Melanie Verwoerd | Is our lockdown the worst in the world?

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Sunrise in Johannesburg.
Sunrise in Johannesburg.
Dino Lloyd, Gallo Images

When comparing lockdowns around the world, South Africa's has been the longest but it may be for our own good, writes Melanie Verwoerd. 

It seems that our sense of victimhood has reached an all-time high.

Now let me be clear – this lockdown is not fun! Not for anybody.

It is testing our resilience emotionally, physically and financially. People are losing their jobs, businesses, income - and all against the background of more and more deaths every day.

It is devastatingly hard for the vast majority of people, across racial and economic lines.

It is therefore natural that we want to blame someone for the hardship – and unsurprisingly the government and even the president seem to be in the firing line.

They are accused of being irrational and overzealous with the lockdown regulations and thus carelessly and even callously destroying the economy. (Of course, one has to ask what possible benefit could there be for Cyril Ramaphosa, Tito Mboweni etc. to destroy the economy, but that is for another day).

It does seem South Africans feel that we are being hard done by – harder than anywhere else in the world.

What did Europe do? 

So I took a careful look at how governments in mainly European countries reacted to the Covid epidemic, and in comparison to our own.

With very few exceptions, most countries in Europe had some form of hard lockdown that was almost identical to our Level 5 lockdown which started on 27 March at midnight. The one exception remains the cigarette ban, which as far as I can find out is unique to us.

Alcohol sales were also allowed in most countries (although restaurants and bars closed). However, a few countries outside the EU banned alcohol sales, such as Sri-Lanka, Botswana, Kenya, Panama and parts of Greenland.

The easing of the lockdowns differed vastly.

Although most countries had a slight easing of regulations after a month, a few countries only lifted regulations after two months or 60 days. Similarly, South Africa eased its regulations somewhat six weeks after lockdown started and Level 3 was declared after 70 days.

The big point of conflict at the moment is of course the reopening of schools.

This is a very tricky debate.

Across the world, schools were closed as the pandemic hit. Most countries in Europe gradually opened their schools after about two months, although Italy’s schools will remain closed until September (from early March).

The issue of reopening schools is currently hotly debated in the USA.

Dr Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Health this week said: "We still need to learn a lot about school children getting infected - what the percentages are and whether they spread the virus to adults or not." He warned that new data suggested that older children are often super spreaders (where they infect more than 100 people in a short period of time) and give it to their teachers, parents and grandparents.

He went on: "Children between the ages of 10 and 19 years of age appear to spread the disease to adults equally as well as adults spread to adults.".

The WHO has also given a very stern warning against opening schools whilst the infection rate is still climbing in any country (such as our own).

So, even with a close look at the different regulations (which are too cumbersome for this column), it is clear we are not out of step with the vast majority of countries which have been battling with the pandemic.

Longest lockdown

However, it is true that we have been in lockdown the longest.

This is partly because the government declared a lockdown early on to try and get ahead of the disease, whereas European countries did so only as the numbers started to rise dramatically.

Although we will never have the wisdom of hindsight, it is likely that our early lockdown is now saving lives.

A recent study done by the University of Oxford and Edinburgh of 170 countries showed that the maximum number of daily deaths in a country could be linked to a delay of days to introduce the first set of measures.

According to the researchers, the mortality rate increased by 9% for each day of delay to introduce strict regulations.

In other words, the longer a government took to have a lockdown, the higher the mortality rate ended up being.

It is interesting to note that, in most countries in Europe, the death rate remains significantly higher than ours. South Africa currently remains below 2%, compared to Italy’s 15%, Spain’s 8.7%, France’s 6%, Belgium’s 6.7% and the UK’s 6.5%.

It is also worthwhile noting that, whilst we have had just over 7 000 deaths, Brazil has had almost 88 000 deaths, the UK 45 759 and Italy 35 112.

It is also concerning that, in many European countries where they have lifted most of the restrictions, there has been a sudden spike in new infections.

In France, the numbers of new coronavirus cases and deaths reported on Wednesday were higher than the daily average seen over the last week.

In Belgium, infections have also started to spike again.

After easing restrictions, they have had to make a U-turn. People are now again only allowed to go grocery shopping one-by-one and only for 30 minutes at a time. Belgium citizens are only allowed to interact with a total of five people beyond the immediate family. Germany has also seen a sharp increase in infections again, as have parts of Australia.

The UK this weekend enforced 14 days of quarantine on people returning from Spain after the numbers rose dramatically there.

Nothing unique about SA experience

Having had a careful look at countries all around the world, it seems (alcohol and cigarettes aside) that there is nothing unique about what we have to endure. Yes, our economy will suffer more than those in the EU, but most probably not more than most developing countries.

We have to accept and continue to remember that the hardship we are experiencing is because of the virus and not government actions. If we want to be angry, we need to have a good look at what gave rise to this pandemic (i.e. the trade in wildlife) and direct our anger towards that, so that we can be sure never to face such a global disaster again.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African ambassador to Ireland


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