President Cyril Ramaphosa – in his path toward to lockdown Level 3 address about announcements that would be announced when central command was ready to announce them – acknowledged some mistakes and promised that the government would rectify them.
This invoked the fear of management guru Russell Ackoff’s F-Laws: correcting mistakes while pursuing the wrong strategy takes one further away from one’s goal.
Following a build-up in criticism that the severe lockdown was causing havoc in the economy, with a GDP contraction in excess of 12% increasingly probable, Ramaphosa announced that the whole country would move to lockdown Level 3 on June 1.
Voila! The economy could reboot. Progress?
Déjà vu, rather.
State control is crushing our freedoms
Instead of opening the economy, the python of state control continues to squeeze the life out of our constitutional freedoms.
Jogging on a beach or a family drive in a vehicle through the Kruger National Park is still considered a far greater danger in spreading the virus than a church gathering of 50 people.
The management of the Covid-19 strategy has deteriorated to the level of a farcical comedy, comprising announcements by the president that are then (partially) revoked by members of cabinet.
Add the illogical utterances by police and transport ministers Bheki Cele and Fikile Mbalula, the promotion of syndicate smuggling through prohibition measures on alcohol and cigarettes, and the prescriptive diktats by trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel on what kind of clothing may be manufactured by textile factories and displayed and sold by stores, and it looks like another performance of the circus of incompetence.
True to form, the new show revealed that the ban on cigarettes remains a key strategy in protecting the citizens from the voracious Covid-19 beast.
Should the South African Police Service (Saps) discover cigarettes at a roadblock – and Cele promised many of these – there will be problems. “If it is illegal to sell cigarettes, it is illegal to buy them” he stated, adding that Saps has the right to search for invoices as proof of purchase.
And while domestic air travel for business purposes appears to be allowed, the hotels or guest houses where business travellers would overnight remain closed.
Is Covid-19 this government’s Vietnam?
No reshuffling of cabinet by the president; rather a confirmation of the collective nature of the decisions and more calls on the citizenry to obey the lockdown regulations and to persevere in unity so that lives can be protected.
It reminds one of the US leadership that had called for more commitment and perseverance while muddling on with the Vietnam war, which they knew they could not win.
Is the government treating citizens like mushrooms on ‘the Covid-19 pandemic’ just as the US government misled the American population about that war?
Persisting with a policy and strategy of a nationwide lockdown (alternatives were available at the outset) amid growing evidence that the assumptions on which they were based are, if not wrong, at least grossly off the mark, would amount to folly of disastrous proportions.
Mid-February saw Covid-19 deaths become the central theme internationally. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11. Imperial College said its modelling indicated that 500 000 people in the UK and 2.2 million in the US would die if the governments did not take drastic action.
On March 23, the UK declared a national lockdown.
South Africa followed suit the next day, indicating that up to 350 000 Covid-19 deaths could be on the cards and that all should be done to “flatten the curve” so the health system could be prepared for what was to come.
Sweden never went into lockdown, while Germany, Austria and Switzerland introduced far more nuanced disease contagion measures, focusing on large events and businesses operating in confined spaces while largely maintaining freedom of movement and allowing citizens to exercise. Other countries followed a geographic differentiation between areas with high and low infection rates.
Fear more ‘improvements’
After five weeks of a hard lockdown, with implementation the UN described as a “toxic lockdown culture”, the SA government ‘improved’ the lockdown by introducing a curfew and deciding when citizens can exercise and which T-shirts can be bought or not.
It is improvements like this that invoke fear when the president promises to rectify the mistakes they have made: “Some of the actions we have taken have been unclear, some have been contradictory and some have been poorly explained…. Where we have disappointed, we will make amends. Where we make mistakes, we will continue to correct them.”
As Ackoff said when formulating his famous ‘F-Laws’: “Improving your performance while pursuing the wrong strategy will take you further from success.”
Let’s revisit the original intent of the lockdown: the argument was to delay the spread of the virus to ‘flatten the curve’, thereby enabling the health sector (public and private) to prepare beds and equipment for when the disease would strike in all its might.
Is government shy of revealing its models?
There was never any indication – except for the president’s instruction to members of the South African National Defence Force to “kill the virus” – that the disease could be prevented. It was about a delay strategy aimed at buying time to be better prepared for the worst.
To date we know that some 30 000 additional beds for quarantine purposes have been prepared, but we have had no detail about the required staffing and other support systems for operationalising these facilities; nor have we had any indication of how many additional ICU beds and ventilators have been prepared, or where.
That data remains outside the public eye. And the argument in persisting with the lockdown, even in lighter phases, has changed from buying time to prepare the health system for “saving lives”.
While the original modelling of the Imperial College on which the Covid-19 lockdown was based, at least in the UK, unravelled under the scrutiny of review experts, the SA government continues to keep its own assumptions and modelling about the spread of the disease away from scrutiny.
Our government hasn’t responded to the Panda (Pandemic Data and Analytics) Report by actuarial experts Nick Hudson and Peter Castleden, which found that the impact of the lockdown would be much worse than the health impact of the virus itself.
In addition, apart from repeated comments about the damage to the economy, the briefing by National Treasury to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) has been the only indication of modelling the economic impact of lockdown.
While the cost to the stalled economy increases daily and the rate of enterprise deaths curves upwards, it is important to revisit a few aspects of Covid-19 and the government’s strategy around it.
Covid-19 punches way below its projected morbidity rate
The lethality impact of Covid-19 is at this stage about 20 times lower than originally assumed by the WHO.
Worldometer data of the 46 countries that on May 17 each had more than 10 000 Covid-19 cases indicates a fatality rate of 0.00553% of the population. These countries with a combined population of [5.665 billion] accounted then for 94% of the world’s Covid-19 infections and 97% of the Covid-19 related deaths.
This percentage will definitely increase when the peak is expected from end June to early August, but it has long been evident that the wolf-crying figure of 350 000 appears to be way out. Government now operates with a figure of 43 000, which would still be more than double the current global ratio.
The virus is not as lethal as originally projected, and this has been in the public eye for at least nine weeks.
The Imperial College model has been criticised from the second day of its release.
In SA, heart disease and murderers are more dangerous than Covid-19
Expressed as the number of deaths per 10 000 of the population, Covid-19 is also far less lethal than heart disease, tuberculosis (TB) and the threat of murder.
Source: Worldometer (May 24), Media Hack (May 26)* Eosa projections
Given the updated picture that emerges and which indicate a very different picture from the initial Imperial College model as well as the WHO estimates, the question should be asked whether a hard lockdown was really required, and if so, whether it was necessary to stretch it out so long as the government is doing?
If Covid-19 was a person, it would have one leg in the old age home and the other in ICU
At the outset, the warnings came out that Covid-19 is lethal for persons of all age groups.
While data capturing Covid-19 infections and deaths in age groups is surprisingly difficult to obtain, where the information is available, it is clear that the fatality rate is well spread with the lowest percentages of infections below 20 years.
But when looking at fatalities, the age groups below 20 hardly appear on the screen and it is the 70 years and older where the vast majority of deaths occur.
In a situation like coping with Covid-19, one has to assess the vulnerability of different categories of the population. The Media Hack figure of Covid-19 deaths as at May 26 looks frightening, with the bulge in the age groups 40-90.
At first glance, it appears as if the population in the age group 40-49 is somewhat more vulnerable than those aged 80-89. However, this is a classic example of statistics as a bikini: they often conceal more than they reveal.
When expressing the Media Hack fatality data in conjunction with those of other countries as a percentage of the number of the population in the respective age groups, it is clear that those in the higher age brackets are far more vulnerable than those aged 40-49.
In fact, people aged 70 and older are 8.5 times more likely to die with Covid-19 than those aged 20-69.
With a later onset of Covid-19 infections, South Africa is barely visible in the 70-89 age group and still lags way behind the other countries in the 90+ age group. Sweden, with no lockdown, fares much better England and Wales with their long and hard lockdown.
The government should come clean on why it had decided not to take measures to protect the 70 years and older population, rather than closing down the educational system and the economy.
Was it motivated by the struggle conviction that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’, which also underpins Patel’s long objection to allowing e-commerce?
In fact, the closure of schools and businesses (after the initial three-week lockdown to prepare for the coming spike) was unnecessary, provided that they would apply hygiene and social distancing protocols.
Denmark opened its schools with double shifts and even alfresco tuition. The World Bank has pointed out that the closure of schools and the resultant impact on education will contribute to higher inequality.
In England, Covid-19 is not on the podium as a killer in own right.
Data from the UK Office for National Statistics is much clearer, as seen in the next figure. By far the highest rate of fatalities occur in the 90+ age group. In addition, Covid-19 is not the main instigator of deaths among Covid-19-related fatalities. On its own, it only came in in fifth place at 9.6%, missing the podium places against dementia and Alzheimer disease (20.4%), ischaemic heart diseases (10.8%), influenza/pneumonia (10.3%) and chronic lower respiratory diseases (10.2%). This is based on all Covid-19-related deaths in England and Wales in March and April.
South Africa has to date not differentiated between Covid-19 and other causes for the fatalities involving the virus.
The England and Wales data indicates that strategies to protect the really vulnerable in the 70+ age group would even have enabled those older than 70 without such serious conditions to still live their lives to the full.
Norway admits: lockdown wasn’t necessary and hurt learners
In an interview with The Spectator, the director of the Norwegian Health Authority (FHI) admitted that it was the wrong decision to lock down. It recently published a report concluding that the virus was never spreading as fast as had been feared and “was already on the way out when lockdown was ordered”.
Camilla Stoltenberg of the FHI reckons the academic foundation for arguing for a lockdown was simply not solid enough.
It is important to admit this because, should infection levels rise again – or a second wave hit in winter – one needs to be brutally honest about whether the lockdown proved effective.
The Norwegian statistics agency also found that every week learners are not in school weakens their life chances as well as their earning potential.
Harming the economy while alternatives are available
It is clear that reasonable alternative strategies were available from the beginning – from no lockdown to geographic differentiation and so on – and that the scary wolf-crying of Imperial College was countered by several other epidemiologists.
Why did the government persist with one of the hardest lockdowns in the world, even introducing a curfew?
It appears that fear-mongering scenarios based on suspect modelling influenced their decisions and that the economy was dealt a damaging blow by adhering to a strategy that cannot prevent a far-less-deadly virus than originally contemplated.
Is the government persisting in making all South Africans poorer with a strategy that had reached its sell-by date after 21 days – simply to save face?
Is the government running up debt, culling its own stream of tax income, burdening those of working age as well as the young and the unborn – for a virus that, in the main, reaps among those aged 70 and older who have other severe health impediments?
Barbara Tuchman, two-times winner of the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction, considered the US policy of war in Vietnam one of the ultimate manifestations of folly. Year after year, despite a growing library of reports by special advisors and fact-finding missions that had indicated America could not win the war, the US government continued to pour more and more resources into seeking advice from advisors who would support its strategy. Well aware of the likely futility of doggedly pursuing their objectives, they sacrificed 58 000 American lives (with about 200 000 Vietnamese) and devoted $1 trillion (today’s values) to the war effort, running up debts that future generations had to burden.
For years they slogged on, hoping on an outcome that would not boil down to them losing face.
Lockdown arrests vs state capture arrests
Is this the situation with the Ramaphosa government?
Will it continue to ignore the cloud of witnesses? It cannot be unaware of the data and evidence that has been around from the beginning, nor of the unfolding picture that has become clearer week after week while it prolongs the lockdown.
But then, the president has previously been “surprised” and supposedly “unaware” on many occasions, including state capture, which has to date seen almost a quarter million fewer arrests than the breach of the disaster regulations …
(Johannes Wessels is not far from turning 70.)
Johannes Wessels is director of the Enterprise Observatory of SA (Eosa) and Mike Schüssler is chief economist at economists.co.za.
This article was first published on the Eosa website here.