OPINION | SA’s lockdown: don’t be blinded by blue-sky fantasies

A billboard on an apartment building in Cape Town's CBD. (Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images)
A billboard on an apartment building in Cape Town's CBD. (Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images)

Melanie Verwoerd’s argument that South Africa’s lockdown has not been that bad is grounded in false claims that blind readers with blue-sky fantasies, writes Gabriel Crouse.

Melanie Verwoerd’s column "Is Our Lockdown the Worst in the World?" (29 July), answers that question in the negative, saying "there is nothing unique about what we have had to endure".

Since I am one of those journalists who have found tragic reason to believe that this country may be suffering one of the world’s worst lockdowns, it is necessary for me to correct some of Verwoerd’s more glaring errors.

Verwoerd cites a University of Oxford and Edinburgh study, also covered on Health24, and writes that, "according to the researchers, the mortality rate increased by 9% for each day of delay to introduce strict regulations".

Verwoerd misreads basic mathematics. The study claims to find that "each additional day of delay increases the average growth rate in deaths by 0.087 percentage points," which is 0.087% and not “9%”, as she writes.

Alternatively, as the study finds that there would be nine "additional deaths on the peak day" for each day of regulatory delay, Verwoerd may have concluded that 9 extra deaths means "9%", failing to appreciate the basic mathematical distinction between ratios and absolute values.

Verwoerd also claims "it is likely that our early lockdown is saving lives", but fails to point out that the study she cites measures "delay" as "he number of days between when a country records its first Covid-19 case and when it reaches a stringency level of 40 out of 100".

Late lockdown

Far from rendering our lockdown "early", as Verwoerd insists, this means our lockdown was harrowingly late.

The first confirmed Covid-19 case in South Africa was on 5 March (though the Oxford database records it on 6 March) and we crossed the "40 out of 100" threshold on stringency only by 18 March.

This, then, is a 13-day "delay" between the first case and "a substantive response" by Oxford’s measure. According to the study, this delay would increase the absolute deaths to date by far more than double.

I personally would not blame President Cyril Ramaphosa for 4 000 South African coronavirus deaths based on this study, because it is deeply flawed. But since Verwoerd does cite the study, and uses it to bash European governments, the reader must ask why exactly Verwoerd fails to apply its devastating implications to our government?

While you ponder that imponderable, let me concede that I would sincerely like to explain the study’s flaws, but since Verwoerd misread it so badly and misleads her readers in other ways that demand urgent attention I must, as she says in her piece, leave that "for another day".

Verwoerd’s only concession to the "world’s worst lockdown" argument is that "we have been in lockdown the longest" of any place. She says "this is partly because the government declared a lockdown early on to try and get ahead of the disease".

The impression created is that lockdown is one of those jolly marathon fundraisers that South Africa has been in the longest for simply because it was peppy enough to arrive at the park first. But consider the facts.

Gabriel graphic

As you can see from the above, in real time our stringency increased at a slight delay from the European average and then exceeded it, for months, according to Oxford’s index.

I should explain that I have used only those European countries which have an Oxford Stringency Index, so countries or pseudo-countries like North Macedonia and the Vatican are not included.

gabriel graphic2

The chart above shows that, by late April, Europe (using the same +-40 countries as the first graph), had come to a relatively manageable rate of reproduction. With an "R"-factor below 1, the virus was still spreading, but not exponentially.

By contrast, South Africa had exponential spread throughout Level 5 and Level 4 lockdowns. This is exactly the "unique" thing Verwoerd overlooks. We have had the longest and also the least effective lockdown on the planet.

Verwoerd should care about the second fact, but she shrouds it in ignorance. In a genuinely mad twist, our lockdown failed to slow the virus, so the National Coronavirus Command Council extended it again and again.

Millions were driven out of work into hunger queues by the lockdown. Every township and CBD I went through during the hard lockdown, protracted arrest of formal business thronged with wide-eyed people desperately trying to hustle for a crust on the streets.

Moreover, almost nothing was done to make the biggest logistical difference, adapting private and public transport in ways that would delay viral spread rather than incubate viral contagion in taxis.

South Africa also distinguished itself by locking down just in time to slow testing rates. Perhaps most importantly, 50 people died in police custody or as a result of security force action in the first six weeks of the lockdown as "irrational" laws were brutally enforced, part of the "world’s worst" argument that Verwoerd conveniently ignores.

The example of Vietnam

We should have stopped the lockdown after three weeks because it was killing jobs, which will reduce life expectancy for a generation, and killing people, but also because lockdown was doing nothing legible to delay viral spread – in contrast to the fact that the pre-lockdown "Call Up" option of voluntary non-pharmaceutical interventions that worked in the Far East looked to be working here too.

Corrupt, incompetent, innumerate maladministration is lethal. So is flattery of same. But as a last resort lockdown apologists will insist we did poorly just because we are poor.

They should look to Vietnam, which had a hard lockdown for only three weeks, and "never had a total national lockdown, but swooped in on emerging clusters". Vietnam still has zero coronavirus deaths.

Verwoerd would have you believe that the disaster in South Africa has nothing to do with government. "We have to accept and continue to remember," she writes, "that the hardship we are experiencing is because of the virus and not government actions."

The only way you can believe that is by singing Ramagloria and ignoring everything else.

Gabriel Crouse is a writer and analyst at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

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