Cyril Ramaphosa believes a Chinese-style lockdown to be both effective and necessary. For all his infatuation with the Chinese surveillance state, however, South Africa does not have the means to duplicate it, nor is it able to copy rich-world alternatives to a lockdown. Is he destroying the economy for nothing?

In his weekly newsletter dated 30 March 2020, Cyril Ramaphosa waxes lyrical about the success of the Chinese response to the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the respiratory disease Covid-19 that it causes in some, predominantly sickly or elderly, patients.

‘The experience of the South Africans in Wuhan demonstrates the effectiveness – and the necessity – of a state of lockdown,’ he writes. ‘It is now abundantly clear that the most effective way for a society to contain the spread of the disease is for the population to remain at home and physically isolated from each other for at least several weeks. And it is important that this lockdown and all other emergency measures are both strictly adhered to and consistently enforced.’

Trivial truism

It is a trivial truism that if you take radical measures to lock down a population, confine them to their homes, shut down the economy, and prohibit almost all extramural activity, that viruses will find it more difficult to spread. So sure, it could be effective. In the same way, perhaps, that burning your house down to get rid of ants is effective.

Ramaphosa acknowledges that these restrictions are ‘extremely difficult to endure’. The Wuhan experience does not demonstrate that it is necessary to take such extreme action, however.

He ignores the examples of South Korea, Germany, or, most intriguingly, Sweden, which has not implemented a lockdown, and has made it clear that over-reaction would likely be more harmful than the disease itself.

This would, at first blush, suggest that total lockdown was not Ramaphosa’s only alternative, after all.

it is not clear that South Africa has the institutional capacity and resources to lock the country down effectively

It is arguable that the widespread testing and public-health interventions that were conducted in these countries could not have been done in South Africa with its well-documented lack of institutional capacity and fiscal resources.

However, it is not clear that South Africa has the institutional capacity and resources to lock the country down effectively, either. Sure, it can order businesses to close, and the middle classes will likely remain isolated in their suburban homes, but millions of poor South Africans live in conditions that are simply not amenable to a lockdown.

For people living in crowded townships and shantytowns, being confined inside their homes would be worse than prisons. Many don’t even have access to their own running water or toilets, yet aren’t allowed out on the streets to use communal facilities. Imposing a lockdown in these circumstances is a gilt-edged invitation to starvation, dysentery, cholera and ultimately, riots.

The police and army are incapable of enforcing lockdown regulations in these areas, as Sky News documented in Alexandra township recently.

Abusing powers

South Africa is awash with videos of police officers and army soldiers abusing their powers. A local man near where I live left his home to go buy aspirin for his baby, who was running a fever. He was arrested and never returned home.

Human rights lawyer Richard Spoor reported that a mentally disabled man was severely beaten and arrested while guarding his brother’s motor spares shop. Both the beating and the arrest having been unlawful, he believes Police Minister Bheki Cele ‘should be cited in his personal capacity for unleashing his dogs’.

From ordering people who are legally out in their own yards to go inside and close their doors, to viciously beating citizens, sometimes to death, the new-found powers of the security forces seem to have gone straight to their violent, repressive heads. Shoot first, ask questions later, seems to be the approach.

Those of us old enough to remember how the Apartheid police and soldiers operated will find the new footage circulating on social media eerily familiar.

while South Africa might not have the capacity to respond as South Korea or Sweden did, that it also does not have the capacity to respond as Ramaphosa’s best buds the Chinese did

Meanwhile, the government has temporarily lifted restrictions on public transport, so that 17.8 million old and vulnerable people – fully one third of South Africa’s population – can throng to pay points to collect their social grants. All indications are that social distancing and infection control measures are rarely maintained as they queue up for the only money they or their families will see for a month.

It seems, therefore, that while South Africa might not have the capacity to respond as South Korea or Sweden did, that it also does not have the capacity to respond as Ramaphosa’s best buds the Chinese did.

George Thompson, a YouTuber who left Britain for China to get away from it all and find himself, created a wonderful 10-minute video describing the Chinese response to the coronavirus. He lays bare the extent of the country’s citizen surveillance.

The Chinese government tracks absolutely everything its citizens do, from the facial recognition scanner when you enter or leave your apartment, to your social media posts, your location, and your purchases. All citizens are required to own cellphones, so that the state can track their behaviour and assign them scores, with higher scores earning them greater privileges. (There are no ‘rights’ in China.)

The state enforces strict censorship. The silencing of citizens extended to the doctor who first tried to raise the alarm about the new coronavirus, as the Chinese government desperately tried to keep a lid on the news. Even now, there is considerable doubt about the accuracy of China’s reported infection and mortality numbers.

Brutal and totalitarian

It is this secretive but all-controlling state machinery that was deployed to (allegedly) bring the spread of the virus under control. The response was brutal and totalitarian. It should alarm all freedom-loving people that South Africa’s president seeks inspiration from China’s response to the pandemic.

Thompson passes no judgement on the Chinese surveillance state, except to say that if you want to learn more, you should read George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. That really says it all.

Although the South African government has long had similarly Orwellian tendencies, and will be tracking mobile phones in the fight against the pandemic, it cannot hope to match China’s surveillance bureaucracy and police state machinery.

As the virus inevitably tears through the poorest, most vulnerable parts of our society, followed hot on its heels by the batons and guns of bloodthirsty lockdown-enforcement agents, the only consolation we might cling to is the observation that in countries that have done more widespread testing, the mortality rate also seems to be a lot lower than first anticipated.

not only does Ramaphosa’s claim that a lockdown is necessary not withstand scrutiny, but so does his claim that it will be effective

‘If one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases, the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%,’ wrote Anthony Fauci and his co-authors in the New England Journal of Medicine on 26 March 2020. ‘This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968) rather than a disease similar to SARS or MERS, which have had case fatality rates of 9 to 10% and 36%, respectively.’

So not only does Ramaphosa’s claim that a lockdown is necessary not withstand scrutiny, but so does his claim that it will be effective. A lockdown haphazardly implemented by insufficient and ill-disciplined forces will likely not work anywhere except in relatively well-off neighbourhoods. And if it is not effective, it isn’t necessary.

That means the president has gone and blown up what remained of South Africa’s precarious economy for nothing. It is likely that having thrown millions out of work and into dire poverty will ultimately produce a higher death toll than the pandemic would have done.

Research has established that even in wealthy countries, unemployment is associated with a substantially increased risk of death.

India, which has followed a strategy almost identical to that of South Africa, has already said it has no plans to extend the lockdown, as it struggles to keep essential supplies flowing and prevent the unemployed, hungry masses from fleeing the cities for the countryside.

The Atlantic described India’s measures as ‘undoubtedly the world’s harshest lockdown with police brutality, a lack of transparency, and a shortage of compassion’, calling it ‘callous’ and ‘needlessly punishing for the most vulnerable in society’, while ‘[doing] nothing to solve this country’s problems with public health and safety’.

Next pandemic

It is certain that with a weaker economy and lower tax revenue, South Africa will be even less prepared for the next pandemic, when it comes. It will have lower stocks of essential medical supplies and equipment, and a weaker healthcare system. It will have less money to throw at emergency stocks and vaccines, and it will have a poorer, more desperate and angrier population to suppress.

And the next pandemic will come. Given Ramaphosa’s infatuation with China, be ready for recurring and escalating episodes of health-scare totalitarianism, trading away citizens’ essential liberties for a little temporary safety which may not even materialise.

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

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Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.