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Covid-19 lockdown restrictions – where is the balance?


Jordan Griffiths is the acting chief of staff in the mayor’s office in Tshwane; he writes in his personal capacity.

South Africa’s continued ability to manage the spread of Covid-19 is going to hinge on the government’s capacity to demonstrate that it can create a safe economic environment to do business and not merely shut down whole sectors of the economy.

As South Africa combats Covid-19, the country’s response to managing the virus will come under increasing scrutiny. Already the calls are growing for an end to the lockdown while the government itself is standing by the rules it has implemented during lockdown.

The calls to end the lockdown are primarily driven by two factors. The first is frustration at the irrationality through which the government has approved various aspects of the lockdown. The second relates to increasing scepticism at the effectiveness that the lockdown is having at combating the spread of the virus. With there being general consensus that South Africa is still coming up on its peak in terms of infections it is likely there is going to be strong pushback against the lockdown in its current form.

The government lost the public faith in lockdown when it made decisions that unnecessarily restricted people’s freedom, or in some cases totally removed their freedom. The first example of this was the ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes. A ban is fundamentally a poor way to make policy. Bans largely never work and lead to the emergence of black markets where the goods are still sold, just at a higher premium. A study published by UCT, for example, has shown that 90% of smokers are still accessing cigarettes. Further to that, they are also exposing themselves unnecessarily to risks in doing it.

Assuming the government intends to restrict the sale of goods, banning them is not going to be effective. In the case of alcohol and cigarettes, excise taxes play a key role in shaping their consumption. Had genuine thought been applied to this approach it would have been far wiser to introduce a temporary tax on the sale of these goods rather than outright banning them.

Regulations must consider the freedoms of individuals and freedom is closely linked to choice. The government should ultimately create an environment that enables choice. When a ban is introduced it totally removes the choice from individuals and erodes public trust.

The same is true in regulating the sale of particular goods as has been done by the Department of Trade and Industry. An environment is being created where consumers are walking into major retail outlets and they are being met with whole areas that have been cordoned off because those goods are no longer for sale.

The irrationality of this is further highlighted by the fact that the minister of trade and industry has since walked back his ban on the sale of certain goods on e-commerce sites. Thus, the current environment is one where you can buy anything you need at e-commerce outlets but only particular items at retail outlets, again further fuelling public discontent at the lack of logic behind these decisions.

At the core of the issue is a failure to create policy from a core set of guiding principles through which the country can successfully combat the spread of Covid-19. In the months to come, this will be critically important. In order to do this, government regulations must operate from two starting points that should dictate policy going forward. This involves creating an environment where you enable choice while ensuring people’s safety. It is about ensuring that you can facilitate interactions in the economy but promote the highest levels of safety. Examples of this exist globally where strict physical distancing is enforced in businesses, mask usage is widely adopted, and strict hygiene is adhered to, all of which is supported by a robust health service.

South Africa’s ability to manage the spread of Covid-19 is going to hinge on the government’s capacity to demonstrate that it can create a safe economic environment to do business and not merely shut down whole sectors of the economy.

Perhaps this sounds obvious, but without clarity of thought in such a matter the lines become blurred or one principle dominates the other. In South Africa’s case, the prioritisation of control under the façade of safety has totally overwhelmed thinking and has led to the government arbitrarily banning or restricting people’s choices without any rational basis.

When the focus on control dominates, it no longer becomes about safety but switches to securitisation. Suddenly there are large-scale troop deployments, curfews, designated exercise hours, restricted goods on sale in shops and the unnecessary closure of key industries. In authoritarian regimes, safety can easily be used to dominate and restrict all choice and freedom to the extreme by forcefully confining people to their homes. In democratic societies this same approach will alienate large segments of the public and reduce public support.

South Africa’s ability to manage the spread of Covid-19 is going to hinge on the government’s capacity to demonstrate that it can create a safe economic environment to do business and not merely shut down whole sectors of the economy. A most public example of this failure has happened in California after Elon Musk openly defied the local government’s orders and indicated that the Tesla plant would be reopened after growing frustrated at the pace through which local officials were engaging with the company’s safety plan.

After more than two months of an incredibly strict and hard lockdown, the South African government must focus on ensuring it can open up whole segments of the economy while ensuring that the necessary mechanisms are in place to ensure it can be done in a manner that is safe. In order to do this successfully the guiding principles to support the process must revolve around freedom and enabling choice.

The goal is to create an environment where individual freedom and safety are treated equally so as to facilitate the restarting of the country’s economy. Unnecessary and irrational restrictions will not only have severe economic costs but they are likely to result in open civic disobedience where citizens merely begin ignoring the state in its entirety. The policy focus must shift towards understanding that public support is dependent on safeguarding the freedoms of citizens. DM


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