Opinionista Saul Musker 11 May 2020

The lockdown has worked, and it won’t last forever

When it comes to life-or-death decisions, my rule of thumb has always been not to make them on the basis of an article in The Economist or an hour spent on Twitter. Call me reckless, but I’m sticking to that principle.

The world faces the most serious crisis in living memory, with a highly contagious disease tearing its way through almost every country on Earth. In many countries, the number of deaths has reached the tens of thousands, as governments acted too cautiously and too late.

In South Africa, we acted faster and more comprehensively than almost any other. We prohibited gatherings and closed our borders as soon as the threat of imported cases became significant. As the cases began to rise, we imposed a national lockdown to halt its spread. After five weeks of stringent measures to contain the virus, we began gradually to ease restrictions in a measured and responsible manner.

In recent days, some amateur would-be epidemiologists have cried that the lockdown was pointless, or too harsh. The leader of the opposition, in an apparently complete break with decency or respect for our constitutional order, has ominously threatened to lead a popular resistance to public health measures. 

Yet there is incontrovertible evidence that the lockdown was necessary, and that it worked. 

In the week prior to the lockdown, confirmed cases were increasing at an average of 33%. In the weeks since, that rate has stabilised at between 4% and 6%.

Fifty days after their 100th case, the United States was at 758,809 cases. Italy, with a similar population to ours, was at 147,577. The United Kingdom was at 129,044. South Korea, whose response has been among the most successful in the world, was at 10,331.

At the same point in our epidemic, South Africa was at 7,220.

Some, including an increasingly asylum-bound Helen Zille, have proclaimed that Covid-19 is equivalent to the flu. Why, then, are we not reacting in the same way?

To them we respond that it is nowhere near the same, with a significantly higher case mortality rate and less certain effects on the human body. As a specialist at Yale University wrote recently, “its ferocity is breathtaking and humbling”. Moreover, where the population has a fairly robust immunity to influenza – a constant presence in our society – we have no immunity yet to this new virus.

So, the armchair cynics in the Democratic Alliance insist, let us simply develop immunity!

But what about the millions of South Africans who are immuno-compromised, including all those who are HIV-positive but do not know their status? What about the millions living with TB, whose lung function is impaired? 

What about the elderly, many of whom would not survive infection and live to boast that sought-after immunity? What about those who live in shacks in informal settlements, who could not simply cocoon themselves at home and shelter from an outbreak? 

In a country like South Africa, the government faces a different set of choices. We can govern for Claremont, or we can govern for both Claremont and Khayelitsha. 

There is absolutely no doubt, all actual epidemiologists agree, that the lockdown has been necessary and effective. The sacrifices made by all South Africans have saved tens of thousands of lives already.

There is equally little doubt that the lockdown has had severe economic consequences. That is why the government has implemented emergency relief measures at a historic and unprecedented scale. 

More than R800-billion has been injected into the economy through monetary and fiscal stimulus, dwarfing the response of even most advanced economies as a proportion of GDP.

Many of the same idle commentators have nevertheless focused their attention on the empowerment criteria included in the Tourism Relief Fund, which compromises just R200-million – or a whopping 0.025% – of that R800-billion package.

A white-owned business of any size could still access the tourism funds, as the empowerment criteria account for only eight out of 100 points in assessing applications. But even if they were not eligible, they could apply to the UIF to cover their workers’ wages. They could access more than R200-billion in funding through the credit guarantee scheme, and only begin to repay this finance after six months. They could access the funding set aside for SMEs by the Department of Small Business Development, and benefit from sweeping tax relief measures.

Let me put this as simply as I can. If your understanding of South Africa’s response to Covid-19 is that the government has imposed restrictions for no purpose, and provided no relief to small businesses, you are living in an alternate universe.

We should all be proud of our country’s response to a crisis of unparalleled proportions.

No country will escape the impact of the virus or the suffering it will inflict. It is an inescapable reality, a brutal force of nature.

But the impact on South Africa will be less severe because of the steps we have all taken. 

The lockdown will not last forever. Our national alert system is designed to respond in an adaptive and flexible way to the rate of transmission as well as the burden on our health system.

The United Kingdom has just announced a similar approach, drawing on groundbreaking work by South Africa, New Zealand and a handful of other countries which have pioneered a risk-adjusted strategy. 

Our country’s response is led by health and economic experts who are the envy of the entire world. It would be a pity to concentrate on the government’s few mistakes, rather than its many successes.

In fact, the greatest danger to our society at present are those who, on the basis of little more than a hunch, an intuition, or an article they saw in the Wall Street Journal, would have us recklessly squander our gains. 

Those who tempt us to endanger our own lives, and the lives of others, for short-term political gain. 

Don’t listen to them, for that way lies ruin. DM

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