The divide between those who prefer the lockdown to continue on the one hand and those calling for its end on the other widens by the day, with little meeting of the minds. Typical of South Africa, the deliberations are not without their rancour, party-political, class and racial divisions. In the process, nuance, context and even the facts become fair game in a process widely seen as irreconcilable – but essentially false – dichotomies of health versus the economy which are latterly also being projected as a reflection of a ruling party intent on self and collective national immolation. And...
The divide between those who prefer the lockdown to continue on the one hand and those calling for its end on the other widens by the day, with little meeting of the minds. Typical of South Africa, the deliberations are not without their rancour, party-political, class and racial divisions.

In the process, nuance, context and even the facts become fair game in a process widely seen as irreconcilable – but essentially false – dichotomies of health versus the economy which are latterly also being projected as a reflection of a ruling party intent on self and collective national immolation.

And ours is, after all, an age of social media where much of what is put out in the public domain is contingent upon the circumspection of the fingers behind the smart device.

Yet, the response to the Covid-19 outbreak is not simply a health/medical science versus the economy affair. The socio-economic effects of the disease as with the lockdown also require a systematic appreciation and social-science inspired response for we are dealing with a phenomenon that affects and cuts across many areas of social life.

For example, some businesses will not be able to re-open whenever the lockdown ends, both in South Africa and elsewhere. And judging from the responses to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga's announcement of the partial reopening of schools this week, some parents seem to have misgivings about sending their children back to school so soon.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out the impact that this will exert on the school system in January next year, especially for the more than one million Grade 1 entrants.

These and other factors are not unimportant social and scientific facts. In the light of the cross-cutting situation at hand, it would appear that the best approach is multi-disciplinary; one that considers natural science as it does the wider social implications of Covid-19.

The challenge with the lockdown in particular is that whereas it is needed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, it was from the beginning, certainly insofar as the South African economy is concerned, unaffordable.

Our economy was already in the doldrums before it was declared and no sooner had it been announced than Moody's downgrade our sovereign rating from "Baa3" to "Ba1" – the so-called "junk status".

In response to the virus outbreak, the government unveiled a R500 billion relief package. R350 billion of it is borrowed money while R150 billion is from budget reprioritisation. A presentation by the National Treasury to the joint standing and select parliamentary committees on finance and appropriations on 30 April put the predicament in stark terms.

It read: "An out-of-control pandemic would hit the economy extremely hard ['health shock']. "[The] early lockdown was the right decision but [it] has serious domestic economic implications ['supply shock'] and mitigating measures are urgently required [in the] short term, medium term and long term. The collapse in the global economy ['demand shock'] will reduce foreign income – exports and tourism are particularly affected. At the same time, global financial markets have frozen ['financial market shock'] and there has been record outflows from South Africa and peer countries."

So, much as it is imperative to curtail the virus' spread, including by way of a lockdown, there are some unavoidable socio-economic considerations to ponder over.

How long can the lockdown hold, at what health, social, political and economic costs? What should a post-Covid-19 South Africa and world look like?

A cursory glance at Covid-19 reflections throughout the world suggests that public policy practitioners, the academy and the chattering classes more generally are grappling with these and other questions.

Viewed from this vantage point and shorn of polemics and the subjectivities of – short term – party politics, it is possible to see both concerns for public health and calls to restart the economy as mutually complimentary rather than inherently conflictual opposites.

The dichotomous outlook inspires false choices that attach with dangerous public policy consequences which may not necessarily be apparent in the immediate and carry a harvest of thorns in the medium to long term.

It is useful to see current ructions over the country's Covid-19 responses as immanent to a fragile economy, the fear inherent in disease outbreaks more generally as well as a racially and politically divided country.

Three minor cautions to political leaders across the board in this regard.

Firstly, there is hardly a need for political parties to brand masks, sanitisers and other material in their colours and symbols. Let us all avoid politicising the disease.

Secondly, their sacrosanct place in our constitutional order notwithstanding, the courts may not necessarily be the best fora to resolve public policy disputes, especially in times of crisis.

This is not only for the injurious potential of one arm of government trespassing into the sphere of another. No determination by any authority can gain traction if it is not widely appreciated and supported by society, something politicians ideally are better situated to do than judicial officers.

Thirdly, in the South African context as one suspects would be the case elsewhere, invectives and hyperbole are least likely to facilitate desired outcomes for any proponent.

Slow as it might be, the government thankfully appears to be moving towards the relaxation of the lockdown.

And it certainly would have helped a great deal had the government subjected all the regulations to a thorough examination in order to bring them into speed with the concerns of all social strata following President Cyril Ramaphosa's last address to the nation on 13 May.

This does not appear to be the case or happening fast enough. We are still hamstrung by measures imposed during level 5 of the lockdown which, at least on the face of it, bear no relevance to minimising the spread of the virus.

Crucially, our country needs to be alive to the dangers of a false choice of health/medical science versus the economy.

Each decision the country takes will be worthy only to the extent that it meets the criterion eloquently expressed by the late Angolan president, Agostinho Neto: "The most important thing is to solve the problems of the people."

Virus response is not simply a health vs economy affair


Mukoni Ratshitanga.

  1. Ratshitanga is a consultant, social and political commentator.

For more news your way, download The Citizen's app for iOS and Android.