Rob Rose Editor: Financial Mail
Policemen patrol Diepsloot township in Johannesburg. Picture: MICHELE SPATARI/AFP
Policemen patrol Diepsloot township in Johannesburg. Picture: MICHELE SPATARI/AFP

As the Covid-19 epidemic burns through the US and Europe, the cynics who initially rejected calls for a global lockdown, arguing that “the cure mustn’t be worse than the disease”, are slowly losing their voice.

The poster child for this lobby is US president Donald Trump. In early March he dismissed calls for a US lockdown, saying the country doesn’t shut down for seasonal flu (which kills 37,000 Americans every year), so why do it for a virus that had caused just 22 deaths at that stage?

The thinking was: let the disease run its course and, sure, a few people will get sick, but it’s better than closing businesses. And it’s true that at this point, Covid-19 has affected only 1,26-million people – fewer than 0.1% of the world’s population. Equally, the 70,000 deaths so far are fewer than 0.001% of the global population.

But what this lobby doesn’t have on its side is the trend. The pandemic’s rate of growth globally has been exponential. Since Trump first argued the “cure mustn’t be worse than the disease” the number of American deaths has spiked to 8,500 – in just a few weeks. Soon the seasonal flu may just be a dot in the rear-view mirror.

In SA we’ve seen the cases growing, though far slower than expected. On Sunday health minister Zweli Mkhize announced that SA had 1,655 confirmed cases, along with 11 deaths. The numbers are perplexing: over the past week, SA has added only 375 new confirmed cases – an average increase of 3.7% a day. That’s far below the 27% daily increases from March 21 to March 24. But it seems unlikely this good fortune can continue. Last week Mkhize described it as “the calm before a heavy and devastating storm”. The country is bracing for it. That’s one reason why President Cyril Ramaphosa mustn’t be swayed by those arguing that shutting restaurants and closing businesses is worse than letting the disease rip through the country unchecked. However, there’s another consideration.

It is this: even if you strip out the humanitarian element and focus just on the economics, it’s clear that while the “cure” of lockdowns, isolation and quarantine is brutalising small businesses, the impact of the disease itself would be far worse.

Consider what can happen in the worst case, with no mitigation strategies (clue: it’s scarier than giving Jacob Zuma the keys to the Reserve Bank’s gold reserves).

Last week the World Economic Forum (WEF) extrapolated the mortality rate of the Spanish flu (in which 39-million people died, 2% of the world’s population at the time) to sketch out the sort of scenario we could see with Covid-19. The WEF says: “applying that death rate to the current world population generates staggering mortality numbers: 150-million worldwide deaths and 6.5-million US deaths. However, these numbers likely represent the worst-case scenario today, particularly because health procedures are more advanced than in 1918-1920, though other factors like greater international travel work in the opposite direction.”

During the Spanish flu there were few mitigation strategies, partly because epidemiology was relatively primitive. The result was the fourth-most devastatingly global economic shock since 1870, following the world wars and the Great Depression of 1929.

In fact, the Spanish flu shaved 6% off the after-inflation per capita GDP of the typical country and 8% off the average country’s consumption. (SA was the third-worst hit country by the Spanish flu.) So, without mitigation, that’s what you’re looking at.

Of course, the Spanish flu isn’t Covid-19. As the WEF points out, “the probability that Covid-19 reaches anything close to the Great Influenza Pandemic seems remote, given epidemiological differences, advances in public health and mitigating policies at play”.

Nor is it just a theoretical debate: every day that the lockdown continues small businesses are going bust – something SA can ill afford. But we have no choice.

The point is, even if you ignore the actual lives that could be lost, the lockdown isn’t making the economic damage worse – it’s mitigating that fallout.

You can read the WEF report here.

There has been some fantastic journalism telling the story of the crisis through individual tales. Some of it has been gruelling, and desperate. Others less so.

This weekend the New York Times told a story of two South Africans whom it described as “the last people in paradise”. It’s about Olivia and Raul de Freitas, a 27-year old teacher and a 28-year butcher, who just got married in SA and had saved up for a honeymoon in the Maldives. They described it as an “extravagance”.

Then they got stuck. Flights back to SA were cancelled, and the SA embassy told them they could charter a flight, along with the 40 other South Africans in the region, but it’d cost them more than $100,000.

There are, of course, far worse things than being stuck in the Maldives. Especially at a five-star resort, where the De Freitas family are the last guests and the staff is supplying their every need. But the newlyweds are still having to pay for it (albeit at a reduced rate) and may end up being bankrupted by their spell of isolation in paradise. Read it here.

But hardship is a relative concept. Far more moving was James Oatway’s touching photo-essay in the online publication New Frame about a car guard he knew called Angel, who had died of a ruptured lung a few weeks before.

It’s a story with much deeper resonance, as Angel’s was one of the first funerals to be held under SA’s strict lockdown. It was organised by the members of Angel’s family, who live on the breadline in Noordgesig, near Soweto. “How many funerals has anyone been to where you can’t shake hands or hug and comfort mourning family members?” asks Oatway.

As a hearse leaves the house with the body, a policeman steps forward and counts the number of people in the cars, to make sure they amount to fewer than 50. It’s a scenario that threatens to repeat itself in the next few weeks.

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