The lockdown is supposed to end a week today, but there are many in the government who want it extended for far longer – and made subject to even stricter controls, including curfews of (as yet) unspecified duration and scope.
The Minerals Council South Africa – which warned earlier this week of permanent damage to the industry if the lockdown is extended beyond 16 April – has hinted that the government, based on modelling by Johns Hopkins University, might want to extend it to August. That’s at least four months away.
The government has been widely praised for its swift action in locking down the economy while infections were still low (fewer than 1 000) and no deaths had yet been recorded. The number of new infections (roughly 800) since the lockdown began has also been way below projections (4 500 or so), prompting further praise for the effectiveness of its strategy.
However, there is also significant evidence to suggest that starting the lockdown so soon may have been a mistake.
Seasonal factors, for one, seem to have been left out of account. The SARS-Cov-2 virus, like others of its kind, is more easily transmitted when temperatures are between 5˚C and 11˚C. That suggests that the pandemic could peak only in June.
In addition, lockdowns are most likely to succeed when they are combined with major testing and tracing to identify those infected. But the government has done very little testing and is far from ready to roll this out at any scale.
Only about 63 700 tests have been carried out to date, compared to close on 300 000 in Australia and more than 460 000 in South Korea. Moreover, of the 63 700 conducted here, a mere 6 000 or so have been carried out in the public sector (and the rest in private laboratories).
The public sector is still poorly prepared for the mass testing promised by President Cyril Ramaphosa last week, when he said that 10 000 field workers would soon be moving into villages, towns, and cities to expand the screening, testing, and tracking process.
Since then, the health ministry has made much of its plans to use 60 or more mobile vans to spearhead the mass testing drive. But none of these vans is yet able to perform on-the-spot analysis. Instead, the 20 or so vans soon to be sent out will carry nurses, who will screen people for signs of the disease, take samples from those with symptoms, and send those samples back for analysis by the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS).
In the dark
This approach to testing is likely to miss at least 50% to 70% of the people infected with the virus. This is evident from both Iceland – which found that 50% of those infected were asymptomatic – and China, where the general testing recently initiated has shown that 70% of virus victims have no symptoms at all. If testing remains confined to those with obvious symptoms, this will leave the country in the dark as to both the true Covid-19 death rate and the extent of ‘herd’ immunity.
In addition, once the samples gathered by the mobile vans reach the NHLS, further delays are likely to arise. Only ten of its laboratories are currently being used for testing – and its notional capacity of 5 000 tests a day is clearly not, in practice, being met. Various measures are being taken to expand its capacity to 36 000 samples a day by the end of April. But, even if this target can be achieved, it will still not be enough.
In practice, thus, the government cannot move ahead with its testing roll-out until May – by which time the lockdown is supposed to have ended. But if mass testing starts only after people have begun moving around again, it will be far more difficult to ‘identify and isolate existing clusters of infection before new ones break out’, as James Myburgh, editor of Politicweb.co.za, points out.
Can the country or its people sustain such a protracted lockdown?
This suggests that the lockdown may be needed at least until the end of May. That would mean a duration of nine weeks, rather than the promised three. It will then be arguable, of course, that the lockdown should be further extended until the end of June, when winter will have begun. And it could also be claimed that it has to stay in place until late in August (as the Minerals Council fears), when spring is finally at hand. That would mean a lockdown of 21 weeks – or seven times longer than the government has thus far said.
Can the country or its people sustain such a protracted lockdown? Renowned economist Ricardo Hausmann disputes this, saying general lockdowns could have catastrophic consequences in countries, like South Africa, without the fiscal space to support millions of people barred from their normal work and income.
Says Professor Hausmann: ‘At the limit, people will have to decide between a 10% chance of dying from the virus and a 100% chance of starving to death.’ What cannot be sustained simply ‘will not last’, he adds. Which means the lockdown might have to be abandoned before the virus has been adequately tracked and tamed.
If anything, thus, the government seems to have gone for a general lockdown too soon: before it was ready to embark on mass testing and tracing, and without regard for seasonal factors.
The government also seems to have assumed that a general lockdown is the only approach to follow. Mr Ramaphosa has praised the Wuhan lockdown in China, claiming that this is ‘the most effective way for a society to contain the spread of the disease’. But other countries have contained the virus without locking down: among them South Korea and Sweden.
South Africa must now avoid a looming humanitarian crisis by adopting a far more nuanced approach. At minimum – and especially if the lockdown is to be extended – it must allow everyone to work if they can do so while maintaining a sufficient degree of social isolation.
The country must urgently get as many people as possible back to work to mitigate the massive damage to the economy, reduce the loss of income, temper the incidence of hunger, guard against an upsurge in other illnesses, and preclude widespread resistance and unrest.
The government must also find ways of targeting the lockdown at the people most at risk – those aged 60 or more, plus those with compromised immune systems. However, far from trying to target the people in these categories, the government is instead planning to ease congestion in some 29 teeming informal settlements by moving many of their residents into temporary accommodation (in converted shipping containers) on land nearby.
But this plan is still in the consultation phase and cannot easily be implemented. It is sure to generate widespread objections, which is why the government is still trying to ‘convince residents that it is in their interest to be relocated’, as a spokesman for the housing department has said.
A far better option is to encourage temporary relocation to isolation centres – to be set up in empty hotels, university residences, and game reserve camps, for instance – by making tax-funded self-isolation vouchers available to those in need. These should be used for the benefit of vulnerable individuals in overcrowded areas, who cannot avoid close contact with the many people with whom they live or share toilets and taps.
The current chorus of praise for the president is simply not good enough
The time has come, in short, to start looking far more critically at what the state is doing to counter Covid-19. The current chorus of praise for the president is simply not good enough.
Maintaining a general – and unnecessarily strict – lockdown for any more than three weeks will unleash a humanitarian disaster. Extending it for another four months, as some in the ANC would like to do, will enormously compound the harm.
South Africans must stop their mute acceptance of what the government is doing, revive their critical faculties, and start coming up (as we in the IRR have been seeking to do) with better ideas about how best to overcome the pandemic.