Mbhazima Shilowa

Mbhazima Shilowa: Covid-19 epicentres should expect tougher lockdown restrictions

2020-04-23 06:00
Empty streets in Johannesburg at the start of the lockdown. (Pieter du Toit, News24)

Empty streets in Johannesburg at the start of the lockdown. (Pieter du Toit, News24)

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The President and the government will lose the goodwill they are enjoying if the pandemic was to explode again in the areas which have shown the highest numbers of coronavirus infections, writes Mbhazima Shilowa.

It is now four weeks since the start of the lockdown declared by President Cyril Ramaphosa to help stem the spread of Covid-19.

The lockdown is supposed to last until the end of April unless it is extended.

There has been calls by some political parties and doctors on the fringe for the lockdown to be eased if not lifted altogether.

It is not yet clear what the government's decision is going to be.

My gut feeling further evidenced by the social and economic package recently announced, points to an extension of the lockdown at least in certain provinces and city centres.

The President has in the past indicated that whatever the government decides, there will be no abrupt ending to the lockdown, but rather a gradual lifting guided by scientists.

We know that there are countries that lifted the lockdown prematurely and have had to reimpose an even harder lockdown as the pandemic suddenly spread like wildfire.

There is a story in the Bible about two women living in the same home who went to king Solomon to seek wisdom - both had infant children and when one died, they both laid claim to the remaining child.

It is said that the king ruled thus: "Bring me a sword ... cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other."

From the story it is clear that the king had no intention of cutting the child in half, but merely to demonstrate his wisdom. 

President Ramaphosa faces a similar situation. 

The mining minefield

Already some industries such as mining have been allowed to open albeit by up to 50% capacity.

It is not clear whether it is 50% of production or the workforce.

Either way, the measure poses a risk which, if not properly handled, can increase the spread of the pandemic in the mines and surrounding areas, not to mention communities where the mineworkers hail from. 

The trade unions and the Health MEC of Limpopo have rightfully called for mines to be sanitised; for all workers to be screened/tested and for the mines to ensure physical distancing.

The latter may be difficult as miners have to use public transport as well as communal carriers used to get them to their workstations underground.

While the mines are known to comply with the Mine Health and Safety Act, it is not clear how they would be able to ensure workers who use the same machines and work in teams are protected. 

Already a mine in North West is said to be contravening the lockdown regulations with no safety regulations in place - some infected workers are reportedly being treated at the mines instead of being quarantined in a provincial facility.

There are also murmurings by trade unions that the mine industry is receiving preferential treatment from the department. A letter to Impala mines with dates muddled is used as a case in point.   

Back to school?

Then there is the matter of schooling.

Unless schools open sooner, it may become difficult if not impossible to salvage the school year especially for grade 12 learners. A pass one, pass all approach is not possible in this instance.

Equally too ghastly to contemplate is keeping everyone in the same grade as it will mean keeping at home those who would have started grade R.

Something has to give and I suspect schools are going to be the next sector to have the lockdown lifted. 

Again the challenge schools face is how to enforce physical distancing during assembly, breaks and inside classrooms, especially in public schools where there is already overcrowding.

There may be a need to revert to the old age platoon system with some learners attending after-school classes.

Just as in mining and other sectors that may be allowed to operate - the challenge will lie in navigating public transport. 

Even before the spread of the pandemic, there was congestion in trains, buses and taxis.

Unless there are more trains and buses that run at 10 to 15 minutes intervals this is another area where the spread of Covid-19 is inevitable.

Sealing off the epicentres

The increased deployment of soldiers points to Gauteng, the Western Cape and KZN, the three provinces hardest hit, remaining under lockdown for a longer period.

This makes sense.

While monitoring and testing have been ramped up, the numbers are nowhere near where we can say we know the number of people who are positive and therefore needs to be isolated or quarantined.

It is therefore imperative that security personnel are deployed at entry and exit points of the three provinces to prevent the unnecessary movement of people who are not in anyway providing essential services. 

While this will have a devastating impact since the provinces mentioned are the economic powerhouses of the country, this is a better option than to ease the lockdown and lose a huge number of the workforce.

Apartheid spatial planning that has not changed dramatically since the dawn of democracy means many people travel long distances from their homes to their workplaces.

Even if the areas they come from may be less prone to the pandemic they will in all likelihood get infected as they come into contact with fellow passengers or work colleagues.

We have already seen how the pandemic quickly spread in the Free State and Eastern Cape from a church service and funerals respectively.

In addition to the three provinces there may be a need to look at the city centres and industrial areas of the other provinces and depending on the curve, ease or maintain the lockdown. 

It is in this context that the movement of health workers to areas they are needed most be deemed necessary, obviously taking into account the distance from their residential areas.

This should be accompanied by a stipend for the duration of the period unless it is covered in their conditions of employment. 

Rolling out infrastructure

The pandemic also gives the government a chance to build infrastructure in rural areas which have no water and sanitation, schools, clinics and roads, thus creating much needed jobs.

The provision of water tanks is a welcome relief, but is no substitute for permanent infrastructure which is more sustainable and will be less expensive in the long run, especially fuel for water tankers. 

Projects such as the Umzimbuvu dam and the stalled infrastructure in the Giyani area should be sped up, again to provide clean drinking water, create jobs and help establish new industries.

Public Works programmes in rural areas have often been about clearing trees, shrubs and grass along roads.

Building new roads will not only ease the means of travel, but will also reduce travel times and connect villages and towns while creating jobs.

This, in addition to the Covid relief fund and temporary social grant increases will reduce poverty and hunger. 

Lockdown lottery

As the wait begins today for the President to proclaim on the lockdown, we should brace ourselves for stricter measures in provinces and specific areas that are the epicentres of the pandemic.

I will be surprised if the lockdown was to be lifted in these areas, as all the efforts of the five week lockdown would have been in vain.

The President and government will also lose the goodwill they are enjoying especially if the pandemic was to explode again in these areas.  

Will the president cut the child in half, or rather have the child placed in an orphanage, looked after by caring foster parents until it grows up to be able to fend for itself?

The nation waits. 

- Mbhazima Shilowa is a former Premier of the Gauteng Province, trade unionist and Cope leader.

Read more on:    cyril ramaphosa  |  pandemic  |  coronavirus


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