Wed, 05 Aug 2020

The rumour mill is speculating over a possible extension of the lockdown beyond 21 days - and it's just that, speculation, of course. But no one can deny there is merit in having the discussion.

More so, following almost two weeks of an imperfect lockdown, during which many have been arrested or abused by members of the security forces for venturing out of their homes for reasons that did not comply with government's approved list of reasons to leave home.

There are strong arguments to justify a continued lockdown, just as there is a growing list of arguments to lift it, but those are two extremes.

A more practical solution might be somewhere along the continuum between the two - a staggered restart of SA's economic engines, with terms and conditions.

A recent predictive modelling research study released by the Boston Consulting Group, which leveraged John Hopkins University data, attempts to study the patterns and predict Covid-19's growth curves in different countries around the world.

READ | Already facing record unemployment, SA braces for jobs slump after lockdown

For South Africa, it predicts a growth curve that will peak around the first week of June. On the basis of this, the study recommends a possible lifting of the lockdown between the last week of June and end of August.

Lessons learned

We would be foolish to take no lessons from the first week of the ongoing lockdown. We have seen attitudinal challenges to the lockdown on one hand and, on the other hand, structural and systemic ones.

The first group of challenges is has been dealt with swiftly and sharply thus far, for instance, by taking punitive steps when the law is broken.

The second group, however, cannot be wished away by unleashing the wrath of our security forces onto poor South Africans whose very existence gets threatened by the harsh conditions of the lockdown.

We have an opportunity - but very little time - to take structural and systemic challenges into account and to propose a more humane lockdown without placing people's lives in danger.

South Africa may not be Malawi or the DRC, but it is also not France, the UK, Hong Kong, Italy, or any number of other places around the world where a blanket lockdown with the same conditions for all can be imposed throughout and adhered to by most citizens.

Furthermore, we must be mindful of the ravages that a continued lockdown would have on our already weak and fast weakening economy - because of the lasting effects of state capture and other forms of corruption; the recent relegation of our sovereign credit rating to junk status; a fast plummeting/deteriorating value of the Rand; and the downward revision by the SA Reserve Bank of our economic growth projections.

The route we must chart, going forward, must aim at preventing the further spread of Covid-19 and flattening its growth path sooner than predicted by the Boston Consulting Group study on one hand; and, on the other hand, restarting the engines of our economy. It must be a fine balancing act, no doubt, but one that we may just pull off if we come up with a plan that will get all South Africans to play their part, with no group given any reason to suspect injustice.

READ | ANALYSIS | What the transport sector taught us during the coronavirus pandemic

A staggered restart, a customised lockdown

Given our hugely diverse communities and human settlement types across the country, there is an opportunity for authorities to consider the structural and systemic reasons that have made it harder for South Africans living in poorer communities to adhere to the existing lockdown conditions than those who live in middle-class suburbia and other areas where shared living spaces are abundant.

A one-size-fits-all lockdown is not practical for people living in shacks, with many sharing their living spaces with family members spanning, in some cases, up to three generations. Many have expressed a desire to adhere to the lockdown conditions because they understand the reasons for doing so, but they simply can't. The conditions for lockdown - and its execution by security forces - must take this into account.

In addition to all of this, government should continue doing what it has done well since the start of this journey we're on, i.e. give regular updates of the steps being taken by authorities to combat the pandemic; ongoing, multilingual, advice on what people should do to remain safe by protecting themselves and others from preventable exposure to Covid-19, as well as steps that must be taken by people who have been exposed to Covid-19 and are showing symptoms of the virus.

To limit economic damage as well as social impact, there is the opportunity for a staggered return to business activity, which must take into account the circumstances of those whose need is urgent. In addition to the already "essential" services of public transport, medical services, security and food retailing businesses, properly registered traders of other required goods and services - particularly food, in areas of easy access by people living in rural areas, townships and informal settlements - could be considered.

Some of these suggestions may seem hard to implement. But there must be a compromise between continuing with the battle to defeat the spread of the coronavirus, while also allowing the South African economic machinery to restart in a controlled, staggered manner.

If lockdown is extended as is, we risk social unrest and the chance of emerging on the other end of this dark tunnel with the economy lying flat - and a government lacking the resources to support increasing numbers of poor and middle-class South Africans whose livelihoods have been battered by the battle against Covid-19. South Africa needs all the resources it can muster.

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