Whether President Cyril Ramaphosa decides to end or extend the lockdown, the price could be just as high for South Africa and its people, writes Adriaan Basson.
Will he, or won’t he?
That is the question on every South African’s mind as
President Cyril Ramaphosa ponders whether to extend the 21-day coronavirus lockdown
Both options hold severe consequences for the president,
that could determine his legacy. History books will be written about the
decision Ramaphosa takes.
If he decides to extend the lockdown, as many expect he
would, Ramaphosa risks breaking our brittle economy. The fallout will be dire: prolonged
poverty, unemployment and even starvation for generations to come.
If he decides to end the lockdown, the price could be
just as high. It is not at all clear that South Africa has managed to beat the
curve of coronavirus infections. We simply have not done enough testing to
comfortably send South Africans back to work.
In the second scenario, Ramaphosa will have to consider that
South Africa is way behind Europe’s curve and that the real impact of the virus
will only be felt when the seasons change and our temperature drops. But can he
keep the country in lockdown for another two months? Surely not.
Last week, I asked my colleagues at News24 if they knew someone
who had lost her or his job in the past two weeks. Only four colleagues
responded in the negative.
Between 30 of us, we knew 55 people who had either lost
their jobs or had their contracts cancelled since the announcement of a
lockdown. They were from a range of industries: media, retail, hospitality,
tourism, real estate, industrial, motoring, beauty, catering, events, financial
services, textile, marketing, wellness, security and fashion.
The Reserve Bank painted a bleak picture of our economic
outlook on Monday, projecting that as many as 370 000 people could lose their
jobs as a result of the lockdown. 1 600 businesses could go insolvent and the
economy may shrink between 2% and 4% this year.
Every single day that the lockdown continues will add
more digits to these numbers. At this stage, the Covid-19 health crisis has
affected much fewer people than the resultant economic crises caused by the
But this cannot be used as a criticism of Ramaphosa’s
decision to enforce a lockdown. He and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize have
received universal praise for their early handling of the crisis, by
encouraging and then enforcing physical distancing.
I would much rather live in Ramaphosa’s country than in
the United States, where President Donald Trump is literally gambling with the
lives of millions.
Ramaphosa had massive public sympathy and support when he
announced the lockdown, but this may evaporate fast if people must consider
selling their houses, cars or having to take their children out of their
schools of choice.
Then the option of wearing a mask to work, undergoing
public screenings for symptoms and going to shops only at certain times on your
own start to sound appealing, albeit at the risk of contracting Covid-19.
If our Covid-19 infections remain at the same rate of
less than 100 per day, and the death toll doesn’t dramatically increase by next
week, Ramaphosa will have a tough time justifying an extension of the lockdown.
Human tragedy should never be reduced to statistics alone,
but it is relevant to remind ourselves that in South Africa almost 60 people are
murdered per day; around 40 are killed in road crashes daily, and on average 190
people die of Aids-related illnesses every day.
We have never had a lockdown for any of these causes of
death and with 13 Covid-19 deaths in 12 days of lockdown, South Africans will have
good reason to ask why they should give up their jobs for a disease that is
seemingly not that potent.
The big unknown here is of course the lack of proper
testing at scale. So far, it is mostly the middle-classes that have tested
through private laboratories. The National Health Laboratory Service took weeks
to get their act in order and are not close to testing 36 000 people per day,
as they aim to do by the end of the month.
We need to test 12 times more people per day and the
health authorities are now procuring rapid antibody tests because we have run
out of time to procure the chemicals for polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
technology, which we have used so far, according to Bhekisisa.
Ramaphosa may end up having to choose between two equally
dire scenarios. This is a defining moment for his leadership and legacy.
– Adriaan Basson is editor-in-chief of News24