Ron Derby | Are we ready to lift restrictions?

How many beds and how many ventilators has the country managed to secure during the more than six weeks that we’ve been under lockdown, and are they enough to match the projected peak in Covid-19 cases in September? That’s the only question that must be answered before any of us can move confidently into a period of reduced restrictions in the SA economy.

The primary purpose of the lockdown period was ultimately to buy the state and its partners time to prepare our public health sector for the inevitable rise in coronavirus cases. Keeping us indoors was always a temporary measure; the disease has not vanished in the time we’ve been kept home, as is evident in the depressing rise in case numbers daily.

Until we get that answer, one can take no comfort in the weeks to come when the state, forced by the reality of a weakening economy, is forced to open up more sectors. If our health sector is not geared up for the next four months, we have to fear the worst for the most vulnerable sectors of society not lucky enough to have the choice of working from home. Only 30%, by some estimates of our workforce, can afford to continue working from their homes.

Faced by the stark choice of poverty or going back to work, the majority faces the most difficult of decisions. It’s reminiscent of tales of migrant workers of yesteryear, who’d have to brave long distances in trains from as far afield as Malawi, Zimbabwe and Lesotho and the hinterlands of our country for work in gold mines in Johannesburg. They had not much of choice, face starvation in their homelands, or wages and possible death in the deepest, most dangerous mines in the world.

It’s a journey most beautifully and tragically told by Hugh Masekela’s Stimela, which got me thinking about the choices for workers then and now. Today, the majority of our households face the same stark choices because of the ever-increasing financial pressures to get back to work as soon as possible. Blue collar workers are justifiably afraid of what world awaits them as they return to their stations, and we should be most sensitive to the risks they face.

What’s been often put out there by the most vocal proponents of a swift return is that poverty kills, much like the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps these drums are being banged by people surprised and now being lulled into a sense of complacency that the country has so far managed to escape the worst ravages of the pandemic.

Now I hear the concerns, but I fret over the workers that, unlike me, can’t afford to work from home and have to return to the real nuts and bolts of the economy in our upcoming winter. Their choice is to either work, knowing very well there’s a prospect of illness or death, or not to work and face certain poverty and possible death.

That’s not much of a free choice, now is it?

But it’s just how our society is structured, with the vast majority having no other alternative but to take the risk of exposure to the deadliest pandemic since the Spanish flu through their daily travels to work in the dead of our winter in a taxi, or if they are lucky enough, a bus. Both forms of transportation negating the greatest defense to infection, social distancing.

It’s a sad indictment on us as a society, perhaps, with our lack of savings and an unsecured lending splurge that has been the cornerstone of the consumption-driven economy that we’ve become, that serves to limit any capacity to really save. But before I get into a long bout of navel gazing, it’s also a much bigger question about the shape and form of global capitalism.

The US, UK and European governments are coming under pressure to get their citizens back to work as quickly as possible as these much richer states quite simply can’t afford to keep their citizenry at home for much longer. Capitalism, it seems, doesn’t come with a very warm blanket for all spheres of society.

As the chattering classes and the biggest proponents of a swift re-opening of the economy, we need to be sensitive to the fact that it’s the most vulnerable in society that will be at the coalface of this disease over the coming four months. As pressure is placed on the state to open up commerce, we must understand what we ask of our fellow man and woman for the "greater good".

Not all of us, and here I include myself writing this piece in the comfort of my home, will be asked to take that sort of gamble with my life or that of my family. What skin in the game do any of us have with the ability to work from home when compared with a mother or a father, who’ll have to leave their home in dead of winter in the middle of Soweto to take an hours long trip to get to work on time in Sandton?

It’s a question that has been eating away at me as I bear witness to the economic devastation of this virus with an economy expected to shrink as much as 17%, unemployment rises by as many as seven million people and a budget deficit rocket of an already struggling state.

These are numbers quite simply impossible to ignore, and enough to raise anxiety levels even among the most sanguine of us. What am I to make of an argument made by a practicing nurse in Durban, that was recently shared with me that "… one can always get another job, but one can’t reclaim a lost life."

Sickness and death are very real prospects in the coming months, but because of the economic devastation that may follow especially if the state and its partners do not focus their minds, jobs will not be in plentiful supply for many years to come.

The question of the future of SA economy, and more broadly the global one in this time of alien virus, is the most vexing question of our times. I started this piece most uncomfortable with the rowdy calls to just open up the economy, but at the same time understanding that our current position sends us into a much deeper hole by the day.

At the same time, here’s another conundrum. As the state continues to raise the curtain on our economy, we allow workers back to work in a global economy bereft of demand. A question for another day, perhaps.

For now, my question is do we have enough beds and ventilators for winter? I’ll hyperventilate or not thereafter.

Ron Derby is the editor of Fin24.

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