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Philosophical underpinnings of Western Cape government’s response to Covid-19 set it apart


Mireille Wenger is the MEC for Finance and Economic Development in the Western Cape.

While the Western Cape government is generally recognised for having a solid and successful response to the pandemic, we need to consider its philosophical foundation if we are to fully appreciate its record. In turn, this leads us to ask why the Western Cape, on most metrics, seems able to deliver better results than its peers?

The Covid years have put governments across the world under pressure to prevent, contain and manage the coronavirus pandemic. Most, if not all, governments share the aim of protecting their citizens from harm, and saving lives.

Why then have responses been so varied – from almost no action and denialism to autocratic, heavy-handed, enforced implementation? The Covid-19 crisis has resulted in some of the most extraordinary measures by governments the world over in attempts to stop its spread. Military deployment, abrupt border closures, unprecedented stretching of healthcare systems, mass isolation and economic standstills.

This is the politics of policy: the influence of the philosophical underpinnings of a governing party in determining its programme of action in a time of crisis.

While the Western Cape government is generally recognised for having a solid and successful response to the pandemic, we need to consider its philosophical foundation if we are to fully appreciate its record. In turn, this leads us to ask why the Western Cape, on most metrics, from the lowest unemployment rate to the top audit outcomes, seems able to deliver better results than its peers?

In addition, how did this same bureaucracy deliver such vastly different results under different political administrations? In the ANC’s last year in government in the Western Cape (2008/09), not one of the 13 government departments received a clean audit. By contrast, the same administration under the DA achieves much better audit outcomes. Last year (2019/20), 70% of departments and entities received clean audits, compared with the next best province, Gauteng, which achieved just 30% clean audits.

And now, with the identification of a new Covid variant, Omicron, we saw the province’s premier, Alan Winde, become the first and only (at the time of writing) to take residents into his confidence. Just a day after the initial announcement of Omicron, the premier and provincial health officials briefed the public on the province’s readiness to save lives, even with a looming fourth wave. 

Our provincial legislature’s Covid-19 Ad Hoc Committee will also this week once again have MPLs put the executive under the spotlight – once more, the only legislative body in the country with a committee dedicated purely to oversight of government’s response to the pandemic.

So what is it, then, that has set the Western Cape apart from counterparts across the country? More to the point: why has this government’s pandemic response been so markedly different from the rest?

The answer may lie in the political philosophy that underlies the administration’s programme of action. The Democratic Alliance’s vision for South Africa is that of an “Open Opportunity Society for All”, a society in which every person has the right, the space and the capability to be themselves, develop themselves and pursue their own ends as an equal and fully legitimate citizen of South Africa. Our vision is grounded in the idea that every human being has a right to dignity, and it is human dignity that is the foundational concept that informs our values and vision. 

With dignity as the foundation, the pillars of principle that rest on it include: fairness, diversity, openness, transparency, freedom of information, redress, accountability, resilience and integrity – all of which can be seen in action in the Western Cape’s Covid-19 response.

The province has been open, transparent and trusting of residents to make responsible choices for themselves. Premier Winde has repeatedly taken the public into his confidence – on both the good and the bad – as we planned for the worst and hoped for the best. The premier has throughout the pandemic held a weekly live-streamed and accessible-to-all digicon with health experts to keep us all up to date, as well as regular radio spots giving residents the opportunity to call in and ask questions.

A sophisticated award-winning data system was developed to track infections and other key metrics for a data-led strategy to fight Covid-19. This is on an open-to-the-public dashboard to keep our citizens informed regularly, reliably and transparently.

Three state-of-the-art Covid-19 field hospitals were built, which used digital patient records systems, to ensure that all residents – especially those unable to afford medical care – were able to receive the best-quality healthcare available.

The largest Covid field hospital in Africa, housed at the CTICC, was built in just six weeks, while the Brackengate Hospital of Hope in its year of existence has saved over 3,000 lives. 

To protect vulnerable people during the pandemic, over two million medicine parcels have been delivered directly to people’s homes. The province’s management of Covid with co-morbidities has had remarkable success. The diabetic project run by the Western Cape Department of Health managed to lower the mortality rate among diabetics from 28% to just 4.5%.

The ethos of “Better Together – for you” is a promise of partnership between government, the individual and society. An administration governs with the consent of its citizens and this idea of “Better Together” only works if a government is open and accountable, as part of the social contract. Beyond consent, this form of partnership has the ability to mobilise the resources, creativity and energy of society in pursuit of common goals. The DA believes that where good government and individuals meet, it is possible to create an open society offering opportunities for all.

The provincial government, in conjunction with the City of Cape Town and other partners, has developed systems to monitor localised Covid outbreaks through screening wastewater. In partnership with taxi associations, the Transport Department’s “Red Dot” system safely transported healthcare workers in over 70,000 passenger trips over 1.1 million passenger kilometres, and completed more than 10,000 passenger trips for those going to and from quarantine and isolation facilities in the earlier days of the pandemic, and has been converted into a taxi service with a fleet of 135 minibuses to transport residents to vaccine sites – a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach mobilised to achieve this.

Both civil society and the state have a role to play in creating opportunity for citizens, while individuals have a responsibility to make use of the opportunities on offer. Covid vaccines are a good example of this. 

At present, the Western Cape is the province with the highest percentage of the adult population vaccinated, at 49.4%. Department officials, together with community health workers, are actively seeking to engage with residents in all sectors to get vaccinated; for example the homeless, social grant payout sites, shopping malls or partnering with interest groups such as the Cape Minstrels.

This shows that the philosophical underpinnings of government action in response to a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, where governments are guided by broadly liberal ideological values, have been able to live out these principles and exemplify them in new, innovative ways, working to expand openness, opportunity and dignity for residents.

Those void of ideological, value-driven leadership have been left paralysed, and those led by autocratic, heavy-handed regimes have taken full advantage of unfettered powers to limit civil liberties and close opportunity. DM

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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