The lockdown is costing South Africa’s already crippled economy an estimated R13bn to R20bn a day.  But, despite its heavy costs, it is unable to protect the millions of people who live in crowded townships and teeming informal settlements. Here, homes cluster closely together, many structures house families of four or more, scarce communal taps and toilets are shared among hundreds – and social distancing simply cannot be maintained.

That the lockdown cannot protect residents in these areas has been confirmed by detailed Covid-19 data from the Western Cape. This shows, for example, that confirmed cases in Khayelitsha grew from six to 44 in early April and then to 203 by 27 April. The lockdown was in place throughout this period, yet infections rose by 3 300%.

As Professor Alex van den Heever, health economics expert at Wits University, has pointed out, ‘if a lockdown doesn’t stop infections in SA’s high-density areas, it is largely ineffective’ and ‘equivalent to no intervention’ at all for millions of people.

Perversely, the people least protected by the lockdown are also the ones who suffer most from the hunger and deprivation that it causes. This is evident from a recent opinion poll conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) among some 19 300 respondents.  

Among respondents as a whole, roughly a quarter (24%) said they had no money to buy food. More than half (55%) of those living in informal settlements also lacked the money to buy food. So too did two thirds of township residents.

A smaller opinion survey, carried out by Victory Research among 600 respondents, shows a similar picture. This survey asked people how easy or hard it was to buy essential supplies: a question covering both the costs and availability of food and other vital items.

Among black South Africans in general, 66% said it was hard or very hard to do. Some 65% of township residents agreed. Among residents of informal settlements, however, 79% said it was hard or very hard to find food and other essentials.

The Victory Research survey also shows that 54% of South Africans oppose any extension of the lockdown beyond the end of April. Yet this is what the government is determined to do. Some 75 000 soldiers have thus been deployed to enforce restrictions that many increasingly resent. This is a recipe for confrontation.

Lockdown restrictions arbitrary

Against this background, the government’s proposals for tapering off the lockdown over many months are far too slow, rigid, arbitrary, and subjective.

Too slow, because the government sees the lockdown as lasting for another six to eight months, albeit with reduced restrictions over time. Too rigid, in that bureaucrats will assign entire sectors to the ‘correct’ risk level (from 1 to 5), with scant regard for the varying businesses within them. Too arbitrary, because the criteria laid down are often vague and open to conflicting interpretation. And too subjective because decisions may be based on personal preference, rather than health needs.

The subjective element has been confirmed by trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel, who says that ‘deciding who goes back to work’ depends not only on objective data (a given sector’s contribution to GDP, for instance) but also on ‘the making of a judgement call’.

Subjectivity is evident too in Mr Patel’s irrational decision that unfettered on-line shopping – which poses no health risks, is allowed elsewhere, and would help keep the economy alive – cannot be permitted in South Africa because it would result in ‘unfair competition’ for spaza shops and informal traders.

Government rulings on whether to move the country (or parts of it) from higher to lower risk levels will depend entirely on health criteria. Economic considerations will not feature and two health tests will rule. These, in essence, are whether Covid-19 infections are still spreading, and whether health systems are sufficiently ready.

If these health criteria remain the key deciders, the lockdown could last all the way into 2021. Even when a ‘low virus spread’ has been attained, health sector readiness could still be found wanting – which would further postpone the lifting of restrictions.

A prolonged lockdown could see millions of South Africans losing their jobs and homes, exhausting their savings, and going bankrupt under mountains of debt. Yet the government seems indifferent to mounting hunger, hardship, and economic collapse.

The lockdown must thus be scrapped – and with immediate effect. Three principles must, however, apply.

Lifting the lockdown – safely

First, all businesses should be allowed to return to work, but must also shoulder the burden of protecting their staff, customers, and suppliers as best possible. Second, those particularly vulnerable to the virus should practice social distancing and, if necessary, go into self-isolation or quarantine (with the help of tax-funded vouchers for those in need). Third, some 13 million children should be kept out of school until September. Little social distancing is possible in most schools – and a return to school in May is likely to undo whatever gains five weeks of lockdown have brought.  

Some people may be afraid of the economy re-opening, but ‘following the science’ should help to temper these concerns. Most virus victims have zero or minimal symptoms. In the US, as many as 23 million people may have contracted Covid-19 without ever knowing it or seeking to be tested.

Early projections of likely Covid-19 death tolls were far too high and are being revised sharply down. This is true in South Africa too, where the SA Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (Sacema) has revised its initial estimate of between 87 800 and 351 000 fatalities.

A more realistic estimate, says Professor Shabir Madhi of Wits University, is a total of some 25 000 Covid-19 deaths this year. This is significantly fewer than the 28 678 deaths from TB recorded in 2017.  

However, the longer the lockdown lasts, the more the death toll from other diseases could rise. Increased hunger and hardship could push TB deaths in 2020 far higher than the norm. Deaths from diabetes, heart disease, HIV, cancer, malnutrition, and other non-Covid causes could rise sharply too, significantly outstripping the death toll from the virus.

This is why 19 doctors wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa last week urging him to lift the lockdown, warning that time is of the essence, and stressing that Covid-19 fatalities must be balanced against the many avoidable deaths the lockdown is likely to cause.

The key issue confronting the country is not the crude one of whether ‘profits’ should be put before ‘lives’, as the EFF and some others have stated. The real question is how best to balance ‘lives’ versus ‘lives’.

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  1. Anthea, i have said this right from the beginning. The lockdown in SA was instituted, as in Britain, Stay home, Protect NHS, save lives, in that order. Purely in SA, to protect or buy time for our really badly equipped & Staffed Health System, which will never be up to scratch, ever, to cope with, TB, Diabetics, HIV, Influenza, Casualties from drinking, & Civid 19, so we will never be able to reach Level 1. Or No restrictions. So will beer, which is all i drink occasionally, like one an evening, my little bit of freedom. Ever be sold again, to protect our Health System. Its absolutely ludercriss & really too badly thought out, to even discuss. i am exasperated by the whole affair, as nothing seems to make any sense. Exercise 6-9. Why ? Why ? When thousands of people are going shopping, and now lots going off to work, the crowds will all be over by 09h00, wouldn’t it now be safer to go for your walk, cycle, or jog. The wearing of masks, now instituted, was purely to protect Health Workers, the rest of us could catch the virus, “Saving lives most important” suddenly now masks become relevant. its all just been bad right from the beginning. They say you want to see someones true character, give them power. I am not talking about the President, thank heavens for him. You know he is a clear thinker. He really needs to show his leadership potential now, before the economy & the people implode. Why would anyone irritate the population during a pandemic, with hardship at the level its at, with draconian measures as prohibiting the sale of Cigarettes & Booze. Its not normal. Its a show of force. And can & only will be seen as such. You have two options, win the hearts or lose the people.

  2. There have been so few deaths from the virus that there is no reason to continue the Lockdown . As pointed out in your article , amongst the most vulnerable , the Lockdown maintains social crowding ,and still the death rate is low . This is very surprising as the health of so many is compromised with aids and TB . So why does the government want to maintain a Lockdown ?

  3. A simple question the Government need to ask themselves.
    When has it ever been sound medical or governmental practice to sacrifice – and destroy – the economic, mental, and physical well-being of the 99 percent to MAYBE protect and save the one percent…or less? When?
    Not everyone’s lives are equally at risk, but everyone’s liberties are being equally denied.
    There was no lockdown where over 135 000 die from aids last year. There was no lockdown where 22 000 were murdered last year. There was no lockdown where over 11 000 died from flu last year. Why now? It is simply based on paranoia and propagandised fear without facts. It is irrational.

  4. The draconian power the anc now has is being applied to further its ongoing policy of nationalising – namely centralising – all aspects of South African society. I really wonder whether the anc cares at all about those who have died and maybe will die as this vicious lockdown continues.

  5. Sir, I am an Irish citizen stranded in your beautiful country and just want to fly back to the green fields of Donegal and Tyrone. The measures undertaken by your Government seems at odds with so many countries not just in the West but in many other parts of the world. Introducing the army onto the streets when so many people are struggling without money and food will inevitably result in clashes that will invariably escalate into a much wider civil unrest. When those unfortunates in the townships and informal settlements are starving they will react as all of us would and forcibly take what they require to live.

    As for your economy I am staggered by the lack of foresight by the relevant Ministers as to their draconian approach of forcing business to remain in lockdown that will result in bankruptcy and yet more unemployment.

    I absolutely love your amazing country therefore it is with great sadness that I see the future as being one of relentless austerity for the foreseeable future.



  6. And it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the ‘powers-that-be’ that a significant number of the ‘protected’ don’t WANT to be protected by wrapping them in cotton wool and locking them away! Preventing ‘old’ people from moving around, seeing friends and family is a PUNISHMENT! (By the way, the older I get, the older ‘old’ becomes! If it wasn’t for all of the restrictions, I’d be planning spending my 78th birthday walking in the Drakensberg). One of the NASTIEST stories I read is of ‘elderly’ sick people being allowed to die in hospital with no-one near – no family, and not even a nurse to hold their hand. And all because of ‘lockdown’. The whole ‘side-effects’ seem to be much worse than NOT taking the medicine!


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