Start main page content

Lockdowns and freedoms

- William Gumede

SA had to have a hard lockdown because we don’t trust our government. Little since has made us change our minds.

Whether countries implement lockdowns which significantly limit freedoms; or ones that try to retain as many freedoms as possible during their lockdowns depend on whether they have pre-existing open democratic cultures, higher levels of trust in government and whether citizens have greater self-responsibility.

The severity of Covid-19, justify restrictions on certain rights resulting from the imposition of quarantine, limiting freedom of movement, increased surveillance and the use of technology to track the movements of people. However, the challenge for many countries has been to balance these limitations of freedoms with maintaining basic human rights, freedom of expression and not impinging on individual dignity.  

Countries can generally be divided in three groups in the way in which they responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some countries have opted for hard lockdowns with strict rules, limits to freedoms and movements. Such countries include South Africa, Panama and Thailand. In Panama men and women were designated different days to go on essential shopping. Like South Africa, Thailand banned sales of alcohol and imposed curfews.

Some governments, such as Hungary, Thailand and Ghana that implemented hard lockdowns have been accused of using Covid-19 to give themselves unlimited powers.   

A second group of countries have had softer lockdowns, leaving it up to their citizens to take individual responsibility to practice social distancing, clean health hygiene practices and stay at home. These countries did not have the harsh lockdown restrictions, but placed the responsibility largely on their individual citizens to behave responsibly. These countries include Singapore, South Korea, Germany and many Northern European countries.

A third group of countries, such as Brazil, Belarus and Tanzania initially appeared not to have taken Covid-19 seriously. In response to why the country was not taking precautions against Covid-19, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko said: “it (Covid-19) happens.” Tanzanian President John Magufuli said workers must continue working and citizens must pray in churches and mosques, claiming the virus could not harm the “faithful”. The World Health Organisation lashed out at Tanzania for its refusal to introduce stringent measures to slow the spread of the virus.

With exceptions, the hard lockdowns have been mostly in countries that are either autocratic, non-democracies or poor quality democracies. In many of these societies, governments and leaders only know to tackle crises in hard-fisted ways. Alternatively, governments and leaders are not trusted by citizens, either because they are not accountable, corrupt or have not delivered public services before the lockdowns. Not trusting their governments, citizens do not follow government issued rules. Governments therefore use force to compel citizens to comply.

The South African government does not have the trust of many citizens, because of years of corruption, inefficiencies and lack of accountability. This means that many citizens would not have taken the government’s injunctions to self-regulate seriously. This is why in a sense the government had no option but to go for the hard lockdown.

Countries that have implemented soft lockdowns, such as Singapore, South Korea and Germany are higher trust societies. Citizens there have more confidence in their governments, because of their greater accountability, less corruption and better record of delivering effective public services. In these countries governments put the onus on citizens to adhere to lockdowns rules.

New Zealand is a democratic country that implemented a hard lockdown. However, New Zealand emphasised individual freedoms, common sense and still heavily relied on citizens taking self-responsibility. This was possible because citizens in New Zealand had a high trust in their government – and therefore high levels of public cooperation, because of government accountability, lack of corruption and effective public service delivery.

Having implemented hard lockdowns under the circumstances of distrust in government, it is important that the South African government ensure greater inclusivity in decision-making structures, such as the National Command Council, overseeing the Covid-19 response. Evidence-based decisions are crucial. Decisions must be explained, communicated transparently and must make rational sense. As a case in point, there has been very little rational explanation from government why tobacco and alcohol could not be sold during level 5 and 4 lockdowns and why e-commerce was not allowed.

There has to be greater oversight of government’s emergency powers under lockdowns by democratic institutions. So far, there has been little parliamentary oversight or even debate of the Disaster Management Act or the declared state of emergency, which gives the government extensive powers. Opposition parties should hold government accountable in Parliament. They have not done so.

Freedom of expression is crucial in hard lockdowns. Yet, it appeared that some ANC leaders believed that criticism of government actions are not permissible under Covid-19. This is off course not the case. A typical example has been the over the top criticism by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize of South African Medical Research Council president Glenda Gray she said that there were no cases of child malnutrition at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital until the lockdown.

Similarly, despite of public criticisms of the heavy-handedness of the South African National Defence Force’s enforcement of the lockdown, some ANC members of Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence, which is supposed to oversee the defence force praised the SANDF’s actions as “simple measures to discipline community members”.

The courts have an important role to play to curb government excess. It is important that citizens use the courts to hold government accountable if other official oversight institutions do not so. The family of an Alexandra township man, Collins Khosa, who died after allegedly been assaulted by soldiers during the lockdown enforcement in the township, went directly to the Constitutional Court to hold government accountable, have the soldiers involved fired and to seek compensation for his death.

But ombudsman offices, such as the Military Ombudsman, the police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), and Chapter Nine institutions, such as the Gender and Equality Commission, should play a more pro-active role in holding security forces accountable during the lockdowns.

Citizens, civil society and the media should monitor and hold government accountable. Citizens must expose official wrongdoing whether on social media, protesting or seeking redress in the courts. With exceptions, countries which have allowed more freedoms during Covid-19 lockdowns, such as Singapore, South Korea and New Zealand, have in general had better health and economic outcomes.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg). The article first appeared in Times Select.