Guest Column

OPINION | A new social contract in the time of Covid-19

2020-04-09 08:34
Police Minister Bheki Cele addresses members of the South African Police Service after government declared a 21-day Covid-19 lockdown.

Police Minister Bheki Cele addresses members of the South African Police Service after government declared a 21-day Covid-19 lockdown. (PHOTO: Gallo Images)

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We all want to survive the pandemic, but the unlimited natural freedoms to which everyone has a right could put all of us, especially the old and poor, at risk, writes Sivuyile Mangxamba.



We are more than halfway through the 21-day lockdown in South Africa. The nationwide lockdown is now our reality.

We all miss our freedoms as enshrined in the Constitution. The restrictions are an inconvenience for all of us. Yes, we are all not enjoying life. However, we have no other methods to deal with the virus and the speed at which it spreads. The army is patrolling our streets and some are criticising its heavy-handed methods for maintaining public order.

The feared virus is spreading infection and more people are contracting it.

Some critical voices – poets and little-known human rights groups – oppose the president's decision to implement a lockdown in the interest of the Republic. These voices argue that the president has not acted in the best interests of the poor in informal settlements. Many are opposed to the idea of regulating how many people may gather at a funeral, or at a hospital where a father cannot visit his newborn child.

There is even a view that the lockdown is anti-poor and anti-working class or even anti-hawkers and everyone who earns a living in the informal economy.

Some have intimated that the army is not trained for this work. It is possible though that the best armies in the world or even the finest military strategies are not equipped to deal with this kind of "attack" by an invisible virus. The fact of the matter is that the army remains the best option we have to enforce a lockdown and protect the weak and vulnerable. It was clear from the very first day that no government in the world was prepared.

Social contract

Let us bring in here the ideas of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who wrote about the social contract. The surrender of individual rights to a higher force for the good of everyone. Only law enforcement agencies supported by the army can ensure "social order" – the lockdown.

It is an ineluctable fact that the transmission happens through human contact, and even the World Health Organisation (WHO) advocates that the only way to have a fighting chance against this pandemic is to break the chains of human contact. That seems to derail the seemingly unstoppable march of the invading virus.

Therefore, while we regularly wash our hands, avoid touching itchy eyes, stop the habit of putting hands in our mouths and no longer shake hands, these may not be sufficient because human beings inherently want to engage with fellow humans outside just household members. That is where Hobbes' social contract comes in.

We are not self-isolating nor keeping social distance or even policing each other. "Isohlule lento" (This thing has defeated us).

As Hobbes argues, we all surrender some of our freedoms and submit to the authority in exchange for protection of our remaining rights or the maintenance of the social order. Some of the infected have proven that they refuse to self-isolate and comply with the best public health methods of dealing with the pandemic. Infected tourists and locals have gone into hiding. Therefore, we cannot be trusted with self-isolation.

Surrendered our freedom of movement

In this state of nature, to use Hobbes' words, human life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". The government has brought the army in. This is what Hobbes calls the political order. We all want to survive the pandemic, but the unlimited natural freedoms to which everyone has a right could put all of us, especially the old and poor, at risk.

We do not have National Health Insurance (NHI) nor health institutional capacity to deal with the pandemic. Our government has admitted this and public health systems in the first world could not cope with the ferocity of the novel coronavirus.

In the absence of adherence to the regulations, the regular army comes in to enforce the social contract as per the gazetted regulations. We have surrendered our freedom of movement to avoid or rather minimise the destruction and mess that Covid19 could have on our cities, villages, townships, and on our humanity. The president has asked the army to come on our behalf to avoid an endless "war of all against all" in the scramble for access to public and private healthcare.

Let us stay at home and be safe. The essential services must continue. People must have access to food, farmers and farmworkers must harvest, we must maintain the food supply chain and we must support healthcare workers by observing the lockdown.

Let us not be foolish here. Our lives and humanity is at stake.

Moreover, if we work together, normal life – football, pubs, weddings, "imigidi" (celebrations), fish and chips, will return. The good times will roll again.

 - Sivuyile Mangxamba is a former journalist and communications manager in the public service.


Read more on:    coronavirus  |  lockdown
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