President Cyril Ramaphosa needs to rethink his decision not to implement a stricter lockdown as South Africans struggle to take responsibility for themselves, writes Lukhona Mnguni.
Dear Mr President Ramaphosa,
Growing up we were taught that "silence is golden". As we grew older, we understood that silence often allows injustice to perpetuate unabated. You have called upon citizens to co-govern with your government in fighting the spread of coronavirus. This letter is in that spirit. Across the world, presidents have many whisperers who seek to influence them. But the decisions are of the president, no matter where the source of inspiration resides.
Crisis has the inadvertent consequence of determining the legacy of leaders who are tasked with managing it. Covid-19 is your moment of reckoning and how we will remember you. At the start we commended you as rising to the occasion and taking significant and far-reaching decisions. As the pain of the hard lockdown regulations squeezed many of us in society, pressure was mounted on you and your government to embark on a balancing act. Floodgates of confusion, uncertainty and lobbying opened up.
This opened you up to being led by events, rather than leading us through the events.
The consequences have been dire and a walk-back on some of your decisions has been necessary. Alcohol sales should never have been opened up when all material evidence before us shows its byproduct is exerting a burden on our health system, even without a pandemic.
Dealing with a novel virus no doubt invites the concept of "trial and error", but leaders are called upon to develop a degree of foresight. They often rely on experts to form a holistic view that complements their own intuition and discernment ability.
Tailor made opinion
I am, however, worried about the experts at your table.
They are committing gross disservice to you and the country. Their expert opinion appears tailor-made to meet the political moment so they assist government in its balancing act on the now famed "lives and livelihoods" approach. That is dishonest expert advice. The assertion that returning parts of the country to Levels 4 or 5 "would not necessarily achieve a significant reduction in the rate of transmission" is dishonest. This is padded with the scarecrow of it "would come at an extraordinary economic cost, putting more livelihoods at risk and potentially causing long-lasting social harm". This becomes a conversation stopper.
Let us briefly unpack this dishonesty. The very policy of government to Covid-19 is A Risk Adjusted Strategy that foresees the possible need for a return to harder levels of a lockdown. In South Africa, a dishonest rationale of a hard lockdown has been allowed to prevail – it is to prepare the health system but not avoid the peak in infection.
This is simply untrue if we look at various countries across the world, from New Zealand to Vietnam to Senegal and Kenya, etc. Our lockdown philosophy should have been about arresting the spread of infection. The critical threat to livelihoods should have been alleviated through a robust social relief mechanism that is removed from the hands of corrupt officials. There was no such imagination when the lockdown commenced on 26 March 2020 and it remains a significant blind spot, especially for people in precarious jobs such as informal traders.
We still need a solution to this because, as companies opened up under Level 3, some have realised they cannot continue as normal, thus leading to reduced wages or retrenchments. Many people are falling through the cracks under the guise that the economy is open. We still need massive social relief. Look to India and Kenya for some direct interventions to their most indigent.
Indeed, there has been carelessness and recklessness from some citizens as you alluded Mr President.
However, this is unsurprising because for too long lawlessness has become a fashionable feature in our society, enabled by corruptible law enforcement officers who undermine the very essence of the rule of law. This is important in understanding the character of our society and measures that ought to be put in place to counter such prevailing forms of behaviour.
Lives at risk
We are also aware that business flouts occupational health and safety measures, putting in jeopardy the lives of workers. Given that Level 3 saw eight million people return to work, it meant that their lives were no longer in their hands, but in the hands of those who procure their labour, often at cheap rates. This is where a hard lockdown becomes important when you are facing the greatest surge in infections.
Lockdown skeptics like your BRICS counterpart Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are irresponsible leaders who simply dismiss the effects of Covid-19 with sentiments as "death is everyone's destiny". This is not your stance, Mr President, because you seek to save lives. Now is the time to follow that commitment.
Implement your differentiated strategy and impose a hard lockdown on Gauteng, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. You gave us an indicator for a hot spot, in May Mr President, a place with more than five active cases per 100 000 population.
You are right, Mr President, that human conduct and behaviour spreads the virus.
Upper most on human conduct is mobility. By the nature of Level 3’s regulations, government fermented multiple vectors for the virus. This needs rectification in the provinces mentioned. Will it close off the economy? Certainly. But if we are to withstand "the storm" – a phrase I dislike as it creates paralysis – we need both individual behaviour and bold government policy to force us indoors. After all, I have never witnessed people roaming the streets during a severe storm. Your articulation and policy positions appear a contradiction in terms.
We could have avoided the storm, but the measures put in place in March were either not followed or implemented in half measures, such as vigorously screening and testing people who landed from hotspot areas before we closed borders. Or forcing such people into quarantine. All that is now water under the bridge.
Even today, the biggest weapon available against Covid-19 – testing,, testing, testing – is not without problems in our country. We have not ramped it up enough. For a country in the top 10 of infections in the world, we are sadly number 76 on tests/one million population. We are not adequately prepared for this "storm".
Mr President, it is quite clear that schools should be closed indefinitely to protect educators and the integrity of the schooling system. Curriculum delivery is significantly compromised in rural schools with high volumes of learners per grade, with teachers who are incompetent on the subject matter of some grades having to teach, given the need to break up classes into four groups in some instances.
An academic year cannot be completed at all costs as it will distort learning outcomes and give a false sense of academic success to our society. While children are said to be less susceptible to the virus, high school-going teenagers are barely children and have a propensity to contract and spread the virus. Closing schools will also lessen foot traffic therefore minimise the mobility of the virus.
Taxi load capacity
You should reverse the decision on the load carrying capacity of taxis.
The regulations define a short distance as being from 0 – 200km. This means a taxi can transport a full load from Pretoria to Rustenberg, Mthatha to Flagstaff, Durban to Port Edward, etc. This surely misses the point. When the minister of transport announced 100% loads for taxis, society and the taxi associations rejected his proposal. Now everyone appears happy. What has changed? What has broken down in the conversation between government and the taxi association?
This announcement gives the impression that lawlessness pays, because it comes after the taxi industry expropriated the minister’s powers and declared 100% loads. Government, as the custodian of the rule of law, should never be seen as cowering to lawlessness. It makes law-abiding citizens find no value nor reward in their actions. But this particular provision endangers poor people much against the claims that yours is a "caring government". The move is callous and must be resisted especially now that there is great evidence on the aerosolisation of the coronavirus.
Mr President, another thing you should have revisited are funerals. Fifty remains too large a number and people continue to undermine this. We should now have funerals being strictly for family members. Churches should once more be closed. All these would be efforts to limit foot traffic which translates to mobility of the virus and its spread.
We must be alive to the fact that the lockdown is necessitated by knowledge that by nature human beings are freedom lovers.
People’s inclination is towards being free, thus relying on their voluntary acts of self-control could appear an abdication of duty. Yes, the economic consequences will be dire, but the catastrophe from refusing to take bold actions will be perilous.
Effectively, the decision will make itself as the health system collapses and succumbs to the strain of Covid-19 and this will make you seem out of control, weakening your command over our nation. This ought to be avoided. Over to you, Mr President.
- Lukhona Mnguni is a PhD intern researcher in the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal