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Calling for an end to lockdown does not come from a place of privilege

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Ryan Smith is Democratic Alliance federal leader John Steenhuisen’s chief of staff.

Calling for an end to the lockdown does not come from a place of privilege. It comes from those who understand the need for a public health response that is balanced with the need for the protection of South Africa’s vulnerable and increasingly unstable economy.

­­­Many South Africans would have witnessed a rather heated exchange between SABC journalist Flo Letoaba and the federal leader of the Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen on Thursday’s episode of SA Today. The discussion was centred around the DA’s court challenge against some of the senseless lockdown regulations, and the interview elicited strong responses from South Africans pointing out, quite fairly, that the conduct of both parties could have been better in the interests of impartiality and the dissemination of information to the public.

But the takeaway from the interview, or rather what was inferred by its presenter, was that those who vocally oppose the lockdown and call for it to be lifted are speaking from a place of privilege and are only seeking to protect the haves instead of the have-nots. I find this notion particularly bizarre, and indeed ironic, considering that it is, in fact, the privileged in South Africa who are the least affected by the lockdown, and the underprivileged who have everything to lose in the face of its extension. It puzzles me that this is not obvious to many strong defenders of the government’s strategy. It is arguable that the lockdown, in fact, favours the privileged, and let me tell you why:

For a country to be able to lock down in and of itself, is a privilege. A lockdown is not the only response to a coronavirus infection in a country, and we know this because several nations, such as Sweden and South Korea, have opted for different strategies to contain the outbreak. Those who have gone the route of lockdown have done so for one reason: to effectively bolster the public health response and prepare a country for an inevitable spike in infections to come. That is the only reason for lockdown. It is not a strategy to kill the virus in its tracks, and wait for it to magically disappear, it is a government’s self-provided window of opportunity to plan pragmatically for the virus’s inescapable spread.

But lockdowns come at a price. For a country to halt economic activity for three to four weeks has disastrous implications for small businesses, sole proprietors, and the millions of labourers reliant on income in the form of wages or remuneration for casual work. 

Even in developed countries with highly resilient economies, such as the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy, the economic repercussions of lockdown are immense. UK economist Ruth Gregory has estimated that the UK’s economy may shrink by as much as one-fifth in 2020 alone as a result of extended lockdowns. If that is what an economy like the UK will sustain, one can only imagine the carnage that will be unleashed on the South African economy in the face of nearly eight weeks of lockdown. Which brings me to my next question: can South Africa’s economy sustain a lockdown and was it the right response in our context?

The answer to this is multifaceted, and this is where those purporting the idea of privilege are woefully misled. In the South African context, a lockdown can be an effective coronavirus response, provided that it is used effectively and that its duration is balanced carefully with its economic consequence. We know that South Africa’s public health sector needs a lockdown to give it time to adequately prepare for the outbreak, we know that the economy will take a knock as a result of a lockdown, and we know that South Africa is uniquely vulnerable to this sort of approach. Therefore, the decision to lock down is a calculated risk in the short term which is necessary to protect South Africa from the coronavirus in the long term. But we also know that a lockdown longer than three to four weeks eventually overshadows the risk of the coronavirus and creates a far greater threat to life altogether. It is in this grave phenomenon that South Africa currently finds itself.

This is where the question of privilege needs urgent clarification. Under a lockdown, it is a privilege to have a stable job in the formal sector where working from home is an option. It is a privilege to not have to worry about debit orders bouncing. It is a privilege to have money in the bank and food in your fridge. And it is a privilege to be quarantined in the comfort of your suburban home, assured that you will continue to receive an income, have three meals a day, and be mildly inconvenienced by the lockdown.

For the 10 million South Africans who were unemployed and destitute before the lockdown, and for the three to seven million who stand to lose their jobs because of it, the lockdown is akin to a death sentence. It is these South Africans: the small-business owners, the casual labourers, the millions of child-headed households, the single parents, and the unemployed youth that the DA speaks for and fights for. Anyone who says otherwise, or is unable to see the humanitarian crisis this lockdown is creating for South Africa’s underprivileged is merely blinded by their own prejudice or so wound up in their own wokeness that they have lost all semblance of common sense. As was mentioned above, to lock down is a privilege, but to extend a lockdown in the face of economic catastrophe for the large majority of South Africans is the height of privilege altogether.

There are many threats to lives in any country and the coronavirus is just one of them. We should not forget the unique socioeconomic circumstances in which we address this pandemic, and we should not allow populist narratives to stifle reason, rationality, and scientific advice in our response.

Calling for an end to the lockdown does not come from a place of privilege. It comes from those who understand the need for a public health response which is balanced with the need for the protection of South Africa’s vulnerable and increasingly unstable economy. There is no use in emerging from this pandemic coronavirus-free if South Africa as we know it has collapsed around us in the process. Calling those who raise this concern privileged or acting in the interests of the haves, merely demonstrates just how dangerous the woke narrative is as it becomes more preoccupied with the person as opposed to the idea.

I trust that those shouting privilege will take the time to mull this over before speaking on behalf of those they refuse to hear and understand. DM

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