SA’s lockdown: a great start, but then a misreading of how society works

Lockdown rules started with high legitimacy. But it has been eroded and has now dissolved.
The ban on the sale of alcohol has been partially lifted, but tobacco remains prohibited. Roger Sedres/Gallo Images via Getty Images

South Africa’s government is proud that its response to Covid-19 relies on science. It might be prouder if it was also guided by knowledge of how society works.

When South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown began on 27 March, opposition from some quarters was inevitable. What was not expected was that the most vehement resistance would be aimed at a ban on selling tobacco products. Only around 1 in 5 South Africans smoke and previous government limits on smoking were not controversial.

The ban generated such heat because, when the government began relaxing the lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that tobacco sales would be allowed. Then, at the apparent prompting of the minister responsible for lockdown rules, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the decision was reversed; the ban is still in force.

Dlamini-Zuma has an unfortunate tendency to lecture rather than persuade and her role seems to have turned muttered resentment among some into loud anger, directed not only at the tobacco ban but the entire lockdown. And, since the loudest opposition has come from white suburbanites, it has revived the familiar conservative argument that a “nanny state” is telling citizens that it knows more about what is good for them than they do.

This complaint says more about the prejudices of those who make it than reality.

All governments restrict citizens to protect their health and safety: this is why we have traffic lights. And all democracies allow governments to restrict freedoms to protect citizens in an emergency – by, for example, cordoning off areas hit by fire and flood.

The “nanny state” argument expresses a belief that some of us should not be told what to do by those they consider their inferiors.

But this does not mean health measures will be obeyed. It is here that knowledge of society is important.

Erosion of legitimacy

Addictive substances harm health. But knowledge of how humans act in society tells us that, precisely because they are addictive. They can be regulated but banning them never works since addicts find other ways to feed their addiction.

Besides the oft-quoted failure of American prohibition, when white governments in South Africa banned black people from consuming “European liquor”, this created shebeens (speakeasies) which remain a feature.

South Africa’s bans on cigarette and alcohol sales prompted an illicit cigarette trade, the looting of liquor stores and a sharp rise in the price of pineapples which were used to ferment beer. Dlamini-Zuma’s belief that the ban will prompt “a sizeable number” of people to give up smoking is contradicted by knowledge of society.

This knowledge also tells us that, even among the vast majority who are not addicts, restrictions will fail if they lack legitimacy: people may not like obeying them, but, if they accept they are there for a good reason, they will comply. If they don’t, even thousands of troops will not get them to obey.

South Africa’s lockdown rules started with high legitimacy. But it has been eroded and has now dissolved.

The country locked down early, when cases and deaths were relatively few. This creates a legitimacy problem: people must sacrifice yet they do not see the fatalities and overloaded hospitals which influenced citizens of some European countries. But this problem was largely solved because citizens knew – and feared – what was happening elsewhere.

Legitimacy could have remained high if, like some other countries, South Africa’s had done what early lockdowns are meant to do – cut infections and deaths to a handful.

Cooperative Governance minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Luiz Rampelotto/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

But this was never an option because the scientists who advise the government insisted that restrictions were not meant to stop the virus transmitting, merely to slow it down so that, when the “inevitable” surge arrived, the health system was ready.
They have not been challenged to defend this view because the debate never asks scientists difficult questions. An illustrative example is the claim (which she later clarified) by Professor Glenda Gray, chair of the country’s Medical Research Council, that Soweto’s Baragwanath hospital had no malnutrition cases before the lockdown. But it has created a legitimacy nightmare.

By Ramaphosa’s own admission, South Africa did not use its lockdown to establish the testing and tracing capacity which allowed some countries to beat back Covid-19. But, outside Western Cape Province, it restricted cases to about 11 000 and under 200 deaths by the end of May, figures similar to South Korea’s successful fight against the virus. Even in the Western Cape, there are a few hundred deaths, not the thousands seen elsewhere in the world.

So, the lockdown has been effective enough to ensure that its opponents can demand an end to restrictions without seeming callous. But it has not been effective enough to ensure the drop in infections and deaths which the World Health Organisation – and, initially, the chair of the government’s own medical advisory council – say are needed to phase out restrictions.

The legitimacy which comes from victory over the virus is not available and the official insistence that the restrictions are not meant to stop transmission has handed opponents a good reason to demand that they end even when infections are rising.

Legitimacy has not been eroded among most citizens, who remain deeply concerned about Covid-19. But it has been weakened sufficiently in the policy debate to create an orgy of interest group lobbying for an end to restrictions.

Business began pressing for freedom to operate and has largely succeeded. This set off a chain reaction in which, once one lobby wins, the others smell blood and demand that they too be free to operate.

This lobbying has replaced the veneer of science shrouding government decisions: concessions seem based purely on who shouts loudest. Domestic business travel is allowed, which may allow the virus to spread; religious services are opened although they have been prime spreaders of the virus everywhere; the government has tried to open schools although nearly 2 000 Covid-19 cases are below age 19. Only the tobacco ban remains.

What’s been missing

But the legitimacy of measures to fight Covid-19 are more important than ever because the only chance of curbing it is strict observance by businesses and other institutions of health measures.

The government is reduced to doing what it always does when it loses control – telling citizens they must look after themselves. Because people are worried by Covid-19, those who have access to trade unions or other forms of influence may do that. But, if the virus’s spread is stopped, it will be because people fear it, not because they believe that government measures are legitimate.

This might have been avoided if the government paid as much attention to knowledge of society as it says it is paying to science.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The only reason the Western Cape has such “high” numbers is that they operate a lot better than all the other provinces and does more testing and their reporting system is fully functional and transparent down to suburb levels.-= See their website.

The sudden “surge” of 200 odd cases at Mponeng Mine is testament to the failure of testing and reporting in the other provinces. These guys were screened and tested upon their return to work from their resident provinces – mainly Eastern Cape and KZN.

If you do not test you cannot detect any cases.

Typical ANC manipulation !!!

Agree. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

Western Cape must be testing people to death too, efficient aren’t they? Highest Death count in the country.

There’s another theory put forward by Anthea Jeffery of the IRR.

It’s that the lockdown serves the agenda of the national democratic revolution. Burn the economy down, expose even bigger inequalities, blame and destroy white monopoly capital, and then, when the state has full control, revive the economy in some socialist nirvana.

There have been plenty of utterances from politians that fully support this view, and indeed, it is both the Venezuelan, Cuban and Zimbabwean model so admired by many of our leaders.

And while thinking people recoil from this future in horror, it’s actually what’s driving the whole process. Covid-19 has been the perfect smokescreen to push this agenda. After all, who can fight against the desire to “save lives”?

And so our lockdownds continue even after the scientists have said they will accomplish no more. In truth, they have accomplished nothing at all, except the near total destruction of the economy, the costs of which will pave the way for government to access pension savings,push the impossible NHI, EWC, reserve jobs for locals, and apply a wealth tax.

And so they continue with glee and gusto and are in line with the “fantastic” advice given by the WHO.

It’s all a naievity of epic proportions. Like the exciting relaunch of SAA, and many, many other pipe dreams of government.

Have to add this must visit link…https://iono.fm/e/869811

Nick Hudson of PANDA (a group of actuaries working on the covid models) says…

1 the government models are way out. Projecting far too high
2. There is no evidence that lockdowns have worked anywhere. You get the same results whether you lock down or not
3. There has been no flattening of the curve anywhere.

But government has no interest in dealing with the truth because they have other ideas for the lockdown – plus admitting that they’ve made a terrible mistake is, well, way beyond them – and all other governments for that matter.

Good comment and I agree with the thinking.

The regulations come across as a “negotiated settlement” between warring factions in the ANC.

Where there is a little light at the end of the tunnel is there are 11 million smokers and in the last election the ANC won with just over 10 million votes.

I don’t think they just annoyed smokers though. I don’t smoke.

I guess the secret is going to be to get people that never voted before to vote.

There is another interesting phenomenon that reveals itself through the lockdown. The inference we draw from a particular set of data, reveals our relative levels of insight and comprehension. The different levels of mental agility among citizens and commentators express themselves by being pro- or against lockdown. This is interesting indeed because it is clear that the faultline runs along cultural lines. We see this in the comment sections, the political sphere as well as in the academic space.

We should keep in mind that the concepts of individualism and libertarianism, like Stoicism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, were the result of superior thought processes by the most intelligent individuals from the highest-developed civilizations.

It is interesting to see how people draw different conclusions from the exact same data-set. It does not reveal much about the data per se, but it says a lot about the difference in mental capability and pragmatism.

Maybe this explains the difference in reaction to the virus between Sweden and South Africa and why South Africa has the most restrictive, harmful, and nonsensical lockdown measures on earth.

Our myopic, stupid and highly destructive lockdown measures don’t reflect on the danger of the virus, it reflects on the quality of our lovely leadership and the threat that their relative mental capabilities pose to society.

Much of what government has done has been driven by the need to be seen to be doing something rather than nothing. Part of the ‘illegitimacy’ stems from the fact that the stated actions are often irrelevant to the stated objectives. So if the purpose was to delay the peak until the health system could be better prepared, we might have expected some targets for readiness and reporting of progress on that ; we haven’t seen much of that, except to find – recently – that even at relatively low infection levels PPE is a big issue.

Of course, predicting the peak depends on ‘models’ full of assumptions and unknown variables which are not constant across SA, never mind comparable with other countries. And commentators on all sides pull numbers out of the air as though they proved something. So take the statement that there are 2000 cases of COVID-19 among under 19s. Is that disproportionately many having regard to the age distribution in the areas where they occurred ? How many were serious cases ? How many had underlying health issues etc etc.

‘Lobbying has replaced the veneer of science shrouding government decisions: concessions seem based purely on who shouts loudest’ – absolutely, and that applies to both ‘open-uppers’and ‘lockdowners’, which is why the resultant policy mix is incoherent.

I have yet to see any evidence whatsoever that the governing party is not, in fact, inferior, in every way that matters. And let me just point out to the author that those who pay the vast majority of the taxes, have every right to criticize the way we are misgoverned.

“The “nanny state” argument expresses a belief that some of us should not be told what to do by those they consider their inferiors.”

I disagree Steven. It is not because they are considered inferiors. It is because they are considered servants of civil society – which is what they are. Paid civil servants. Nothing more nothing less. Unfortunately, and this applies throughout the world, most politicians and many civil servants consider themselves demigods, to be obeyed and respected only by virtue of their position, not their behaviour or job performance.

Government of the People’s affairs, by the People and for the People, the reality though appears to be that people, due to apathy, make a Servant “King”.

Not inferior but incompetent. Also many people see the Government as racist dishonest and self serving.

I’m not a fan but this is one of the more balanced Friedman articles.

I wish I had not bothered. What Mr Friedman and his fellow reds do not grasp is that this government does not act in the best interests of society.
The premise that this government gives a hoot about its citizens and its actions are based on a misunderstanding is laughable.

John Steenhuisen’s latest missive says it all:

ANC lockdown is based on fear not facts.

We’re ten weeks into the world’s longest and most damaging lockdown, and still the folly continues. On the cold facts alone it has been a terrible, unforgivable mistake.

President Ramaphosa should apologise to the nation and make good by reshuffling his cabinet to remove those ministers who have most compromised his government’s covid response. (COGTA Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, for her disingenuous handling of the tobacco ban issue; Ibrahim Patel for his irrational, petty economic regulations that have cost so many livelihoods unnecessarily; Police Minister Bheki Cele for encouraging the senseless violence exerted on citizens; Defence Minister Mapisa-Nqakula for her terrible handling of Collins Khoza’s death; Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu for attempting to ban NGOs from distributing cooked food to the hungry.)

But millions of South Africans are yet to see the lockdown itself for the huge mistake it is, because they’re gripped in a pandemic of fear. This fear set in before enough real data on the virus had come in, when lockdown could still be deemed a rational precaution.

The fear now is fueled by ignorance of the true nature and scale of the risk. So even as people break lockdown regulations because they need to feed their families, many continue to view it as a rational response.

This is as the ANC government would have it, hence they’ve made little effort to update people, and continue to withhold information which should be in the public domain. They are simply covering their own backs.

Armed with facts, people will be able to make better decisions in their own best interest, and they will be more likely to hold government accountable for lockdown’s socioeconomic devastation.

On the facts alone, the rational response to covid is to assist the high-risk group to shield, while the vast majority of South Africans get back to work, with reasonable safety protocols in place, to start rolling back hunger and producing the tax revenue necessary to fund health, education and social grants.

If our disingenuous government had a shred of concern for the ordinary person, they’d use their substantial platforms to reassure people that it is safe and sensible for non-high-risk individuals to get back to work and school, by giving them the facts.

Fact 1: Covid does not pose a significant risk to healthy 0-65 year-olds.

So says the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), whose best estimate for the fatality rate of symptomatic cases is 0.05% for those under 50 and 0.2% for 50-64 year-olds. One third (35%) of those infected experience no symptoms at all.

Putting this in context, which is how all risks must be assessed if we are to respond to them rationally, covid has a risk level similar to flu (0.1%) for those under 65.

Western Cape data show the overwhelming majority of covid-positive people who have died in the province have had one or more co-morbidities (additional diseases or conditions occurring with the primary medical condition). So vulnerable people must be shielded and we should all adhere to safety protocols (masks, sanitising, physical distancing).

In the UK, which is no longer at epidemic levels, the average age of those who’ve died is over 80, while 95% had serious co-morbidities. In both the UK and Italy, the average victim had three co-morbidities severe enough to be causes of death on a death certificate.

Despite repeated requests by the DA, the government is yet to share South Africa’s covid death data by age and co-morbidity, most likely because the facts show the lockdown to be wholly irrational.

Fact 2: The overall Covid risk to the population at large is comparable to many other risks.

The NICD (South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases) risk model, on which government’s decision to implement the lockdown was based, has still not been released for public scrutiny. But its latest projections are 40-45 000 deaths from covid this year.

For context, this is four average flu seasons in one, since flu kills an average 11 000 people a year in South Africa. And it is a lower risk than tuberculosis which kills around 60 000 people per year.

Had 40-45 000 deaths been the NICD’s initial estimates, it is doubtful the government would have implemented a lockdown. But initial estimates were allegedly ten times this, though the government has never shared these details because the massive drop in the size of risk would logically require an equally massive drop in the size of response.

A mature government, acting in the country’s rather than the party’s best interest, would have admitted as much, taken their scientists’ advice, and called the whole thing off weeks ago. It would have been an embarrassing, but forgivable mistake.

Apologise and get out, as the saying goes.

But the ANC isn’t partial to admitting mistakes, and anyway lockdown suits the unionists and communists in their ranks. Public sector workers remain on full salary, while for communists lockdown is filled with revolutionary opportunity.

So the party has opted instead to hide or fudge the facts and play on people’s fears. But the fact remains, this extended hard lockdown has been the ANC’s costliest mistake yet. It will be measured in lives lost to South Africans and, if facts prevail over fear, in votes lost to the ANC.

End of comments.

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