On Monday, March 23, President Ramaphosa gripped the nation when he announced a country-wide lockdown to curb the rising spread of Covid-19. “This is a decisive measure to save millions of South Africans from infection and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people”, he said, as he announced government’s response to an increase in infections from 61 cases to 402 cases, in just eight days.
The announcement was met with applause; and accolades for his sterling leadership poured in from across the world. The policy and practical measures presented to manage the looming social and economic disaster were very impressive. South Africans were confident that their leaders had a grip on things.
But when the lockdown was extended, many South Africans became increasingly restless. Instead of trusting the outcomes of a highly consultative process, many projected themselves as more knowledgeable than those tasked with communicating the directives on how best to contain the pandemic. Enforcing the lockdown became difficult.
Allegations of conspiracy and authoritarianism soon emerged and some even took the government to court. The posture of placing the economy before lives gained hegemony and state control of public behaviour was relaxed. The people (in general) asserted their rights to take responsibility for their own health and safety, and government accepted it. The retreat from firm leadership, however, only resulted in the disease emerging victorious.
With 276 242 reported infections as at July 12, South Africa currently has the highest number of Covid-19 infection cases on the continent by far; and is tenth in the world. Our daily rate of new infections is now the fourth highest in the world, with the United States of America being the highest, followed by Brazil and then India.
Hospitals are inundated and those infected that cannot be accommodated are being turned away and told to self-isolate. Burial sites are being prepared, as the increased pandemic mortality becomes a certainty. The sense of despair among a once generally vocal populace is on the rise; and initial wisdoms about the incorrectness of the strict lockdown are beginning to appear fallible, as loved ones and friends die. It is most unfortunate that the sceptics had had to be silenced in such a tragic manner.
Having more than twelve thousand new infections a day indicates that the time for the state to intervene has once again arrived. The countries that contained the spread of the pandemic best, are those that severely restricted social movement. Our level 5 lockdown too had proven to significantly slow down the spread of infection, despite it being undermined by some. Government needs to learn from experience and best practice, take charge, and reintroduce level 5.
The reintroduction must be stratified and needs-based, as outlined, when the levels were first introduced. Lockdown level application must be aligned to the number of infected cases per area. In Syria, for example, districts that have cases of infections, even if it is just one, have total lockdown; and movement into or out of those districts are prohibited. This has assisted to contain the spread of the pandemic.
The country-wide curfew that has been introduced, which prohibits movement between 21h00 and 04h00 is welcomed; compliance therewith, should be strictly enforced.
The measures appear draconian. Conditions, however, dictate that the state asserts its leadership role and curtails some of the rights of individuals, to protect their lives.
In addition to stratifying the implementation of lockdown, the focus should be shifted to restricting movement and enforcing physical distancing rather than restricting personal habits. Dictating which clothes and food people should buy, is an unnecessary imposition; likewise imposing when people should drink or smoke.
Regulating personal habits might be justifiable when they infringe on the physical and psychological well-being of others, such as with alcohol consumption. But where habits cause no harm; or contribute to the psychological well-being of an individual, and consequently others in that household, such as in the case of smoking; the practice should not be prohibited.
The success of a level five lockdown is also dependent on people having food, which is efficiently and effectively delivered, to their doorsteps. Cuba subsidised the salaries of workers in the private sector, in addition to continuing to pay government employees; and every family was guaranteed equitable access to food and basic sanitation supplies. In Vietnam, amongst others, the private sector set up ‘Rice ATMs’ to support those families who had lost their incomes; and the government set up food kitchens to feed any one in need. Countries such as New Zealand and Finland too had universal social relief packages to combat the adverse impact of Covid-19 on food security. We must move from theorising about social relief, to making the system work, as it is easier for people to stay at home when they are not hungry.
Furthermore, businesses need not collapse. Numerous measures are already in place to enable some businesses to continue operating under lockdown conditions. If we introduce a 24 hour, shift-based economy; allow a minimal number of workers (from areas where there are no recorded cases of infections) to work at a time; and compel employers to provide personal protective equipment and safe transport, the spread will be minimised.
Restaurants and retail stores need not be closed as they can take their orders online, or via mobile applications or by simply using WhatsApp, and then doing home deliveries. I know of at least two black-owned micro-enterprises, which at the onset of our first lockdown started using WhatsApp very effectively to sustain their businesses, without violating lockdown restrictions. Hairdressers and beauticians can also go to the homes of their clients, while ensuring that they wear the necessary personal protective equipment. There are many success stories that demonstrate that lockdown can work, if applied smartly
Our initial approach of a severe lockdown was gradually watered down. Currently, self-regulation is being emphasised to manage the spread of the pandemic. South Africa’s leaders, however, are increasingly becoming infected, and some are dying; not because they are irresponsible, but because they must be out in the field to try and gently coax citizens toward responsibility.
The rising number of Covid-19 infections demonstrates that self-regulation is unsuccessful. We have already surpassed Italy and Iran. While our current rate of pandemic mortality is low, failure to slow down the rate of infection increases will undoubtedly lead to an escalation in deaths once capacity in treatment centers are exhausted. Let us avert the inevitable by returning to lockdown, level 5. Surely prevention is better than cure?
* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security and currently lives in Damascus, Syria.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.