South African scientists recently told the media that lockdown may have accelerated the spread of coronavirus, causing a surprisingly high level of herd immunity. This raises the question: why did we destroy our economy?

In a recent article, South Africa’s top epidemiologist, Professor Shabir Mahdi, told John Sparks, the Africa correspondent for Sky News, that he believed the rapid spread of coronavirus stimulated a level of immunity in 12 million to 15 million people.

‘What has happened in SA today,’ Mahdi told Sparks, ‘the only way to explain it, the only plausible way to explain it, is that some sort of herd immunity has been reached when combined with the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions… like the wearing of masks, physical distancing, ensuring ventilation when indoors and so on.’

Several antibody studies have reportedly been conducted in South Africa, finding between 33% and 40% immunity against the virus.

A virologist involved in one of the studies, Dr Marvin Hsiao of UCT’s Division of Medical Virology, who consults to the National Health Laboratory Service, told Sparks: ‘Inexplicably, the numbers started dropping off at the end of July, and at the time I couldn’t explain why. But when we analysed the data it become (sic) clear, this immunity within the population level (linked to) the big surge infections is probably the main reason why we’ve seen the decrease of numbers of infected.’

According to the article, the scientists believe that South Africa’s strict early lockdown ‘inadvertently kick-started a massive wave of infection’, as Sparks put it, because social distancing was impossible in densely populated township areas, and the regulations forced people into queues for groceries and social grant payments, which Dr Hsiao described as ‘new networks for the spread of the disease’.

‘The response needs to be much more nuanced than simply believing that a highly restrictive lockdown is going to get rid of the virus,’ Mahdi told Sparks.

Scandal of the year

The original idea of the lockdown was to slow down the spread of coronavirus to give health services time to prepare for the peak. It now seems that not only did lockdown fail at this simple task, but it accelerated the spread of the virus. It was, in every way, counter-productive.

This raises the question; why turf millions of people out of work and thousands of small enterprises out of business, for exactly no benefit whatsoever? The National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) compounded the country’s critical unemployment crisis and deepened the country’s deplorable poverty levels, setting South Africa up for years of misery, malnutrition, disease and premature death. The social and economic impacts of the lockdown far outweigh what the pandemic itself wrought.

Who will take responsibility for a policy that had catastrophic downsides, and no upsides at all? If anyone takes responsibility at all, one assumes it will be the traditional ‘collective responsibility’ that shields everyone involved from accountability.

I will eat my hat if any heads roll over what surely ought to be the scandal of the year.

What did happen

The SARS-CoV-2 virus and Covid-19, the respiratory disease it causes, should not be taken lightly. Although epidemiological projections around the world have wildly exaggerated the potential death toll, it isn’t just like a seasonal flu.

It spreads faster, and when it gets hold of you, kills faster.

What government did was institute a draconian lockdown. Although there was widespread support for the move in the initial weeks, this support rapidly ebbed away as three weeks turned into five weeks, and then into interminable months of varying degrees of restrictions.

The regulations seemed designed to make the lockdown as hard to bear as possible. Instead of prohibiting indoor gatherings, the sale of alcohol was banned altogether.

Tobacco was arbitrarily banned, even though nicotine proved to be somewhat protective against Covid-19. Hardware stores, booksellers, sports shops and other suppliers of diversion for the millions of people now quarantined, jobless, at home, were closed.

Early on, churches – which so often were the epicentre of local outbreaks – were bizarrely permitted to open, but domestic tourism, which could easily have been carried on with hygiene precautions in place, remained banned, and restaurants remained closed.

While everyone else was still locked down, the taxi industry strong-armed the government into permitting it to operate at 100% capacity, contradicting the entire lockdown principle.

The government’s modelling and the minutes of its decisions were kept secret, adding to the belief that it wasn’t really able to justify its authoritarian diktats.

One of my earliest columns on lockdown warned that ‘millions of poor South Africans live in conditions that are simply not amenable to a lockdown’.

If this was apparent to me, it should have been apparent to the NCCC. Lockdown was never going to work in a country like South Africa.

What should have happened

Instead of harsh lockdown measures that not only did not work, but were actively counter-productive by accelerating the spread of the virus, government should have taken an approach more like that of Sweden.

South Africa’s government treated citizens like unruly children, who could not be trusted to act in their own best interests and had to be forced into compliance.

Instead, it should have treated them like adults. It should have rolled out widespread information campaigns to support its recommendations to wash hands, wear masks and keep a safe distance away from strangers.

Instead of closing most businesses in South Africa, it should have imposed the required public health measures that would ensure those businesses could be conducted safely. Instead of closing everything except ‘essential goods and services’, whatever that means, it should have kept everything open except businesses that could not be conducted in relative safety.

Prohibiting public gatherings, and especially indoor gatherings, was probably sensible. Instead of confining everyone to their homes, however, where the virus spread unimpeded, government should have encouraged people to get out into the fresh air, where the risk of transmission is minimal.

If people felt that government was actually on their side, and could be trusted, they might have taken sensible recommendations to avoid gatherings, sanitise hands and wear masks more seriously than many do now.

In terms of the speed of transmission, largely voluntary measures could hardly have done worse than the draconian lockdown we had.

Economically, the country would of course still have suffered. With international travel largely shut down, our trading partners in lockdown, and a massive slump in business for public-facing industries like hospitality, the economy would still have contracted.

But it wouldn’t have been as bad as it is now. For cutting the economy off at the knees, without any public health benefit to show for it, the government must take responsibility. One hopes that the catastrophe of 2020 goes some way towards collapsing the persistent support that ANC misrule retains.

[Picture: Roksana Helscher from Pixabay]

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

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