The decision to take South Africa into a hard lockdown on 26 March 2020 due to the Covid-19 global pandemic was the right decision to make by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
It was a blunt tool to use, but it had a clear objective: to buy us time to ready our health system for an unprecedented number of admissions, as had been witnessed in other parts of the world, and as will inevitably arise here.
If the President had not done this, then many lives that could have been saved would have been lost. Saving lives is always the priority.
But this blunt approach, as both the President and Professor Salim Abdool Karim have made clear, was only to buy us time. The virus cannot be stopped, it will continue to spread and many people will be infected around South Africa.
Our task has been to ensure that we “flatten the curve” as much as possible, and that our healthcare system is ready to respond at the peak of the pandemic.
This is what the Western Cape government has been doing, through the readying of additional temporary hospitals, buying necessary stock and recruiting volunteers to assist our healthcare professionals.
At the same time, the impact of the hard lockdown has started to take its toll in our communities.
Our call centre, which was set up to take queries on our food relief programme, went from receiving on average 400 calls a day to 14,000 calls a day. Our residents are hungry and we are facing an unprecedented humanitarian disaster.
We acted quickly to respond through emergency measures, which have seen hundreds of thousands of people receiving food relief in the form of prepared meals, or food parcels, but over a prolonged period, as more and more jobs are lost, it will become unsustainable.
I want to be very clear on this point: a job is not just a nice-to-have. It is for many people the difference between putting food on the table and starving. Job losses cannot simply be dismissed as a necessary outcome for the greater good. Job losses mean malnutrition, starvation, increases in crime and, in the long term, premature death.
And the people who suffer the most are not the middle class. It’s the poor and vulnerable communities in our society that will bear the brunt.
A responsible, caring government must think about these lives too.
Our first initial projections, based on research being conducted by our Department of Economic Development and Tourism, indicate that over 200,000 jobs are going to be lost in the Western Cape alone due to the lockdown and “Alert Level 4” restrictions, even with the gradual lifting of restrictions over time. The situation will be even worse if we stay on Alert Level 4 and businesses are forced to close.
I think it is worth letting this sink in for a moment: one province in South Africa could have as many as 250,000 fewer breadwinners. This will indirectly impact the lives of millions of people, including young children for whom adequate nutrition determines their entire life course.
Does this mean we should just return to normal, pretend we don’t have Covid-19 and risk all the sacrifices we have made in flattening the curve and saving lives?
This is not a zero-sum game. We can care for the sick and save lives in the present and we can do it in a way that will save lives in the future too.
I know we all long to go back to the way things were before the pandemic, but it is not possible. Covid-19 is going to be with us for the rest of the year at least, and until there is a vaccine.
There is a “new normal” in the Western Cape and South Africa, and the sooner we adapt to it, the better equipped we will be to save lives now and in the future too.
So, what does this entail?
We need to work with every part of society, using every resource available to us, to ensure that the way we live, interact with others and do business changes in a way that continues to slow the spread, flatten the curve and save lives.
It also requires a data-led, evidence-based, hyper-targeted approach by our government that moves from a blunt tool to focused response strategies. These strategies must treat businesses and private individuals not as wards of the state, but responsible partners in our fight against the pandemic.
This is the approach adopted by the Western Cape government, and why we believe we need to gradually open more of the economy over time, while simultaneously adopting a ruthlessly efficient, targeted hotspot plan.
This hotspot plan is carefully considered to provide the best response to the risks that each of these areas and their residents face.
We must make it clear though that a move to Level 3 lockdown should not be seen as a return to business as usual. The situation remains serious, and residents will still need to comply with a series of regulations aimed at reducing the spread of this virus. Our call to move to Level 3 is aimed at achieving that fine balance of protecting our most vulnerable from Covid-19 infection and protecting the most economically vulnerable in our society.
To achieve this, we will rely on residents to exercise a greater sense of responsibility – this means staying at home when they are not at work, continuing with hygiene and handwashing protocols, and practising physical distancing, while wearing a clean cloth mask. Those who are vulnerable, such as the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions will still need to practice extreme caution.
The Western Cape government, and our local government partners are working hard to ensure these hotspot plans are effective, but we require the support and the buy-in of each and every individual, business and civil society organisations to help flatten the curve. DM