‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’ is a widely known quote cited by journalist Peter Arnett about the Vietnam War. Attributed to a US army officer, it was seized upon by the anti-war movement as a signifier of the futility and self-contradiction of the conflict.
It has since been used as a statement about perversity; that we do things that nominally achieve their purpose, but which undermine what we are trying to safeguard.
For many South Africans, this comment must ring grimly true at the moment. Since 27 March, most of the country has been under lockdown. This was, the reasoning went, imperative to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, which, if left to take its own course, threatened to overwhelm South Africa’s health infrastructure and take many lives.
It was a strategy with merit, and one that matched what many other countries were doing.
It has, however, come with a massive cost. Real people with responsibilities depend on the income they earn from their work in the economy. This applies to the cashier in a supermarket, the business executive, the hairstylist.
This is what ‘the economy’ means. Whatever its merits as a public health measure, the lockdown is denying millions upon millions of South Africans the opportunity to participate in it.
The push to end the lockdown should neither be ignored nor dismissed as a callous case of profits-at-all-costs-and-the-devil-take-the-hindmost. And it should not be deflected, as one commentator tried to do in saying: ‘It’s always been very interesting to me how we speak about the economy as some sort of pre-existing cosmic force that we all have to submit and yield to. I understand that it is a very real thing but this is something that is controlled by a group of people very deliberately. I wish we would speak more about challenging the power structures that actually set economies up in the way they are set up.’
The economic damage from the lockdown will be severe. The South African Reserve Bank, in its Monetary Policy Review in early April had this to say: ‘Preliminary estimates suggest South Africa could lose about 370 000 jobs this year, on a net basis, with business insolvencies increasing by roughly 1 600 firms as the economy contracts.’
This was as the lockdown had just been introduced.
Unlikely to hang on for a month
Things look, if anything, a lot worse now. A Stats SA survey of businesses – published on 21 April – found that somewhere over 84% of businesses believed that they could not survive without turnover for up to three months. And more than a third of these firms believed they were unlikely to hang on for a month.
The CCMA is talking of a rise in demand for its services – and expanding its capacity – as firms seek retrenchments in an effort to keep viable. Smaller business have, according to employment and labour minister Thulas Nxesi, ‘taken a hammering as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown to slow the spread of the virus.’
Indeed, with Treasury now talking of job losses in the millions, and the unemployment rate reaching 40% or even 50%, the old cliché of a ‘jobs bloodbath’ may well become prescient and accurate.
Directly related to this is the loss of tax revenues, some 15% to 20% of what was expected in the current year, according to commissioner Edward Kieswetter. This would have all manner of implications for civil servants and also for recipients of social grants.
These are the consequences of the economy in distress, and what, say, a ‘decline of 16% of GDP’ means.
As it happens, these are also the consequences that dominate the thinking of most of the country. Another Stats SA survey found that 93.2% of South Africans were ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about the possible collapse of the economy. (For comparison, 50.1% shared this degree of concern about their own health.)
Even health experts have cautioned about the need to balance the measures taken to combat the virus and the knock-on problems that will arise from impoverishment.
Those sneering at concerns about the economy are actually in an extreme minority.
But the lockdown as it exists now needs to be lifted. The distinction between essential and non-essential goods and services is an unsustainable one – and even more so the ridiculous hair-splitting over such matters as whether a T-shirt may be sold only as an undergarment.
That the government has now consented to allow wider e-commerce is good news; restricting it in the interests of ‘fairness’ had nothing to do with the pandemic. It was ill-advised, and the restrictions should have been lifted long ago.
And no, that doesn’t mean that health concerns should be disregarded either.
Businesses need to be encouraged to get their operations going again, with the proviso that they do so while doing everything possible to limit risk. Measuring the temperature of those entering shops, requiring facemasks, mandatory hand sanitising, creating ‘dead zones’ in shops where items can be deposited for repair or pick up, parking-lot collections, placing Perspex screens between customers and check-out counters can go a long way to protecting staff and customers.
There may well be cases to be made for keeping some businesses out of operation. But this must be carefully considered and meticulously explained – and only done to prevent the spread of the virus, not for any other reason.
Not to be treated lightly
Are there risks in this? Yes, there are. They are not to be treated lightly. But the risk of letting things drift as they currently are is a major risk too. An unemployment rate of (only?) 29.1% was seen as a disaster before the economy was locked down. We dare not lose sight of this.
And perhaps Arnett’s quote can be revisited here. As well-known as the words he recorded have become, there are those who doubt their accuracy. The settlement in question was of substantial size, and was not in fact destroyed. An officer who described himself as the source of the quote claimed to have actually said that it was a shame the damage had been inflicted. And, coincidentally, the day before Arnett’s words were printed, colleagues had run a story entitled ‘How do we win by military force without destroying what we are trying to save?’
Remove the reference to the military, and this is a question that might frame South Africa’s response to Covid-19.