A Zimbabwean woman outside a building in the Kwa Mai Mai area in the Johannesburg CBD. Over 50 people, residents of the same building and mostly foreign nationals are currently unemployed because of the lockdown. Picture: MARCO LONGARI / AFP
A Zimbabwean woman outside a building in the Kwa Mai Mai area in the Johannesburg CBD. Over 50 people, residents of the same building and mostly foreign nationals are currently unemployed because of the lockdown. Picture: MARCO LONGARI / AFP

The DA has always offered a detailed alternative approach when calling for an end to the ANC’s hard national lockdown. Our aim has been to save lives and livelihoods by proposing solutions that strike a balance between Covid-19 and other risks to society, and which are implementable and sustainable over at least a two-year period.

Our position is drawn from and aligned with expert opinion. So it’s not surprising that the government’s own medical advisers are now criticising the hard lockdown as "unscientific and nonsensical".

If our position has confused Richard Calland and Mike Law (Covid-19’s Winners and Losers, Features, May 14-May 20, 2020), that may be because our proposals have evolved over the past eight weeks, with changing circumstances and as new knowledge comes available. And because they are nuanced.

Our current position is that the hard lockdown is no longer rational and should be replaced with targeted interventions such as protecting high-risk individuals, sanitising, masks and physical distancing where possible. Ideally, these should be complemented by a "smart lockdown" approach (smart testing to identify and contain local hotspots).

Sadly, the government has squandered SA’s early-mover opportunity to execute a "smart lockdown". With our slow test turnaround times and the virus now widespread, the window for doing so is virtually closed, except in the Western Cape. But to the extent that it may still be possible, the DA advocates pursuing this strategy.

SA’s Covid response should be underpinned by facts, not fear, secrecy and coercion

We are resolute that the ANC’s hard lockdown must end immediately. Covid-19 will likely be with us for two years or more. Those who do not want to risk being infected are free to continue staying at home during this time. The rest of us need to get on with our lives. We have a right to choose to do so.

This is a matter of practicality and principle. Millions of livelihoods are at stake, while the lockdown death toll from non-Covid causes is mounting. But also, it is each individual’s business, not the government’s, to decide what balance to strike between Covid-19 and other risks in their own lives. Each individual has unique circumstances that they understand and care about far more than the government does or could.

Nevertheless, the DA fully supported the initial lockdown. We believed it a sensible precaution to buy time to prepare hospitals and develop more targeted ways to slow the spread of the virus. We set out in detail how poor households and struggling businesses could be "bridged" across it, including by increasing all grant types by R1,000 for three months. We worked hard to produce our comprehensive "smart lockdown" proposal (version 1).

It became difficult to support the two-week extension of level 5, as it had become apparent that the economic support for poor people and struggling businesses was slow, badly planned and largely ineffective. We risked political backlash to warn of "economic disaster", even while the national zeitgeist was still in support of a national hard lockdown.

Our updated "smart lockdown" document (version 2) proposed sector-level safety protocols for businesses to reopen safely. This would have enabled a safer and wider opening of the economy, empowering people with control over their own decision- making, within a reasonable set of rules directly linked to slowing the spread of the virus.

When set-time level 5 morphed into indefinite level 4, with military-backed irrational rules and a curfew, we felt we had to speak out to expedite a more sustainable approach to slowing the spread of the virus over the coming years.

But on some aspects, we’ve remained steadfast. We have consistently called for SA’s Covid response to be underpinned by facts, openness and incentives, rather than fear, secrecy and coercion. Not just for ideological reasons, but to promote compliance and public safety. This means listening to experts, rather than reprimanding them for speaking out, as the government is now doing. The really "irresponsible" position is to support the ANC’s tragically flawed lockdown.

ANC politicians are retaining it to save face, rather than lives, and to save their own jobs rather than everyone else’s. They will naturally err on the side of caution, since Covid deaths will be counted and notched up as deaths on their watch, whereas lockdown deaths will go uncounted and unattributed.

SA needs to get back to work, jettison the ANC, and reform our economy swiftly, to start building for the benefit of everyone, especially those who’ve been excluded the longest.

  • Steenhuisen is the DA’s interim leader