Defend Truth


The lockdown cannot hold


Geordin Hill-Lewis is the Mayor of Cape Town.

Support for the lockdown has evaporated as millions of families face the anxiety of a collapse in income, loss of jobs, and for many, real hunger.

Saul Musker (“The lockdown has worked”, Daily Maverick 11 May 2020) seems to have distinguished himself as the only person, besides President Cyril Ramaphosa himself, still defending the government’s conduct of this crisis. 

But his slavish, arrogant and insult-laden rant is unbecoming of a staffer in the private office of the president, and only serves to give us some insight into how panicky the Presidency is becoming for lack of a plan.

There is a fast-growing list of senior specialists, academics, advisers and the president’s own colleagues on the sinister “National Command Council” who oppose the continuation of the hard lockdown.

The government’s own senior epidemiological advisers say that the lockdown has “served its purpose”. Professor Shabir Madhi, a member of the government’s Health Advisory Panel, has gone so far as to say that the continued lockdown “is setting us up for greater mortality from non-Covid illnesses”. This echoes the findings of a panel of statisticians who found that deaths as a result of the lockdown will likely exceed deaths from Covid-19. The Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni, has publicly broken ranks. Trevor Manuel, the President’s “Investment Envoy” has done so too. 

Support for the lockdown has also evaporated in the country, as millions of families face the anxiety of a collapse in income, loss of jobs, and for many, real hunger.

When the DA said three weeks ago that it is entirely possible to open up much more of the economy safely, it was regarded as heresy. Now, the number of policymakers who are independently coming to the same conclusion grows by the hour.

The president is getting lonelier and lonelier in his rigid devotion to the hard lockdown. Unable to roll out any bigger guns, the government must rely on Musker to mount a defence of his boss.

It is true that there is still much we don’t know about the crisis. Since we have never lived through Covid-19 before, we by definition cannot know how it will turn out.

That’s why it is so important that the president is honest with the country about what data and modelling the government is using to make decisions. Instead, we have had nothing but stonewall secrecy. It has been nearly three weeks since the president spoke to the country. 

During this time, all we have heard is that we may not see the models, we may not see the minutes of NCC meetings, and there is no reporting on the crucial question of how much healthcare capacity has been expanded.

“Trust us,” is the government’s cry, loudly bellowed by Musker. Well, no.

There are things we do know with growing certainty. All the available evidence suggests that the early “Armageddon” predictions for infections and deaths – on which the first lockdown was premised – are turning out to be far too pessimistic.

We also know that no matter how long we stay in lockdown, we can’t stay there forever, and there will still be a big spike in infections as soon as lockdown is lifted. This spike is coming, whether we like it or not. That is why the president himself said that the objective of the lockdown was to buy time for the health services to expand capacity to avoid being overwhelmed. We needed to “flatten the curve” of infections and “raise the line” of healthcare capacity.

Having had seven full weeks of lockdown, in which hospitals have been largely empty, we should now be ready for the coming spike. If we are not, why not? What has actually been achieved in seven weeks? Again, the public is not allowed to know.

While the initial projections of the virus were too pessimistic, early projections of the economic cost of lockdown were too optimistic. We know for sure that the lockdown is destroying the household incomes of millions of families. Hundreds of thousands of businesses will close, many for good. The productive capacity of our economy is being permanently destroyed. There is widespread hunger, and we are for the first time in our country seeing queues of desperate people, kilometres long, waiting for a meagre food parcel.

There is a truly staggering indifference to this suffering shown by those who argue for staying in hard lockdown. It takes a brutal lack of empathy and care to look at what is happening in South Africa today and answer only, “We are the government, we know best.”

We also know that most South Africans simply cannot lock down. Musker actually concedes this point, saying there are many South Africans who “live in shacks in informal settlements, who could not simply cocoon themselves at home”. It is an odd logic this – lockdown is impossible for many, so let’s continue the lockdown. Actually, the government will soon find the truth of this, as more South Africans take their chances with the police and the army, rather than sit at home with no income and no food.

There is, happily, one thing we agree on, when he consigns everyone who disagrees with him to a different reality from his own. It is very clear that Musker does indeed live in a different reality to the rest of the country. In his lofty reality he has the luxury of persisting in hard lockdown while the nation suffers unimaginably. In the reality that South Africa occupies, lockdown is about to end whether he and Ramaphosa like it or not. DM


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