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Covid-19: The greatest challenge remains ahead of us

- Judith February

Everyone is tired; tired of COVID-19, tired of ‘pandemic speak’ and lockdown.

Mostly there is a collective fatigue at the endless webinars, virtual briefings and predictions for the future, every graph claiming to be better than the next and everyone an epidemiologist in their spare time.

This is a moment of grave uncertainty no matter where in the world one is and no matter whether one is rich or poor. The future will look different, yet we are not sure in which ways exactly.

In times of uncertainty, it is instinctive to try to predict the future, either as a soothing salve or as an ode to deep pessimism.

The truth, of course, is that we simply don’t know how this all ends.

Holding the questions and the contradictions of the present is difficult.

As Anette Mikes and Michael Power of the London School of Economics have argued:

“In many ways, lockdown is intellectually easy. It is unpleasant, economically damaging and hard to police. But as a remedy it is clear-cut. The exit strategy is much less clear…In the case of COVID-19, we expect that the process of transition will be lengthy but not smooth. Yet, we have little to guide us.”

Most governments around the world are feeling their way blindly through this crisis, some better than others. We know who the infamous bad actors are who do not follow the science and enter into strange denialist fantasies about the effects of this pandemic on our way of life. They’re pretty much the same leaders who are sceptical of climate change and the science behind it.

But we have also learnt that, like everything else, the science is not ‘black and white’ and it too is open to interpretation and varying views.

In South Africa we have our own set of unique challenges. It was always going to be difficult to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. South Africa’s high levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment make a unified response far more difficult. While lockdown is relatively easy in the suburban middle class, it is virtually impossible in informal settlements where access to basic services such as sanitation elude many in our country.

Over the past nearly 7 weeks of lockdown we have witnessed the very best and worst of our country. We have seen the generosity of South Africans delivering food parcels to those in need and we have witnessed extraordinary acts of solidarity as the majority of people heeded government’s call to stay home.

But we have also seen the brutality of the SANDF and the South African Police Services (SAPS) whose language and actions have told us that they are at war with citizens who are meant to live in a constitutional democracy. We have seen the relevant ministers, Bheki Cele and Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, cast aside our collective concerns about the SANDF and SAPS’s heavy-handedness often all too easily.

Lest we forget, Collins Khoza allegedly died at the hands of the SANDF when he was said to be in breach of lockdown regulations in relation to alcohol consumption. Then Mapisa-Nqakula said, “We bow our heads in shame for the incident as we pass on the condolences to the family.”

Shame is a rare commodity in South African public life. Mostly those in power simply move on and reinvent themselves. But we should be ashamed of every breach of constitutional rights and should hold those in power to account as vociferously as we can.

And so, amidst frustration about some incoherent and confusing regulations, Ramaphosa addressed the nation on Wednesday night for the first time in almost three weeks. It had already been a somewhat chaotic South African news day, with Paul Mashatile of the ANC saying that Finance Minister Tito Mboweni should possibly be disciplined for some of his comments regarding the National Command Council decision to continue with the cigarette ban. Mashatile pronounced, without even a hint of irony, “He (Mboweni) was going to be spoken to by the president, to say, what he did was wrong and I guess if the behaviour continues ...then the organisation might take you (sic) through a disciplinary process."

One couldn’t help but think how completely tone deaf that comment was given how many corrupt members of the ANC continue in their positions completely unhindered. Where was the party sanction for Jacob Zuma given the Nkandla debacle and state capture allegations? And has the ANC secretary-general himself been held to account in the Vrede Dairy matter?

The ANC seems to have not even the slightest curiosity about these allegations. Such hypocrisy purely based on factionalism is plain to see.

And then on Wednesday, came Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel’s Regulations about what we can and cannot buy in winter. Of course, he had consulted with industry but what on earth are we doing creating a numerus clausus that includes bodysuits and crop pants?

Whatever Patel’s good intentions, the regulations appear silly. We do not ask our government to be perfect in times of crisis, but sensible rules are far easier to adhere to.

Ramaphosa thus addressed a tired and sceptical nation. And he knew that.

Again, he strongly outlined his government’s reliance on the evidence and the science which meant that a “swift and decisive” lockdown was “absolutely necessary”. We have, Ramaphosa said, prevented a “rapid and unmanageable surge” in infections. Ramaphosa did not back away from his initial decision regarding the hard lockdown. He went on to sketch how the pandemic would require a “fundamental shift” in our way of life.

The key question is, as he rightly put it, whether South Africa is able to sustain the advantage the 7-week lockdown has given us?

The long and short of it is that level 3 of the lockdown is imminent, but consultation will take place at provincial and municipal level regarding differentiated levels of lockdown for infection hotspots.

This is a nuanced approach and will require not only consultation but also a thorough analysis of testing and tracing conducted within individual provinces, metros and districts. Above all, it will require thoughtfulness and agility on behalf of those who lead.

In the days ahead we will hear about the relaxation of certain regulations governing e-commerce, retail and exercise. So, as always, the devil will be in the detail and the communication left to the ministers who have thus far done such a hopeless job of creating certainty. More often than not, Ramaphosa has been let down by members of his own Cabinet.

He looked tired as he implored us to practice social distancing and stay aware of a virus which we do not fully understand and which is “very much present”.

What was also apparent from Ramaphosa’s address is that he does hear the criticism against his government. And so perhaps the most important part of his address was tucked in towards the end. Then he acknowledged that his government had “fallen short”, that some regulations were “contradictory”, “poorly explained”, “inconsistent” and “harsh” and they have created “uncertainty”.

He pledged that his government would “continue to make amends” for these shortcomings and “always seek to correct its mistakes”.

Ramaphosa is a credible messenger and his contrite words were refreshing, though it would have been helpful to hear more forceful words from him regarding police and SANDF brutality. But, can we imagine former President Thabo Mbeki apologising for the Aids fiasco or Jacob Zuma apologising for his careless disregard, profligacy, corruption and the hollowing out of democratic institutions?

The ministers who will brief us in the next days have an opportunity to display Ramaphosa’s humility and make amends as the President says they ought to. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Ebrahim Patel, Lindiwe Zulu, Bheki Cele and Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula should follow where the President is leading. Clear communication is now crucial to rebuild what trust has been lost and what goodwill has been squandered because of incoherence.

As for South Africans, we will continue to remain vigilant and insist upon our constitutional rights even and especially during this time of crisis.

The greatest challenge remains ahead of us as Ramaphosa attempts to navigate us through the next nuanced and complex phases of risk-adjusted, differentiated lockdown.

In a country like ours, where agility in decision-making is often sacrificed on the altar of corruption, excessive bureaucracy, an incapable state and poor leadership, the exit strategy in and of itself is ambitious.

And yes, we have little to guide us.

Judith February is a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance.

This article was first published on EWN.