Mandy Wiener | A return to lockdown? Damned if they do and damned if they don’t

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)

Lockdown and whether to introduce a harder one is becoming a polarising theme amongst South Africans, writes Mandy Wiener. 

I have rarely encountered a topic which is so divisive, so polarising, where the line is so clearly drawn, as Lockdown.

It's little surprise then that when the Sunday Times reported this past weekend that Gauteng could be placed back into an intermittent hard lockdown, the response was severe on both ends of the spectrum.

As it turns out, the Gauteng Health MEC Bandile Masuku is insisting that Gauteng isn't pushing for a return to lockdown, despite the currently skyrocketing numbers.

He seems to be suggesting rather that people just need to actually abide by the current restrictions in place instead of introducing harsher ones.

As I see it, how its playing out right now is that those who are vehemently in support of a reintroduction of lockdown are hunkering down at home, self-isolating and trying all they can to physical distance and not get the virus or spread it.

But those who are vociferously against the lockdown, who are eager to see the economy reopen because their livelihoods are at stake, have tapped out of the social compact with government.

Squandered lockdown

We've seen a growing narrative over the past few days of a "squandered lockdown", that government has wasted the past 100 days and has failed to properly prepare the country for the surge in infections.

Gauteng is fast becoming the country's Covid-19 hotspot with over 60 000 infections and Masuku has made it clear that there is going to be a gap in availability of beds. He says the modelling told them this from the outset.

All of this is feeding into the narrative that government didn't properly use the past three months to get beds, medical staff, ventilators and oxygen in place for the peak which is coming in July/August.

This is exacerbating the outrage at both ends of the lockdown spectrum. Those who are terrified about the spiking numbers are shouting at government to reintroduce lockdown.

"He must do it!" one colleague responded when we were discussing the possible reintroduction. On the other end, there are those who are screaming about what a waste lockdown was and we are now at the point that we would have been at in April anyway. We could have been here without crippling the economy too is the argument. Many hair stylists and restaurant owners may be feeling this way.

On the Midday Report on Monday, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told me that a decision has not been taken to possibly reintroduce a hard lockdown - but it can’t be ruled out as a future instrument if things get really bad. If they're faced with no other choice, it could happen.

Mkhize seems frustrated by the growing narrative of a squandered lockdown. He doesn't think that's fair. In fact, he told me that introducing a hard lockdown was "one of the best decisions we took".

The balance is a tricky one. "You’re damned if you do and you're damned if you don't, government is going to be criticised," he said.

He suggests there should be more cooperation with government and the restrictions and less criticism.

However, it may be overly simplistic to draw such a distinct line between the two arguments - either for or against lockdown.

Social compact 

As always there must be a middle argument where we place our trust in government and simply follow the rules instead of breaking them.

But that only works when we have absolute faith in our leaders that they are making the best possible decisions on our behalf. That requires a firm social compact, the kind that we all bought into at the start of the lockdown.

Unfortunately at this point, that contract is failing. There isn't the same kind of camaraderie and buy-in that there was in March when President Cyril Ramaphosa first appeared on our television screens pleading with us please to sacrifice and stay home.

The reality is that we are in the eye of the storm. Death is among us. Each day we are mourning more and more loved ones. These are people we know and who are part of our lives.

The surge is coming and it's going to get even worse. We can shout at government about not having done enough and having squandered the lockdown. We can scream more for a reintroduction of lockdown. But we also need to check ourselves and our own behaviour.

Even the best health systems in the world have been overrun. Yes, we should have used the time better to prepare. We should have trained more medical staff, set up more field hospitals, stashed more oxygen.

But we are in it now, so wash your damn hands, wear a mask, practice physical distancing and cooperate.

 - Mandy Wiener is a journalist, author and the host of the Midday Report on 702.

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