Picture: 123RF/Jarun Ontakrai
Picture: 123RF/Jarun Ontakrai

It’s all anyone can talk about: the Covid-19 virus that is forcing every South African to seek sanctuary at home, swarm supermarkets for crates of toilet paper, and consider bartering relatives for pallets of hand sanitiser.

With over 7,800 global deaths and the JSE wiping years of savings off your pension every week, it’s clear that fear is the predominant emotion now.

In this respect, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the country on Sunday, in which he announced sweeping disaster measures — including travel bans, border closures and school closures — was the right antidote. He spoke decisively, with crystallised intent and even, implausibly, some degree of reassurance. But will these measures be enough? At this stage, you’d probably bet the president will have to step up the response for two critical reasons which speak directly to the core of the SA condition.

The first is that South Africans, maybe inured by decades of an illegitimate governing party until 1994 and then disenchanted by one riddled with corruption, are distrustful of authority. At times, there is a sense of unity and common purpose, but too often, this is subordinated to the notion that everyone is out for themselves. We’re a society of individuals who, seeing an orange light, are more likely to press the accelerator than the brake, irrespective of anyone else on the road.

So can we rise to Ramaphosa’s call for selflessness and personal responsibility? Can we isolate ourselves to flatten the curve for others?

On this, the jury is still out. But there are examples which show how hard a sell this is.

Most notably, this week, a mother and daughter tested positive for Covid-19, but then refused to be quarantined. Her husband outright refused to be tested. Instead, they walked out of the hospital. The Gauteng department of health had to get a court order forcing them to be quarantined.

It was a depressing confirmation that there are still some rapaciously selfish individuals, with little sense of their social responsibility.

Equally, if the Zion Christian Church presses ahead and holds its annual Moria pilgrimage in Limpopo at Easter, likely to attract millions of worshipers, the government will have to enforce the ban on gatherings of more than 100.

The second reason Ramaphosa may have to ratchet up measures is that the social structures in place make it unlikely that the poorest South Africans will be able to effectively isolate themselves from infection. Sharing cramped taxis, living in crowded shacks, fearful of missing work so as not to join the 38% of South Africans without a job, the most vulnerable will find it hard to accept the prescription to just "stay at home".

What could Ramaphosa do? Well, he could take a leaf out of France’s book: shut all bars and restaurants, enforce stricter curfews other than to buy food and medicine, insist companies allow staff to work from home and close all borders.

There is also the possibility of declaring a state of emergency. But this may be too harsh a response, as it gives the state vast powers to limit rights. China, notoriously, used draconian measures to contain the spread — including welding apartments shut.

As constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos points out, it is difficult to imagine a court confirming a state of emergency is needed to "restore peace and order". De Vos says it would be a mistake — partly as it could set a bad precedent.

The reality is, as much as Ramaphosa’s measures displayed admirable intent, they’re unlikely to halt the spread of the virus. State action alone won’t work. Rather, the responsibility to act lies with you and me. Know that this will disrupt your life, and prepare for it. It’s your civic duty.

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