/Mbhazima Shilowa | Coronavirus: government can only do so much, the rest is up to us

Mbhazima Shilowa | Coronavirus: government can only do so much, the rest is up to us

2020-03-19 06:00

It is important to ensure that we as a people are armed with information and play our part. Government can simply give us guidelines and directives but will not be at every funeral or wedding to count the number of people, writes Mbhazima Shilowa.

On Sunday, 15 March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster and announced a range of measures meant to help contain and delay the spread of the coronavirus.

In addition to measures related to travel by local and foreign visitors – the key ones are self-isolation and quarantine, limiting social distance, working from home where possible, gatherings of not more than 100 people, but importantly the old age advice of washing one’s hands as often as is possible. 

While the measures have been welcomed by many, others have criticised Ramaphosa for not acting earlier.

In their view the steps he announced should have been taken a few weeks back.

There is also a view that the measures he has announced do not go far enough, especially the travel bans and the closing of the gaping holes in our borders. 

While more could be done and should be done, it is a great start in the right direction.

Key will be how those measures requiring government leadership will be implemented.

Already signs are that at an economic level we are likely to merely put our toes in the water with a paltry amount said to come from savings from an already stretched budget.

You just have to look at the kind of announcements made by France, Germany and the US to see what a stimulus package looks like.

While it is not the sole responsibility of their central banks to fire up the economy, most have come to the party with cuts in interest rates and soft loans to avoid the economy going into recession.  

According to finance minister Bruno Le Maire, France will mobilise 45 billion euros to help its companies. 

He said “a large part of the 45 billion euro figure was the deferral of all tax payments and payroll charges that companies were due to pay this month and the cancellation of such payments for firms at risk of collapse”.

“We are going to mobilise 45 billion euros as our first immediate economic assistance to companies.”

“We don’t want bankruptcies.”

According to media reports “the money comes in addition to 300 billion euros in government loan guarantees that President Emmanuel Macron had announced earlier”.

It remains to be seen how our central bank will respond.

But judging by the comments of our Finance Minister, they’re likely to move with caution instead of being bold and cutting interest rates by between 100 and 200 basis points. 

While there has been talks at Nedlac aimed at mobilising social partners, very little has come out of it.

How will companies such as those in mining manage social distance when their operations require people working in groups including on elevators and underground trams that take them to their work stations?

What of workers in call centers where they may be as many as 150 in one place?

Is there any capacity to ramp and to resuscitate our manufacturing capacity which has been decimated by our industrial policy and replacement by cheap goods from China and other such countries?

We need protective clothing, masks and gloves for our health workers.

The pandemic will have long subsided by the time we are ready to produce them in the numbers needed to respond.

In fact, some of our companies sold them to China even as they were aware that this is going to hit our shores soon. 

The aviation and tourism industries will be hard hit especially with many not allowed in or simply staying away.

Companies in these areas are likely to retrench.

Government and business need to come up with strategies to limit the impact on workers, communities and companies. 

The coronavirus has also laid bare the inequality and absence of basic services to poor people in rural and urban areas.

The call to wash hands is noble and correct but it ignores the fact that many do not have water to drink let alone to wash their hands frequently.

It remains to be seen how a department that has failed to provide water and sanitation to people in informal settlements, rural areas and certain municipalities such as Giyani, Polokwane and Qwaqwa can suddenly be able to supply water to these areas, train stations, bus and taxi ranks because of the coronavirus.

This is where the real danger lies.

The density and the number of people using buses and trains provide the fuel the virus needs to spread faster than we have seen thus far.

The other is the poor state of our public health and staffing thereof.

We do not have enough spaces to quarantine and isolate large numbers let alone testing.

It is easy for the affluent to self quarantine as they have space in their houses but impossible for people in informal settlements and shacks.

The government should reach an agreement with private clinics and hospitals to share facilities now, rather than wait for the pandemic to reach proportions such as seen in Italy.

In fact, the government needs to also agree with laboratories to help with testing at minimal costs since they too still have to have them verified by the NICD.

I’ve heard it said we don’t need to test everyone now – it should be we do not have the capacity to test everyone now.

If we move on the assumption that we are all positive unless we test negative we should be testing every one.

Remember some of us, when we should present ourselves to a doctor, rather see a traditional healer or church leader – some of whom promise a miracle cure.

Mass testing also removes the stigma and ensures that even if you have no money to buy good health, the government that one has voted into power will be there for you. 

Soon after the outbreak of the virus in our country many called on the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) to cancel its annual Easter pilgrimage to Moria. 

While the call may have irked a number of us as it was directed at the ZCC and not churches in general, it is understandable why it was so and should be the focus.

It is the biggest church in South Africa and has branches in SADC countries and the UK.  

Following meetings with the national and provincial government and after consultation with its structures, it announced on 16 March that all activities in Moria beginning this weekend are called off until further notice.

This is the first time since its inception in 1910 that there will be no gathering at Moria during Easter. 

A number of other churches notably the Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican and the Rhema churches have also announced the curtailment of gatherings henceforth.

These steps are welcome, but we have yet to hear from churches such as ZCC St Engenas, Shembe, IPCC and St Johns. 

Another step in the right direction is the meeting that the President held with leaders of opposition parties.

Unity in action and messaging even if temporary is to be welcomed as no one will use the pandemic for party political gains.

It is in this context that the decision by the ANC to send its members on a door to door campaign should be abandoned.

How do you call for social distance as government and then as a ruling party send people who have not been tested to people’s homes?

There has also been fears and I hope they do not come to pass that just as people looted state resources during the funerals of Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, they are also likely to use the emergency regulations to loot.

There needs to be transparency on who will be supplying water and sanitiser liquids to informal settlements, train, taxi and bus ranks and the process followed to secure such.

Assuming that this was brought home primarily by people who have travelled abroad, the decision to close universities and to send students home while understandable, may backfire especially since their status is not known.

Again it would have been great to have tested all of them while still at university so that those who test positive, can be isolated or quarantined instead of being sent home where they may help spread Covid-19.

However, government even with the best will and capacity can only do so much.

The rest is up to individuals.

Just as during the start of HIV and Aids, myths about the coronavirus are bound to be there – like some proclaiming that it is “just a white thing”.

Charlatans will also start selling cures for it.

It is important to ensure that we as a people are armed with information and play our part.

Government can simply give us guidelines and directives but will not be at every funeral or wedding to count the number of people.

It is us who should say: “I’m not going to the wedding or please only a few close relatives should come to a funeral.” 

The message should be: Covid-19 is here.

It does not discriminate on the basis of race, gender or social standing.

It does not impact on others unlike you, it can be acquired by all of us.

This is the one time outside of the feeling of kumbaya during sporting events, to stand together in solidarity.

Lastly, we should be at the forefront of naming and shaming businesses that may seek to profit out of the plight of people. 

– Mbhazima Shilowa is a former Premier of the Gauteng Province, trade unionist and Cope leader.

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