MAVERICK CITIZEN: EDITORIAL

Resetting South Africa: From locking down to scaling up

By Mark Heywood 2 June 2020

epa08334208 A South African boy discards waste water next to his shack in the densely populated township of Khayelitsha during fifth day of a 21-day national lockdown in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, 31 March 2020. Health workers and police had a difficult task of educating and enforcing social distancing in Khayelitsha. The South African government is enforcing a 21 day total lockdown to try stem the spread of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 which causes the Covid-19 disease. ( EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA)

The social contract we entered into to defeat Covid-19 is not over. It came in several parts. Inasmuch as we accepted that the lockdown would destroy jobs and livelihoods, this contract contained an implicit promissory note that in return, and after the lockdown is lifted, those jobs would be recreated. Resetting and restructuring our economy is integral to the next stage of Covid-19 prevention.

On Monday 1 June South Africa started a new phase of our relationship with Covid-19, called Level 3. Under Level 3, schools are due to reopen (in theory), most businesses return to work, alcohol is on sale again (on four days a week) and believers are allowed to attend religious gatherings.

But on the very same day, the number of new Covid-19 infections leapt by 1,674 to 34,357, despite the reported 10 to 14 day backlog in processing Covid-19 samples. The number of deaths grew by 22 to 705. Clearly the worst is yet to come. For these reasons, on many levels, relaxing the lockdown feels counter to common sense.

It is occurring not after we have passed the peak of Covid-19, but long before it.

It is occurring not because we have succeeded in stopping Covid-19 from growing to epidemic proportions, but because we have failed.

It is occurring because for many people loss of life due to hunger and attendant ill-health caused by malnutrition has become a threat that, at this moment, looms even larger than loss of life due to Covid-19.

It is occurring because, as President Cyril Ramaphosa and the scientists who advise the Minister of Health have pointed out, we now need a better set of tools to mitigate the epidemic and to save lives and livelihoods.

Moving to Level 3 was necessary. But it is essential that the reasons for doing this are not misunderstood. Covid-19 is now at our doorstep. In fact, some scientists say that the number of infections may be 10 times higher than the official statistics of confirmed cases. The numbers of deaths are rising. The number of available beds is decreasing.

There can be no complacency. As the President has now acknowledged, this crisis is going to stretch over several years, not months.

It is for these reasons that this is the time for scaling up interventions, not relaxing them. The National State of Disaster now needs to give birth to a transparent, time-bound national emergency plan for Covid-19 prevention and recovery.

To prevent Covid-19 it is time to scale up fixing our schools, so that they have toilets, water, electricity, and classrooms where there is enough space to learn safely.

To prevent Covid-19 it is time to scale up the provision of sufficient potable water to our communities through systems that are safe and sustainable.

To prevent Covid-19 it is time to scale up our public health services, ensuring that there are enough doctors, nurses, beds and medicines and that all causes of ill-health, including mental health, are addressed during this crisis.

To prevent Covid-19 it is time to scale up systems to ensure sufficient nutritious food is available to everybody and to eliminate widespread hunger.

To prevent Covid-19 it is time to emulate the example of the Gauteng Department of Education that has recruited 10,000 young people to form a youth brigade that can assist with the implementation of health and safety protocols in schools.

To prevent Covid-19 it is time to scale up our communications strategies and finance our public broadcaster to ensure that everyone in South Africa understands this virus, their own risks as well as the risks they may present to others. Every person needs to be a citizen scientist.

To prevent Covid-19 is it time to fix our horrible public transport system and give people a dignified, reliable means of transport that does not include broken trains and overloaded taxis.

To prevent Covid-19 we have to have a grown-up conversation about how easy access to alcohol is destroying communities, stretching our health system, placing strain on families, feeding gender-based violence and fuelling crime.

‘Resetting the economy’

Speaking to editors on Sunday afternoon (a Youtube recording is here) President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of coming out of the Covid-19 crisis as being akin to coming out of a war. In his words: “I characterise post Covid-19 as almost a post-war situation where many countries have relied on infrastructure to bolster economic growth and that is precisely what I would like to see.”

He also referred to his resolution “to forge a new economy in a new global reality,” laying emphasis on not countenancing inequalities and 10 million people unemployed.

Among other things Ramaphosa, in his pre-prepared notes, committed to “a massive infrastructure build and maintenance programme that mobilises public and private resources on a significant scale”.

However, the key thing to understand is that this “reset” needs to happen now; it has to be tied to the scaling up of interventions listed above that are absolutely necessary to meet the challenges of preventing SARS-CoV-2 infection and caring for people with Covid-19.

In the lockdown phase of our response to Covid-19 the government instituted measures that incurred a loss to the economy of an estimated R13-billion a day solely to try to interrupt Covid-19 transmission.

And the business community gave its full support to these measures.

The question now is whether in scaling up interventions to the level needed, the government – supported by business – is prepared to make an investment of hundreds of billions of rand in Covid-19 prevention, an investment that will have the positive benefits of creating jobs and stimulating the economy.

It is for these reasons that it is time once again to discuss a wealth tax and for SA’s business leaders and ultra-rich, if they are truly patriotic, to become advocates for such a reconstruction tax.

It is also time to speed up action against State Capture and ongoing corruption. It is for good reason that the country has been preoccupied with Covid-19, but this does not justify a go-slow on investigations and prosecution. We therefore fully support the questions that the Civil Society Working Group on State Capture (made up of more than 20 organisations) asked judge Zondo Commission in a letter of 27 May.

They complain:

“Currently, there is no information regarding how the Commission is making use of this time to meet its mandate, which is scheduled to come to an end in March 2021. We, therefore, urge the Commission to take the public into its confidence and provide regular updates on its work.”

And warn that “the pandemic and lockdown may increase opportunities for powerful networks to abuse the state’s resources. The Commission’s work is of particular importance now when emergency procurement processes may present potential avenues for corruption, patronage and ongoing state capture.”

Now is time to go into overdrive on these and other national priorities.

The social contract we entered into to defeat Covid-19 is not over. It came in several parts. Inasmuch as we accepted that the lockdown would destroy jobs and livelihoods, this contract contained an implicit promissory note that in return, and after the lockdown is lifted, those jobs would be recreated. We do not accept that those who bore the brunt of the lockdown on behalf of the whole nation, should now be left to suffer alone.

Reconstruction and resetting the economy to make this possible is not a choice.

It is a constitutional imperative.

It is a matter of life and death. DM/MC

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