I will begin with my conclusion. There are no good options. Only bad ones, and the least bad will still cost lives, destroy businesses and take us years to recover from.
Once the Covid-19 crisis ends, South Africa will be much worse off than when it began, which was in the middle of a recession, on target to have a deficit of 6.8% for the 2021 financial year, and with an unemployment rate of 29.1%.
The national lockdown, which is meant to mitigate the spread of the deadly virus, has brought an already-stuttering economy to its knees, with the government now thinking that GDP will shrink 6.4% for the year. Business for SA says it could be worse, forecasting that GDP could collapse by up to 17% and see up to four million jobs lost.
Already we have seen sizeable casualties with businesses like retail group Edcon and airline Comair going into business rescue.
The worst is still coming
Although the lockdown has bought the state some time to prepare itself for the pandemic, President Cyril Ramaphosa warned on Tuesday that some tough days still lie ahead. “We’re informed that the worst is still coming,” he said. “We are going to get more people who are infected.”
So far, 8 232 people have been infected and 161 people have passed away in SA. Globally, the number of deaths stands at 265 000.
These figures don’t tell the whole story. The number of Covid-19 related fatalities could end up being far higher because they were not recorded as such, or because people could not get proper treatment for an unrelated ailment. There is already some evidence of this, with the New York Times reporting that the number of deaths in some US states was up to six times higher between March 15 and May 2 compared with the same period last year.
Time to be specific
SA is dealing with an existential crisis, but how long it will be in crisis mode depends on how well it implements its coronavirus risk-adjusted strategy. This basically comes down to how much risk can be tolerated against government’s ability to manage it.
The problem is that when it comes to communicating its risk-adjusted strategy, the government speaks in generalities and not the specifics.
The state could, for instance, do better in defining the scale of the risk as an expression of where we are in tackling the outbreak.
For example, it could release the number of daily tests that are being carried out in specific provinces (Western Cape is already doing so), towns and neighbourhoods – not just the national numbers. It should also provide more information on the extent of its contact-tracing efforts, both at the local and national level.
What I would also like to see is a heat map showing specific hot spots.
This way people living in affected areas will know they have to take extra precautions.
How many beds?
On the government’s ability to manage the pandemic, I want to know what resources have been activated since the crisis began. How many hospital beds are now available? What is the total number of seriously ill people we are able to deal with? What areas are we falling short in?
I also want to know if the alert level will be the same across the country, or if some flexibility will be shown in allowing more economic activity in provinces, regions and towns that have demonstrated they can properly manage the crisis.
Basically, I want a dashboard of measurables showing more than the number of new cases, deaths and recoveries. I want something showing how close we are to getting a handle on things.
Right now, we just have some vague deadline of maybe going into Level 3 in October. That’s not a good enough answer for people who are losing their jobs, running out of money and going hungry.
If people understand what it will take for the lockdown to end, they will continue to support it. But if they are kept in the dark, it will raise concerns on how long their goodwill will last.
The shifting goalpost of the lockdown has also not helped. When it first started, we were told it would be for three weeks, then it was extended to five. After that, we were told we still can’t leave our homes and that most of us can’t go back to work yet.
For the most part, South Africans have shown patience and resolve in dealing with the crisis. This was especially true of the thousands who stood in a four-kilometre queue waiting for food parcels near Pretoria last week.
The state must respect this kind of resoluteness on the part of the destitute by sharing how far we still have to go.
As I said before, there are no good options. Only bad ones, and the least bad of these will still cost lives, destroy businesses and take us years to recover from.
It’s clear that the country will be struggling for a while.
But providing clarity on what it will take to allow us to leave our homes will provide some certainty in a difficult time.