Rethink on taxis and cigarettes bans will make lockdown more bearable

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The first week under lockdown is under our belts in South Africa. Folks are really trying to keep a stiff upper lip. Generally, people are doing their best to make the lockdown work. Having said that, government has hit a bit of a bump in the road on two issues – taxis and cigarettes.

The interesting thing about a crisis is that it exposes faults in systems and weakness of what someone thought was a good idea. This is certainly the case with the regulations governing public transport and smoking announced at the beginning of the lockdown.

Interestingly, road accidents and smoking cause exponentially more deaths than the Covid-19 coronavirus. Ironically, relaxing the regulations on both might just be the saving grace in getting people to comply with the lockdown for two more weeks.

One set of rules governing minibus taxis, was impractical from the start. The other, on cigarettes, was more punitive than protective.

People are under enough stress without increasing pressure in ways that have nothing to do with encouraging compliance with the lockdown

At least, that was how it was perceived by the general public. Neither seemed to have a clear cut rationale that had anything to do with the lockdown.

Leaders in the Western Cape announced a provincial policy change that would allow the sale of cigarettes. While there’s been some pushback from national government, hopefully they won’t resist too hard. Hopefully, they’ll see the wisdom of this move and follow suit nationally. It really didn’t make sense in the beginning, and it makes less sense now. It’s a rule that presents more problems than government (or country) needs right now.

People are under enough stress without increasing pressure in ways that have nothing to do with encouraging compliance with the lockdown. As a matter of fact, this rule promotes the opposite.

While the cigarettes rule revision is not a done deal yet, but the taxi rule has been relaxed. This is the regulation governing how many people can ride in a taxi at a time. Here, national government took the initiative, or, should I say, was responsive to the taxi industry’s associations.

With most supermarkets located in the suburbs, access to transportation is essential for residents in townships and poorer neighbourhoods to access food

The previous regulation was that taxis were limited to carrying 50% of their load. That has now been relaxed to allow them to carry up to 70% of their capacity. The old limit presented several problems. People required to go to work, especially essential service workers, had a hard time getting there on time. The working class rely heavily on public transport to get around.

Unlike the middle class and the infamous “one percent” who have vehicles, the working class and working poor rely on public transport to get to places. This is not simply a work issue, or a matter relevant to healthcare.

With most supermarkets located in the suburbs, access to transportation is essential for residents in townships and poorer neighbourhoods to access food. In addition, the lack of transportation could impact the distribution of food to marginalised communities by small scale traders.

Food insecurity is a potentially explosive issue. While there have not been mass incidents of conflict, looting and xenophobic attacks, in the past many conflicts have been related to food insecurity.

This is a good segue, to why other regulations in the original order might need to be reconsidered. Some are unfair. As was the case with the taxis rule, those with means have cars.

So, getting to work (or doing anything else) that’s essential is not a problem. Likewise, you better believe that those with resources stockpiled enough booze and smokes to get through the lockdown.

If government wants everyone to stay on board in support of the coronavirus containment efforts, there has to be a sense that some segments of the population are not expected to carry a disproportionate share of the burden.

Enforcing a lockdown of this magnitude is hard enough without antagonising people in the process

So, I say kudos to government for being sensitive (and humble) enough to reverse the ill-advised rules. Hopefully, government will continue to keep an ear to the ground to hear the concerns of those whose cooperation is most important for us to get through this period of unprecedented sacrifice.

There will be other issues that will require redress. Some things might sound good in theory, and in practice they stink. Good leadership is recognising such situations and adapting accordingly.

Enforcing a lockdown of this magnitude is hard enough without antagonising people in the process. In far too many cases, there are breakdowns because leadership doubles down instead of rethinking strategies.

A word to the wise: another issue that needs to come up for reconsideration, and soon, is the ban on alcohol. I’m not hating. I’m just saying, I saw the lines at the liquor stores in the suburbs. Those that have the means, got what they wanted.

Given the stress this situation is causing, people need some relief, some diversion from life under lockdown. As the O’Jays put it, sometimes “you got to give the people, give the people what they want”.

Stith is the former US ambassador to Tanzania

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