At the first sign that a novel coronavirus was infecting people around the world, the South African government, taking its lead from China, began to lock down the country to prevent transmission.

News that serious cases requiring hospitalisation had overwhelmed the healthcare system in China and Italy sparked widespread fear that the same might happen elsewhere.

Even at first, the measures were brutal. A National State of Disaster was declared, even though no disaster had yet befallen anyone. A National Command Council was convened, perhaps in the belief that command economies have not always led to scarcity, deprivation and distress.

As of Thursday night, we’ll all be under house arrest. The army has been deployed, so we’ll all be ‘protected’ from ourselves by troops trained to kill foreign enemies. The lockdown period will last at least 21 days, although that may be extended to three months if the government deems it necessary.

Eye-opening

It is quite eye-opening to realise how much power the government has to ruin our daily lives even without having to suspend our constitutional rights by declaring a State of Emergency.

The government has attempted to split the economy into ‘essential businesses’ and the rest, and everyone who isn’t on the list will be required to close up shop.

Strict price control regulations have been imposed on essential items, and since we all know price controls lead to shortages, government has also ordered producers to maintain or increase production to meet demand.

What’s left of the economy will now be under virtually complete state control.

Government ministers were given extraordinary and arbitrary powers, provided they can pass them off as ‘[preventing] an escalation of the national state of disaster, or to alleviate, contain and minimise the effects of the national state of disaster’.

The fallout from these measures were swift and damaging for many people, particularly for the poor, and it will only get worse

The government has gagged epidemiologists, virologists, scientists and other experts, appointing itself as the sole communications channel about everything related to the pandemic. Only the government’s version of events will henceforth be tolerated.

The fallout from these measures were swift and damaging for many people, particularly for the poor, and it will only get worse. Thousands of workers have already been laid off, and many more stand to lose their jobs as their employers go under.

The president has announced limited relief measures, but they are mostly targeted at formal businesses and salaried workers. The informal sector, the self-employed, contractors, freelancers and gig workers can expect no relief, and will face an extended period with zero income.

Many people will not be able to pay their rent or their bonds. Many will not be able to afford even the basics, like food and medicine. This will have a knock-on effect on landlords and financial institutions, with potentially disastrous consequences for both.

President Cyril Ramaphosa assured the nation that our capital markets are ‘deep and liquid’, but local experts beg to differ, raising the prospects of a credit crisis and printing money to inject liquidity into the market.

Revised downwards

Economic growth projections are hastily being revised downwards, in some cases by astonishing amounts. Morgan Stanley now expects a record-breaking 30% GDP contraction for the US in the second quarter.

In South Africa, the economic fallout predictions have been more limited, although there isn’t yet much data available, and I’m not optimistic enough to believe predictions of modest declines in GDP. I think the consequences will be catastrophic for the economy, and not only in the short term.

South Africa does not have the fiscal resources to cushion the blow for those most affected, and does not have the private-sector resilience to bounce back to the status quo ante once the worst of the pandemic is over.

Where governments take control over prices and production volumes, citizens end up either subjecting themselves to starvation rations, or buying what they need from the black market. Both seem to be likely in South Africa in the coming months.

The country’s poverty levels and unemployment rate will go through the roof. And poverty is deadly – perhaps more deadly than the pandemic itself

The consequences of widespread layoffs and loss of income will be disastrous for millions. The country’s poverty levels and unemployment rate will go through the roof. And poverty is deadly – perhaps more deadly than the pandemic itself.

Despite the enormity of the emergency measures imposed on our shocked society, we all meekly complied. So terrified were we of the pandemic that few questioned the official line. Few questioned the proportionality of the response. Few questioned whether the consequence of the emergency measures might not be worse than the disease itself.

The few who dared to do so were quickly shouted down and denounced as irresponsible, selfish, dangerous and even psychopathic. The government resolved to take criminal action against those spreading so-called ‘fake news’ on social media.

Even the official opposition, which claims to profess liberal values, has fully supported the government’s army deployment and lockdown plans.

Don’t get me wrong. False news can indeed be harmful. So can underestimating the measures required to stem a pandemic, or to prevent our public health services from being overwhelmed. An untimely outbreak of nappy rash could overwhelm our creaking hospitals, after all.

Social distancing

I am entirely in favour of ‘social distancing’, of following good infection control procedures both in and outside the home, and avoiding public gatherings. I have no more desire to contract Covid-19 than anyone else, and also do not wish to be responsible for spreading it to more vulnerable people.

Yet there are reasons to believe that all is not as dire as it seems.

A paper published in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents on 19 March did some data crunching on SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that can cause the respiratory infection Covid-19, for OECD countries.

It notes that not all people who die while having Covid-19 can be said to have died of the disease, since most are old and have serious underlying health conditions.

It found that respiratory infections cause millions of deaths per year, without causing any alarm, and the mortality rate of SARS-CoV-2 is not significantly worse than that for other known coronaviruses which have been with us for years.

It also notes that since testing is for the most part conducted only on patients who get ill enough to need medical attention, the true mortality rate is probably significantly lower than that suggested by simply dividing confirmed cases by confirmed deaths.

The study’s authors argue that the risk of this new coronavirus is probably overestimated.

Another very recent study concludes that the false-positive rate of coronavirus tests in asymptomatic individuals might be between 50% and 80%, so there may be significantly fewer cases than reported.

Unnecessary alarm can cause unjustifiable panic among the population which can have severe negative consequences

Ragnhild Ørstavik, writing in the Journal of the Norwegian Medical Association, warns that health authorities ought to prepare for the worst, but ‘cry the right amount of wolf’.

Unnecessary alarm can cause unjustifiable panic among the population which can have severe negative consequences. Besides the obvious economic risks to people’s livelihoods, it can risk overburdening health services by those who are not ill, but are merely worried that they are. Even the wording of warnings, such as ‘risk of death’, can cause worse medical outcomes than using the opposite phrase, ‘chance of survival’. The placebo and nocebo effects are real.

All that said, I’m not an epidemiologist. I am not in a position to judge the scary pronouncements of the health authorities. Some credentialled experts believe we simply don’t have enough good data to know whether extreme measures are justified. Other equally credentialled experts disagree quite strongly, although they don’t go as far as recommending the kinds of extreme measures to which we have now been subjected.

When epidemiology professors can differ so sharply, it is impossible to draw simple conclusions. Some clever-sounding people who have tried have found themselves on the sharp end of devastating critique, so I’m not even going to try.

Rights and liberties

Even if the pandemic is as serious as government – now being the sole arbiters of ‘truth’ – would have us believe, should we really surrender our rights and liberties?

‘There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic,’ wrote Peter Nicholas confidently in The Atlantic. He continued by describing a conservative political conference and railing against the response of conservative Republicans, including Donald Trump.

This reveals the tenuous grasp most journalists have on political ideology. Just because conservatives oppose socialism, this guy just assumes they’re no different from libertarians who also happen to oppose socialism.

As Eric Boehm pointed out in Reason magazine, this is the same conservative government that started a trade war by raising tariffs, raised barriers to immigration, gave bailouts to favoured companies, has moved to infringe free speech, and routinely denounces the media as ‘the enemy of the people’.

There’s nothing libertarian about the present US administration in general, and Donald Trump in particular. Libertarians oppose the statism of the conservative right and the socialist left in equal measure.

Boehm argues that libertarians are ‘the ones willing to acknowledge how much more all of this would suck if the market didn’t exist’.

Regulations hurt

Libertarians recognise that governments are poor at responding to public needs of any kind. Even in the developed world, governments have placed huge hurdles in the way of private responses to the disease and to the market disruptions it has caused. Often, regulations hurt the very people they’re meant to help.

In times of crisis, well-functioning markets are more important than ever, to signal to producers how demand is shifting, so they can adapt their production to match. The flexibility and efficiency of decentralised markets are no match for the lumbering bureaucracy of a centralised command economy.

The powers that government has arrogated to itself, and the curtailment of citizens’ rights, present enormous potential for abuse. Being able to silence critics is how authoritarian governments remain in power. It was a key weapon in how the Apartheid government managed to oppress a large majority, for so long.

Making exceptions about freedom of expression in cases where lives are at stake might seem reasonable in the face of a pandemic, but that leaves the door wide open to suppressing speech that, in the government’s view, threatens lives and livelihoods in other ways. Ironically, the government’s own past statements, such as those about HIV/Aids, would not pass this test.

It is much less likely to count the number of cases of malnutrition, disease and death resulting from the sharp rise in poverty and unemployment caused by its own emergency measures

Government will diligently count SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19 cases, as well as the number of infected people who go on to die of whatever cause.

It is much less likely to count the number of cases of malnutrition, disease and death resulting from the sharp rise in poverty and unemployment caused by its own emergency measures.

Who will count the human cost of the rise in depression, anxiety and perhaps suicide? Who will count the consequences for alcoholics and addicts, for whom withdrawal can cause extreme suffering or even death? Who will count the trauma and deaths attributable to domestic violence caused by confining stressed people to their homes and depriving them of income?

The government likely will count the injuries and deaths due to civil unrest, rioting, and the army’s attempts to suppress the population and keep them pliant and confined. It will hold up these hundreds or thousands of lives and call them a necessary sacrifice to prevent an even larger disaster, for which the projections are highly speculative and uncertain, based on simplistic models fed with incomplete data.

We will likely never know whether the enormous sacrifices the government so cavalierly demanded of its cowed population were worth it.

Cost of liberty

It is true that the spread of disease is more likely to be contained under these emergency measures. Liberty always has a cost. It is equally true, for example, that one can find a greater degree of personal safety and security in fascist police states. That the alternative comes with a death toll does not invalidate the belief that personal freedom and protections from government are the best way to create prosperity, alleviate poverty and increase the general welfare.

Do we have any faith that all of the restrictions imposed so rashly and rapidly will be reversed at the first sign that the spread of the virus is tapering off?

Given that coronaviruses are not uncommon, and novel variants will continue to appear every few years – to say nothing of other disease epidemics – how can we trust that the totalitarian healthcare state will not become routine and normalised?

Even in mainstream publications, articles are blaming the entire crisis on ‘the neo-liberal model of capitalism‘, and there are already opportunistic calls to exploit this public health emergency to force a sweeping transformation of South Africa’s economy towards state control, socialism, and the destruction of the private sector.

I don’t have all the answers, but, as Bonnie Kristian writes in The Week, libertarians would value the role of the free market in keeping life as normal as possible under the circumstances, would advise personal responsibility, would condemn counter-productive regulations and lack of transparency, would reject corporate bailouts and price controls, would have mixed feelings about (but not be hostile to) emergency social welfare, would be sceptical of mandatory lockdowns and travel bans, and perhaps most importantly, would insist on ensuring that any response measures are temporary.

‘For many libertarians, our worries about robust government responses to Covid-19 are less about the responses proper than the possibility that the changes they bring will never end, even after the disease is under control,’ Kristian writes. ‘There are libertarians in a pandemic, and we’re as preoccupied by coronavirus as everyone else. We’re just preoccupied by liberty, too.’

Whether or not the draconian emergency measures instituted by government were justifiable, we must never lightly surrender our rights and freedoms, and ensure that all of them are restored to us as soon as possible.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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