Adriaan Basson: Ramaphosa's 21-day lockdown conundrum

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the SA National Defence Force ahead of the 21-day national lockdown.
President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the SA National Defence Force ahead of the 21-day national lockdown. (GCIS)

Whether President Cyril Ramaphosa decides to end or extend the lockdown, the price could be just as high for South Africa and its people, writes Adriaan Basson.

Will he, or won’t he?

That is the question on every South African’s mind as President Cyril Ramaphosa ponders whether to extend the 21-day coronavirus lockdown next Thursday.

Both options hold severe consequences for the president, that could determine his legacy. History books will be written about the decision Ramaphosa takes.

If he decides to extend the lockdown, as many expect he would, Ramaphosa risks breaking our brittle economy. The fallout will be dire: prolonged poverty, unemployment and even starvation for generations to come.

If he decides to end the lockdown, the price could be just as high. It is not at all clear that South Africa has managed to beat the curve of coronavirus infections. We simply have not done enough testing to comfortably send South Africans back to work.

In the second scenario, Ramaphosa will have to consider that South Africa is way behind Europe’s curve and that the real impact of the virus will only be felt when the seasons change and our temperature drops. But can he keep the country in lockdown for another two months? Surely not.

Last week, I asked my colleagues at News24 if they knew someone who had lost her or his job in the past two weeks. Only four colleagues responded in the negative.

Between 30 of us, we knew 55 people who had either lost their jobs or had their contracts cancelled since the announcement of a lockdown. They were from a range of industries: media, retail, hospitality, tourism, real estate, industrial, motoring, beauty, catering, events, financial services, textile, marketing, wellness, security and fashion.

The Reserve Bank painted a bleak picture of our economic outlook on Monday, projecting that as many as 370 000 people could lose their jobs as a result of the lockdown. 1 600 businesses could go insolvent and the economy may shrink between 2% and 4% this year.

Every single day that the lockdown continues will add more digits to these numbers. At this stage, the Covid-19 health crisis has affected much fewer people than the resultant economic crises caused by the lockdown.

But this cannot be used as a criticism of Ramaphosa’s decision to enforce a lockdown. He and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize have received universal praise for their early handling of the crisis, by encouraging and then enforcing physical distancing.

I would much rather live in Ramaphosa’s country than in the United States, where President Donald Trump is literally gambling with the lives of millions.

Ramaphosa had massive public sympathy and support when he announced the lockdown, but this may evaporate fast if people must consider selling their houses, cars or having to take their children out of their schools of choice.

Then the option of wearing a mask to work, undergoing public screenings for symptoms and going to shops only at certain times on your own start to sound appealing, albeit at the risk of contracting Covid-19.

If our Covid-19 infections remain at the same rate of less than 100 per day, and the death toll doesn’t dramatically increase by next week, Ramaphosa will have a tough time justifying an extension of the lockdown.

Human tragedy should never be reduced to statistics alone, but it is relevant to remind ourselves that in South Africa almost 60 people are murdered per day; around 40 are killed in road crashes daily, and on average 190 people die of Aids-related illnesses every day.

We have never had a lockdown for any of these causes of death and with 13 Covid-19 deaths in 12 days of lockdown, South Africans will have good reason to ask why they should give up their jobs for a disease that is seemingly not that potent.

The big unknown here is of course the lack of proper testing at scale. So far, it is mostly the middle-classes that have tested through private laboratories. The National Health Laboratory Service took weeks to get their act in order and are not close to testing 36 000 people per day, as they aim to do by the end of the month.

We need to test 12 times more people per day and the health authorities are now procuring rapid antibody tests because we have run out of time to procure the chemicals for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, which we have used so far, according to Bhekisisa.

Ramaphosa may end up having to choose between two equally dire scenarios. This is a defining moment for his leadership and legacy.

 - Adriaan Basson is editor-in-chief of News24

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