State of our Covid-nation: The matter of trust and lockouts

A general view of the empty Muizenberg Beach in Cape Town, South Africa, 25 March 2020. After mandating the closure of all beaches throughout the country, the South African government announced a nationwide 21-day total lockdown, starting at midnight on 26 March, in a bid to slow down the spread of the ongoing pandemic of the COVID-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. (Photo: EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA)

Yesterday I reached out to a close friend and comrade of mine in England. We both studied at Oxford University and then spent two decades in the trenches trying to defeat HIV. Now she’s in London. She replied to my inquiry about her well-being by sending a sad and eerie video of the streets of London and with an admission: “It’s very, very hard.”

Covid-19 has separated her from her sons, left her alone in a cousin’s flat, postponed her mother’s cancer treatment and caused her income to dry up. Of Britain, she had this to say: “It’s a bloody mess. Be proud of SA.”

My friend is not the first person to say that. My mother who lives in New York says the same. The BBC has written a laudatory article about President Cyril Ramaphosa. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has been deservedly praised.

On one level, many of us feel positive about the way the government has responded. In the words of an Alexandra resident interviewed by the SABC amid the rats and overcrowding: “We only wish that they responded with such grit and determination to all the social problems faced by South Africa.”

It’s a far cry from the deathly denialism of our last great viral epidemic, Aids.

People needed to have reason to feel good about this government and Covid-19 came along to give them cause. Personally, my shoulder is firmly behind the government’s wheel, pushing with every ounce of strength I have. I support the government’s key messages about physical distancing, I advocate for social solidarity. I use my privileged access to the media to educate and inform.

However, while I agree that we must do what we are told to do (because it is based on scientific evidence) this does not mean that we must think what we are told to think, or that we must suspend critical judgement of the government-led response and not ask pertinent questions. What I will say in the remains of this article must be read in that vein.

So where do we start?

We must start by agreeing on the foundations that must underlie our Covid-19 response.

Let’s begin at the beginning!

Covid-19 is the disease caused by a virus, SARS-CoV-2, leading to a public health disaster; Covid-19 is not a foreign state that we are at war with. That means maximum transparency about all aspects of the response is fully justified.

There is no justification for state secrecy. According to section 17 of the National Disaster Management Act (2002) there should be a Disaster Management Information System whose information should be “electronically accessible” and the government is under a duty to “take steps to disseminate such information, especially to communities that are vulnerable to disasters”.

The President and the government are fulfilling their constitutionally vested mandate to uphold the Constitution and protect the security of people in the country in a time of threat. They are our elected servants and not our philanthropic benefactors. This means that their obligations to explain and, where necessary justify their actions remains. As we have explained in Daily Maverick and Maverick Citizen (here and here) this gives Parliament a more, not less important role at this time.

We are in a National State of Disaster, not a State of Emergency, which means the requirements that government be responsive, consultative and participatory still exist and must be fulfilled.

And it is on the basis of this understanding (do we agree, President Ramaphosa?) that the government and public institutions such as the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) must not begrudge or evade difficult questions or criticisms from the media or civil society.

On this basis, allow me to make some constructive criticisms.

First of all, much more needs to be done to provide the vital statistics that allow us to be informed about our response. Paradoxically, while there is a lot of noise and media briefings, there is not that much hard information; what comes out on the sacoronavirus website is an increasing bald, minimal and not independently verified set of health statistics.

It’s not enough.

We have a right to know the specifics about the plan to scale up Covid-19 testing and not a stream of platitudes and promises by the CEO of the NHLS. Why exactly is the scale-up of testing taking so long? Has the government acquired the test kits needed? How many? Why are we not yet using the academic pathology laboratories for testing?

We have a right to know how many incidents of community “unrest” and police or army violence are reported daily – because this will impact on trust for Covid-19 prevention messages.

We have a right to know how many food parcels have been distributed, where and to whom, at what cost?

We have a right to know what exactly has been done to get water to communities. How many Jojos, how many tankers? Where?

How much money has been banked with the Solidarity Fund? On what basis will it be released? To whom? When? What other funds does the government have available? What people, principles and institutions are informing increased public spending on Covid-19?

Why are rogue municipalities that violate regulations and rogue MECs, who violate the law, not being reined in and publicly censured? They do as much damage as the wretches who purvey fake news.

Asking these questions is not imposing a burden on the government because this is all information that the President should be being supplied with on a daily basis anyway; information that is indicative of the state of our response. But without this information being shared – as legally required – it is hard for we, the people, to assess our progress, because this is by all accounts our response.

Second, we need a government that is demonstrably and visibly responsive to suggestions and feedback from ordinary people and organised civil society. Getting answers and getting feedback cannot be the privilege of a self-selected few; particularly when, in many instances, these are people who stood by and enriched themselves while the cracks in our society got wider and wider.

For example, a week ago a group of 77 distinguished economists wrote an open letter to the President. My sources tell me their suggestions were, in the infamous words of former presidential spokesperson Parks Mankahlana, responding to a similar declaration by Aids scientists in 2000, effectively “put in the presidential dustbin” and dismissed without serious consideration. This causes distrust and leads some to say that in this sphere of government, Moody’s, not the Bill of Rights, rules the roost.

Will the same fate await the letter by over 30 prominent civil society leaders on the Child Support Grant? What is the government’s response? We need to know. Our children are hungry.

At the moment the Tsars at the national Command Centre feel like they are enforcing a lockout of alternative or complementary ideas. Their power should be checked. Government must understand that it is not the sole repository of wisdom and that it needs to build systems that can harvest and quickly utilise ideas that often exist outside its ranks.

Finally, we need a government and business that build trust and recognise that the onus to do this lies with them. Covid-19 requires both a Boltian sprint and the perfect pacing of a Kipchogean marathon. It requires deference and humility and an appreciation that, as far as the poor are concerned, it was the conduct of business elites, and the governments that they had in thrall to them, that created inequality, distrust and a literal breeding ground for Covid-19. That trust deficit continues.

Agreed, we are all in this boat together, but government and business elites need to persuade people that during and after bailing out from this crisis, there will be no more business as usual.

So yes, my comrade in London is right, so far rather the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa than Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Victor Orbán and that cast of rogues. Yes, far rather the drive and determination of Doctor Zweli Mkhize, than Britain’s hapless Health Secretary, Matt Hancock.

You have earned our respect.

But if we are to go forward together and deepen a national common purpose, that does not mean that we must surrender our hard-won democratic right to demand you answer the hard questions. DM/MC


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