Although alarm bells are ringing for a coronavirus fourth wave, government would do well to avoid harsh lockdown measures, especially over the holiday season. The costs are simply too great, and the benefits too slim.

This holiday season’s theme tune should be Don’t lock us down, sung to the tune of the Electric Light Orchestra’s 1979 hit single.

The tourism and hospitality industries have suffered enough, and so have the rest of us. After almost two years of pandemic lockdowns, we all need a break, if only for the sake of our mental health.

Although 2021 figures aren’t yet available, Stats SA reports a catastrophic decline in tourist arrivals and departures for 2020, the likes of which we’ve never seen. The same goes for restaurants and accommodation.

Hotels, guest houses, restaurants and music venues took a hammering, not only because of a loss of tourists, but also because of harsh lockdown regulations such as prohibitions on alcohol and the closure of beaches.

That last December’s festive season lockdown came as a surprise also wreaked terrible damage. Events that had been arranged, booked and paid for had to be cancelled at the last minute when new restrictions came into effect in the middle of the high season. Such unforseen losses can easily bankrupt individuals or small businesses. The experience likely also scared off many sponsors who got burned by getting nothing for monies advanced to organise festive season events.

What the tourism and hospitality industry needs now is a solid holiday season. Tourist arrivals are a little stronger than in 2020, and even a few ‘swallows’ – tourists who stay for several months to escape the European winter – have recently been spotted.

Although the industry will take years to recover, it’s about mere survival right now. Those who are still operating need all the revenue they can get, or the industry will lay off yet more staff as yet more businesses hit the wall in 2022.

Alarm bells

A few days ago, health minister Joe Phaahla told eNCA’s Rofhiwa Madzena: ‘We would want to avoid severe lockdowns. We are studying the developments every day, but we would want to do as much as possible in terms of social restrictions to avoid super-spreading but without taking too much away from the liberties of people socially and economically.’

That is a refreshing approach, which stands in contrast to the actions of Phaahla’s more despotic counterparts. The first instinct of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) was to ban everything that moved as soon as the numbers began to spike.

In the last day or two, however, several alarm bells started ringing.

On 24 November, News24 reported a sharp increase in reported cases, primarily under young people in Gauteng, concluding that ‘the question about the fourth wave is not if, but when’.

By the time of writing, this had translated into more general community transmission of an entirely new variant, with mutations that suggest increased transmissibility, and possible immune escape. The World Health Organisation sat up and took notice, and will officially name the variant today.

The effective reproductive number (Re) of the virus dropped below one during August 2021, at the end of the third wave. An Re number lower than one signifies that virus transmission is slowing down, as each infected person infects fewer than one other person.

It remained below one until 4 November 2021, but has since risen to 1.85, which indicates exponentially increasing transmission. This Re number is higher than it was at any stage of the third wave. Provinces of concern are not only Gauteng, but also the North West and Western Cape.

This weekend, the NCCC will meet to decide how to respond. If the past is any indication, we should expect another draconian crackdown, with sharply lower numbers permitted to gather for events, an extended curfew, and restrictions on, or ban of, alcohol sales.

Lockdown stringency

It need not be this way, however. There is conflicting evidence in the academic literature on whether lockdown stringency significantly affected Covid-19 transmission rates, hospitalisations or deaths. Some studies say yes, but others, such as this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one, suggest otherwise.

Adherence to social distancing and inherent population factors, such as high-density living, population age profile, and the incidence of co-morbidities such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, all seem to affect a country’s Covid-19 numbers far more than their lockdown stringency does.

In South Africa, with low levels of compliance in densely populated, low-income residential areas, and limited or no restrictions on public transport and religious gatherings, stringent lockdown measures over the festive season are likely to make only a small minority of the population less vulnerable to Covid-19.

In addition, there is research to show that lockdown fatigue significantly undermines the effectiveness of long or repeated lockdowns, and this is particularly significant for countries like South Africa, where vaccination is going relatively slowly:

‘These results suggest that restrictions applied for a long period or reintroduced late in the pandemic (for example, in the event of a resurgence of cases) would exert, at best, a weaker, attenuated effect on the circulation of the virus and the number of casualties. Combined with the results in Haug et al. (2020) [which found less disruptive and costly non-pharmaceutical interventions can be as effective as more intrusive, drastic, ones (for example, a national lockdown)], they suggest that lockdowns should be strict and brief.

‘These findings are particularly relevant for emerging and developing countries that may face considerable delays in the start of massive vaccination campaigns and will likely face successive waves of infections without having achieved herd immunity levels. After a year of strong economic downturn and substantial health costs, the intensity of lockdowns continues to be an influential factor in the economic and social life of low- and middle-income countries. Even if restrictions played a role early on, they had a one-off effect that would be hard to replicate going forward. This suggests that the heavy reliance on lockdowns as in the early stages of the pandemic may not be advised.’

Leave well enough alone

These scientific findings, as well as the fact that heavy-handed regulation early on actually turned out to be both extremely harmful to the economy and counterproductive for controlling the spread of the virus, should caution against introducing any substantial new lockdown regulations during the holiday season.

The NCCC would be wise to leave well enough alone. The potential benefits of a stricter lockdown are dubious, and the likely economic costs would be severe. It’s not a complicated calculation.

The country needs to recover, not only from Covid-19, but from the severe economic damage inflicted by previous harsh (and often rash) lockdown regulations. And we all need to take a breather to recover our sanity.

So please, command council, don’t lock us down, down, down, down, down, down.

[Image: Alterna2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5680376]

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

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Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. As an independent researcher, he is the author of the recent report from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) – South Africa’s Minibus Taxi Industry, Resistance to Formalisation and Innovation – which assesses the potential for innovation and modernisation in this vital transport sector.