Much of the country heaved a sigh of relief at the news that lockdown restrictions would be significantly eased from 1 June, but the economic destruction is far from over, and there’s no rhyme or reason for continuing the ban on tobacco, unless…

The good news is that president Cyril Ramaphosa announced a Level 3 lockdown commencing on 1 June, which looks much more like Level 2 than one might have expected, and which applies to the entire country, including the so-called ‘hotspots’ involving major metros and a few surrounding districts.

Instead of prohibiting everything except those things which are expressly permitted, the new rules permit everything except those things which are expressly prohibited.

This kind of ‘soft lockdown’ should have been the policy from the beginning: prohibiting only those activities which could not be safely conducted under reasonable infection-control protocols and permitting everyone else to get on with their lives and jobs. Still, though belated, the change in policy ought to be welcomed.

It is hard to tell what to make of this apparent relaxation of the hard lockdown, which over nine-and-a-half harrowing weeks devastated the private sector, closing many businesses and costing many jobs, many of them permanently.

It could indicate that business lobbies, legal challenges and civil society activists succeeded in pressuring the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) to soften the draconian lockdown, which exploited the Covid-19 response as a Trojan Horse for destroying the middle class. Doing so is a crucial step in the ANC’s openly declared strategy to establish a second, socialist revolution, to complete what the democratic revolution of 1994 began.

Some commentators, like Max du Preez, believe this is the most absurd conspiracy theory they have ever read about Covid-19. Perhaps they haven’t read the National Democratic Revolution strategy document, written by the South African Communist Party, and which the ANC re-adopts as its ideological touchstone at every congress. Perhaps they don’t listen when ANC leaders like President Ramaphosa and Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the minister of cooperative government and traditional affairs, talk of radical economic transformation, class suicide, and constructing an entirely new economy in the aftermath, during their Covid-19 speeches.

Strategic retreat to mollify critics

The imminent lockdown relaxation could also suggest a strategic retreat, to mollify the critics, who are becoming numerous and insistent. If so, such a retreat would likely be temporary. After all, the president’s speech clearly left the door open for returning ‘hotspots’ to Levels 4 or 5, should the active caseload in these areas increase.

Given that an increase in cases is inevitable with freer movement of people, as we head towards the expected peak in August or September, this could return each of the metros (except Mangaung/Bloemfontein) as well as the West Coast, Cape Winelands and Overberg districts adjoining Cape Town, Chris Hani municipality in the Eastern Cape, and the iLembe district north of eThekwini/Durban, to a hard lockdown.

These areas account for the vast majority of the country’s residents and economic activity, and many of the remaining areas are heavily dependent on tourism, which remains shut down in any case. That means that a new hard lockdown could shut down almost the entire economy that survived the first harrowing months, just as government’s critics relaxed their vigil.

In line with the government’s new, autocratic nature, the ANC has accused ‘those who are trying to undermine Cabinet and the NCCC, and the decisions that they collectively take’ of ‘selfish and unpatriotic behavior (sic)’.

That critics of the government’s lockdown strategy might have genuine cause to believe some aspects are misguided, might genuinely be concerned for the millions upon millions of newly unemployed and the starving poor, or might genuinely believe that the lockdown will do more harm than good in a developing country such as ours, cannot be admitted if the revolution is to succeed.

Dissent cannot be tolerated

This is consistent with the witch-hunt against Dr Glenda Gray, who described the government’s lockdown regulations as ‘unscientific and nonsensical’. Dissent cannot be tolerated during a revolution.

The bad news is that tobacco remains prohibited, apparently to satisfy the whims of Dr Dlamini-Zuma, who chairs the NCCC.

Two days before the president announced the details of the Level 3 lockdown, which commences on 1 June, Dr Dlamini-Zuma told us what she wanted. Both alcohol and cigarettes, she told the secretive politburo that commands hapless South African citizens, should remain banned until level 1.

Aaron Motsoaledi, the current home affairs minister and former health minister, who also clearly remains determined to ban anything and everything that might give people a little pleasure – for their own good, of course – backed her up.

It looks like President Ramaphosa, instead of judging these proposals on their merits, agreed to split the difference and permit limited alcohol sales, but keep tobacco products banned. Tobacco may have just been a bargaining chip between the pure socialists led by the president, and the faction of self-enrichment and corruption led by Dr Dlamini-Zuma.

Ironically, there are far stronger arguments against permitting the sale of alcohol during the lockdown. Not that they’re sufficient to justify prohibition, but it is true that some people get drunk, and some drunk people can cause problems for themselves and others by recklessly breaching sanitary protocols, committing crimes, or threatening public order. Each of these should be addressed on its merits, instead of punishing the majority of responsible alcohol users with a ban, but still, the arguments carry some weight.

Against smoking, however, the arguments are weak or non-existent. The president merely said that the prohibition would continue ‘due to the health risks associated with smoking’. But that is no justification at all. The health risks associated with smoking have always existed and have never merited a prohibition.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize dismissively said it was not even worth debating the matter, and it could never be said that tobacco was an essential service, according to News24. But that is no argument, either. Under Level 3 regulations, there is no mention of essential services. All products and services are permitted, unless specifically prohibited.

Mealy-mouthed generality

He, too, fell back on a mealy-mouthed generality about tobacco not being good for anyone’s health, while Dr Dlamini-Zuma herself merely pointed to the health benefits of quitting smoking, and said that Covid-19 affects the respiratory system.

None of that supports the necessity of a continued prohibition, however.

The benefits of quitting smoking, in the short term, are very limited. A decrease in the frequency of lung infections only becomes noticeable nine months after quitting.

Many studies have actually found that smokers are significantly under-represented in Covid-19 hospitalisations. The World Health Organisation, which is ideologically opposed to smoking and supports authoritarian measures to suppress tobacco sales, released a statement saying, ‘There is currently insufficient information to confirm any link between tobacco or nicotine in the prevention or treatment of Covid-19.’

However, according to David Christianson, an award-winning journalist writing for Business Day, at least 28 studies across a range of countries have found fewer smokers among Covid-19 hospital cases than in the general population.

None of the authors of these studies are proponents of tobacco smoking, but there is just no way to ignore statistics that say – over and over again – smokers are five times less likely to contract Covid-19 than non-smokers, or four times less likely to have an adverse outcome from the disease.

Some of these studies propose a potential mechanism whereby nicotine affects the entry of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes Covid-19) into the body, and postulate that there may be a therapeutic role for nicotine in the prevention or treatment of Covid-19.

The weak justifications for continuing the tobacco ban ignore this science, which raises the question, why was the ban extended, and why did Dr Dlamini-Zuma, in particular, insist upon it?

Jacques Pauw, veteran investigative journalist and author of The President’s Keepers, a 2017 book about the allegedly corrupt and compromised power networks in the government of President Jacob Zuma, might have the answer. In the book, and also in a 2017 Sunday Times article, he writes at length about the ties between Dlamini-Zuma and ‘dirty cigarette money’, particularly involving Adriano Mazzotti, the self-confessed cigarette smuggler and CEO of local manufacturer, Carnilinx.

A more sinister political motive?

In a radio interview with Kieno Kammies on Cape Talk, Pauw explicitly suggested that the tobacco ban has a more sinister, political motive, involving ties between Mazzotti and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as well as the Economic Freedom Fighters.

As we saw last week, Carnilinx had, by 15 May, quintupled its South African market share, from 2% to 10%. Other local manufacturers, many of whom are suspected of tax evasion, have also grabbed market share from the large multinationals who can’t afford the risk of breaking the law.

Dr Dlamini-Zuma has denied a close association between her and Mazzotti, but that denial is hard to take seriously, in light of the detailed exposé written by Pauw. Perhaps he isn’t a ‘friend’, but it does not take friendship to be a benefactor.

For his part, Mazzotti has also denied claims of links to Dlamini-Zuma, but again, how much faith can one place in the word of a man who admitted in a sworn affidavit to ‘fraud, money laundering, corruption, tax evasion and bribery’?

Meanwhile, the NCCC discussions that would illuminate the reasons for the decisions to extend the ban, first on 1 May, and now again on 1 June, remain ‘classified’, as if domestic tobacco policy is a matter of national security.

There really is no rational reason, related to Covid-19, to permit the sale of alcohol, but continue the prohibition on tobacco products.

The prohibition appears to have no benefits at all, but it does very real harm. It imperils the jobs and incomes of tens of thousands of South Africans, enriches and expands opportunities for criminal cartels, costs the fiscus hundreds of millions in revenue, aggravates mental health issues and social problems such as domestic violence, costs individual smokers money they should rather be spending on food, and perhaps even exposes smokers to a higher risk of contracting Covid-19.

There is no rhyme or reason to the ban, unless the only plausible explanation, that certain members of the NCCC are protecting special interests that benefit them politically, is true.

This casts a dark cloud over the government’s broader handling of the Covid-19 crisis. If special interests can influence the regulations, what confidence can the people have that the secretive NCCC actually does govern in their best interests? What confidence can the people have that there are not sinister motives behind many more of the government’s actions?

Picture: GCIS

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

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