Rob Rose Editor: Financial Mail
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation. Picture: GCIS​
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation. Picture: GCIS​

Last night, as President Cyril Ramaphosa returned SA to a strict lockdown, there was much you didn’t hear from him.

For a start, you didn’t hear any acknowledgement​ of the fact that many South Africans couldn’t see his speech on TV since Eskom couldn’t even keep the lights on during a pandemic. Load-shedding, it seems, is something we should now just expect.

Nor did you hear any apology for how the government has bungled its response: imposing mindless rules like banning cigarettes, failing to ensure Covid-19 test results within two days and promising UIF payments to people who haven’t seen a cent.

And he sure didn’t apologise for how food parcels and rescue funds have been merrily pilfered, including by his own government’s officials.

What Ramaphosa gave us instead: a new alcohol ban, a curfew between 9pm and 4am and a ban on seeing your family. Yet, ludicrously, you’re still allowed to go to church with 49 other people and taxis are now being allowed to travel at 100% capacity.

As DA leader John Steenhuisen put it: “How can it be legal to visit a casino or a church service with 49 other people, but illegal to see one’s own family?” Steenhuisen described the new alcohol ban and a night-time curfew as “ineffective gimmicks” designed to hide the fact that the government “has completely and utterly wasted SA’s long and crippling lockdown”.

To be fair, it’s not like the government has done nothing. It’s just that it didn’t do enough, and what it did do was often startlingly futile. If the ship was heading towards an iceberg, the crew focused instead on varnishing the deck.

Ramaphosa argues that the lockdown was spent wisely: the government found 28,000 Covid-19 hospital beds, secured another 1,700 ventilators and bought millions of items of personal protective equipment.

Yet he also said: “We still have a serious shortage of more than 12,000 health workers, mostly nurses, doctors, and physiotherapists.” And: “We are working to increase supplies of oxygen, ventilators and other equipment for those who will need critical care.”

If his government couldn’t get around to finding doctors or oxygen in the four months before this, what magic will ensure it be able to do that now when the heat is on?

Steenhuisen says it’s only in the Western Cape that there are any properly equipped field hospitals, except for one other, built by the private sector in the Eastern Cape.

In City Press yesterday Professor Alex van den Heever, chair in the field of social security systems administration & management studies at the Wits School of Governance, said: “I’ve seen it repeated again and again that there was this expected ‘storm’. This is just not true — the storm should have never happened.”

Had the government prepared the health services and implemented a prevention strategy to suppress the epidemic, hospitals wouldn’t have been overwhelmed, he says.

On the sauce

And then there’s the booze ban. It means SA has the harshest Covid-inspired alcohol ban in the world, something Ramaphosa justified by saying that allowing booze sales had led to “pressure being put on hospitals, including trauma and ICU units, due to motor vehicle accidents, violence, and related trauma”.

What evidence is this exactly? Let’s hope he’s not relying on the word of his police minister, Bheki Cele, who, a few weeks ago, simply sucked figures out of his thumb when he said that 34,000 hospital beds are “currently occupied because of alcohol-related cases”.

As Africa Check pointed out, Cele got this woefully wrong.

Andrew Nicol, director of the Groote Schuur Hospital trauma centre, pointed out that an unpublished study calculated that the number of alcohol-related hospital trauma admissions would rise from 6,750 per week to 11,750 per week after the booze ban was lifted on June 1.

Clearly, booze makes it worse. One specialist told the Sunday Times a few weeks ago that since the ban was lifted, “we have seen an explosion in stabbings, accidents, and assaults”.

But surely much of this is really due to inept policing around drunk driving and public drinking? And if so, would a curfew alone not have sufficed to stem that during this moment? Maybe it’s just that Ramaphosa has that little faith in Cele which, on the face of it, you could almost understand.

Speaking on eNCA last night, Beer Association of SA CEO Patricia Pillay said the nine-week alcohol ban cost SA 100,000 jobs and that this new ban will ensure that 35,000 township businesses go bankrupt.

“This industry will just move into the illicit economy,” she said. Which is exactly what happened with the cigarette industry.

Ramaphosa’s real problem is that while SA may be hitting its peak now, the goodwill he had in March has been squandered. In April he implemented arguably the world’s harshest lockdown, and it was a mess: silly rules, test results taking weeks to emerge and his security services slaughtering civilians.

The credibility of his lockdown is in the dock, and it doesn’t help that again, the contradictions — church services versus family visits, for example — appear utterly irrational.

On the frontline

The really interesting story is coming from real journalism, speaking to people on the ground rather than parroting the spin from some politician or other. It’s where SA’s real battle with Covid-19 is taking place.

Read GroundUp’s story of Glenn Sandler, a healthy 36-year old business intelligence analyst for Capitec Bank. Sandler worked remotely, took precautions, and had no chronic conditions. Yet Sandler nearly died.

He caught Covid from his housekeeper, who’d pitched up at his door, sick, on June 3. Within a week she’d be dead. Sandler, his brother Justin reported, got steadily worse until he ended up in ICU and was put in a medically induced coma.

It’s a frightening story, not least from details like, when he was under sedation, “he had vivid nightmares” and thought he’d died. And he was healthy.

“Glenn has faced down a cytokine storm and survived. He is privately insured. He is young. He has doctors in his family. The level of care he can afford is high – and out of the reach of most,” the story says.

The Sunday Times also interviewed doctors, nurses and paramedics this week, detailing their experiences on the frontline.

They speak of the loneliness of those who can get a bed, how the staff watched them dying alone, and how in some cases the deterioration is sharp.

Dr Sazi Nzama, who works in the paediatric intensive care unit at Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, speaks of those who refuse to wear masks.

“Fast-forward two weeks and those same people are in the hospital, gasping for their lives. Nobody will accept blame for their callousness; rather, people call the health system incompetent when their loved ones die,” he says.

It’s a deeply sobering read. Yet as much as Nzama is right that many South Africans haven’t fulfilled their side of the bargain, you can’t erase the government’s culpability. If, as Ramaphosa said, we’ve had months to prepare and we’ve got a low fatality rate, why haven’t we given ourselves the best possible chance to counter the virus?​

This is a roundup of the best Covid-19 news from the web, brought to you in today’s FM lockdown newsletter. To subscribe, for free, 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.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.