What was feared has come to pass. The nation is going to be locked down as a way to counter the spread of the deadly and contagious Covid-19 virus.
From 12am on Friday members of the country’s 14.5 million households will be prohibited from leaving their homes for 21 days and non-essential businesses shut down.
For those who are counting, those 21 days work out to 504 hours, 30 240 minutes and 1 814 400 seconds.
During this time, an already-struggling economy will come to a standstill, as even before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced steps on Monday night to confine South Africans to their homes, GDP had shrunk 1.4% for the quarter to end December. This negative trend is expected to continue.
For once, however, the economy has taken a back seat, as Ramaphosa brings the country to a standstill in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
He has reason to act rapidly.
Looking at how Italy and China have struggled to cope with the virus, the chances are good that it would have overrun South Africa’s health service if drastic steps were not taken.
It does not help that SA’s socio-economic footing is far from sound. About half of the country’s population (35.2 million) live in poverty, according to the Statistics SA definition of poverty which is people living on under R1 227 a month.
With so many people earning so little, a healthy diet becomes an issue, as it affects the body’s ability to fend off illness. This can be seen in malnutrition resulting in 1.7 million children under the age of five being short for their age; 3.7 million people having anaemia (a deficiency in the number or quality of red blood cells); and around 760 000 children suffering from obesity, according to the United Nations.
Aside from the implications of a poor diet, the impact of Covid-19 on those with compromised immune systems – like the 7.7 million living with HIV/Aids and as many as 400 000 people who have contracted tuberculosis – could be devastating.
When measured against the potential for catastrophe, Ramaphosa’s decision to lock down the country was a hard and also oddly easy one.
De facto house arrest
It is hard because putting 58 million people under de facto house arrest is not an easy decision for a man looking to be elected for a second term as president.
It’s easy, however, because he has no choice. If he allowed the virus to spread, it would certainly have led to the deaths of thousands if not tens of thousands of people.
SA has been lucky. Even though just over 500 people (that we know of) have contracted the virus so far, no one has passed away from it.
But without this enforced hibernation, it’s almost certain that the country’s luck will not hold. It would only be a matter of time before the virus makes its way from a wedding in the winelands to some destitute community.
What has to be done, has to be done.
So it’s now up to the public sector and elements of private medical service to save us. The country’s 193 000 police officers and 74 000 soldiers will enforce the lockdown. Our 46 000 doctors, 285 000 nurses and countless emergency medical services personal and lab technicians will treat the sick and counsel their loved ones.
All of them will be working the hardest three weeks of their lives to ensure that we all go to back to what amounts to ‘normal’ in SA.