irrational. As a result, in an era where public confidence and respect for the government is already volatile, the social consensus has become increasingly strained.
The move to a level 4 lockdown brings with it as many questions as answers. One of these is whether internal political point-scoring threatens to unravel the government’s Covid-19 response.
This means that "the politics" of the situation is almost as fundamental to SA’s immediate trajectory as "the pandemic". For while Covid-19 remains, at its core, a public health crisis, the government is still required to exercise political judgment, and there are complex issues involved in how it reaches and executes its decisions.
What might the rest of 2020 look like? As we unpack the pandemic and the politics, we also look for a "prognosis". The answer will primarily be guided by the medical science, the virologists and the epidemiologists. But the political risk factors continue to rise, along with the number of people infected in SA.
So where do we think our government will take us next?
Let’s start with the pandemic — the heart of the issue.
When amendments to the lockdown regulations are published by the minister of co-operative governance & traditional affairs (Cogta) in terms of the Disaster Management Act (DMA), it is easy to get sidetracked by the detail and underlying politics. This is perhaps inevitable, given the need of businesses and citizens to understand the complexities of updates to their working and living conditions.
However, one should not lose sight of the health crisis, which ought to be the overarching guiding force behind any response measures.
There is sufficient evidence to bolster the government’s position that the dip in the curve experienced around the end of March was temporary, and that the worst is yet to come.
We had suggested that the dip reflected a transition period between imported infections (and their direct radii) and a new trajectory based on local transmissions alone. It has since become the prevailing view.
This is not so much a medical fact as it is a socioeconomic one. SA is the most unequal society in the world, and the economic barriers between the middle and working classes are exaggerated by the strong remnants of apartheid spatial planning.
Simply put, the lag between the virus finding its way from the jet-setters to the bulk of the populace is, for these reasons, taking longer in SA than it may be elsewhere.
The best way to look at it may be to ignore what the "curve" told us prior to March 27, as this data was primarily related to the direct effects of imported cases. What happened after that may actually be a better indicator of what the SA epidemic looks like.
The bar graph displaying daily new reported cases is clearer in this regard. It shows a distinctly increasing caseload since March 27, and though daily data is sporadic, when averaged out weekly the trend is upwards.
But it’s still not as simple as that. What’s also happened in the past few weeks is that the state’s testing capacity has expanded considerably. Average daily tests have more than tripled since early April.
The number of positive cases will go up as testing capacity increases. This explains why the risk-adjusted strategy looks at the proportion of tests that return positive, rather than the overall number of infections. This number has hovered quite consistently around the 2.7%-2.8% region over the past three weeks.
But the strategy also considers the extent of testing rollout. This is equally important, as positive test ratios do not fully suggest that the infection rate is remaining consistent.
If the virus was contained in a small number of hotspots, you would expect the positive case ratio to decline as testing became more widespread and random.
When it comes to the pandemic, the bottom line is that the situation is getting worse, rather than better. It may not have taken off with the exponential spike the government feared, but a rising caseload and death toll provides a justifiable anchor for the core of the political response.
It’s not just about cigarettes.
Last week, the national command council (NCC) made a U-turn on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that the sale of tobacco products would be permitted under level 4. This raises at least two fundamental concerns about the stability of the government’s political response.
First, it raises questions about the president’s power in the NCC and the cabinet. Second, the move, along with several other ill-conceived measures, casts doubt on the rationality of the lockdown regulations as a whole.
There are two equally important caveats to these concerns.
The first is that there is a benevolent "spin" available for the backtrack. The draft regulations were made available for public comment; the government received submissions; it considered the submissions, the evidence and the rising case numbers; it decided tobacco products increased the risk of infection and the severity of respiratory symptoms, and so are actually not essential products at this level of the lockdown; and so it made a joint, good-faith decision to shift tobacco down to the next level.
In this thinking, it is simply "good governance" for the cabinet to listen to public submissions, and be willing to check and change its positions rather than be dogmatic and rigid.
The problem, for the government, is that this explanation wasn’t offered timeously or with any persuasive argumentation or sufficient evidence of a rational cost-benefit analysis.
It may have been "good governance", but it was "weak communication" and, therefore, "poor politics".
The second caveat is that it would be an overreaction to use the cigarette U-turn, the rather bizarre exercise schedules or the issues around hot foods — all of which, in the greater context, are noncore issues — to draw a negative view of the overall response.
The government has got the big decisions right when it needed to. It has been transparent and made quality daily data available to the public. It has listened to the medical experts, and not (so far) politicised the issue — unlike some other world leaders.
Unfortunately, the government is now at risk of losing credibility and social buy-in for its Covid-19 response through its disproportionate and irrational stance on some issues.
There must be a direct and proportional link between the measures taken and the objective of dealing with the impact of the pandemic, and that link must be adequately explained to the public. If not, the government will have to do its explaining in court, to a growing queue of potential litigants.
What was once one of the world’s most impressive Covid-19 responses is now under pressure from all corners. But who or what is behind this apparent shift of course?
It would be an oversimplification, and inaccurate, to suggest this is some coup by the "fightback faction" to weaken Ramaphosa. It is more about differences in policy approaches concerning the extent of state involvement in responding to a health crisis, and how high economic concerns rank on the priority list.
Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, a longtime anti-tobacco crusader, enjoys considerable power as Cogta minister under the DMA — and she’s exercising it. But whether she’s doing so unilaterally, or together with the cabinet, as required by the constitution and DMA, is not completely clear.
That thrusts the constitutional and legal character of the NCC into the spotlight. How does the council take decisions? By majority vote or consensus? Or does it delegate regulatory functions to the relevant minister, allowing that minister almost unchecked autonomy to legislate unilaterally in their area of responsibility?
This would be completely out of kilter with the ethos of constitutional democracy and the collective nature of cabinet decision-making, spelt out in the constitution and cemented in the DMA.
The presidency needs to urgently clarify the legal nature of the body, lest the public draw the erroneous conclusion that Ramaphosa’s position has been weakened.
To the prognosis then: Covid-19 is coming for SA. This is not fearmongering; it is the bald truth.
The overwhelming objective medical evidence tells us that SA will not escape. At its worst, the virus will rip through society like a hurricane, leaving catastrophic damage in its wake — even if the worst of that may only be short-lived and the final death toll not "astronomical".
There is no silver bullet, other than an effective and fully rolled-out vaccine, which is likely to be many months away. Hence, we can’t avoid concluding that there will be significant restrictions on movement and business activity for most of the rest of 2020, and everyone needs to steel themselves accordingly.
*The Paternoster Group is an independent consultancy that provides political risk and political economy analysis as well as strategic advisory services. The group’s Covid-19 political risk analysis is produced in association with Discovery. For more information, e-mail email@example.com or visit thepaternostergroup.com