Almost two years on, the pandemic circumstances have changed fundamentally. There were no good reasons for many of the harsh lockdown rules in the first place. There are no good reasons for maintaining the State of Disaster now.
On Monday, South Africa marked the 666th day of the national State of Disaster. It was declared by Dr. Mmaphaka Tau, head of the National Disaster Management Centre in the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, on 15 March 2020, in response to the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This virus causes Covid-19, a cluster of disease symptoms characterised by a severe form of pneumonia and blood clots.
This week Saturday, 15 January 2022, it will lapse, unless renewed by Minister Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma, who seems to have automated her monthly Government Gazette notices to this effect. This time, she really should let it lapse.
According to her latest notice, the purpose of renewing the State of Disaster, nominally, is ‘to continue augmenting the existing legislation and contingency arrangements undertaken by organs of state to address the impact of the disaster’.
In practice, it is used to sustain a now very limited set of regulations, which for the most part mandate non-pharmaceutical interventions such as mask wearing, sanitising and social distancing, besides keeping nightclubs firmly closed.
The State of Disaster has been grossly abused in the last 22 months, to impose a wide range of harsh restrictions. Some of them, such as the entirely pointless tobacco ban, pursued a private agenda of the minister’s. Some, such as the orders to shut all non-essential businesses and stay home, actually accelerated the spread of the virus. Some, such as beach and park closures, were counter-productive, pushing tourists into malls and restaurants rather than open-air spaces. Some, such as the prohibitions on selling hot food, can openers, and open-toed shoes, simply boggled the mind. Some, such as the prohibition on dog walking, were just vindictive pettiness.
These measures caused catastrophic damage to the economy, destroying thousands of businesses and millions of jobs.
Turning most of the population against the ruling ANC was arguably a silver lining to the draconian lockdowns, but that came at the cost of a deep distrust of government’s public health efforts.
If government could be so callous and cavalier as to destroy people’s jobs and businesses without warning and without good cause, and if government could be so idiotic as to close all open spaces when they are the safest places people could be, why would anyone believe its bona fides on any other public health intervention?
This well-founded distrust left South Africans among the most rebellious populations even against sensible precautions such as masking, social distancing and vaccination.
That’s what happens when you command, instead of persuading. That’s what happens when you believe in centralising authoritarian control in the hands of a few, rather than trusting participatory democracy.
It was clear more than a year ago that lockdowns do more harm than good. In fact, it was clear from the start that lockdowns would not be effective in South Africa, and would become an excuse for brutality and authoritarianism.
It is time to end the power trip, lift the State of Disaster, and disband the anti-democratic National Coronavirus Command Council.
The latest variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Omicron, has been spreading very rapidly, accounting for higher case numbers than any of the previous waves, despite more limited testing at government facilities, and higher (albeit distressingly modest) vaccination numbers.
Yet despite the higher infection numbers, Omicron led to lower numbers of hospitalisations, far lower numbers of ICU admissions, and by far the lowest death rate of any wave to date.
Notably, Omicron more rarely causes typical Covid-19 pneumonia, and more commonly causes bronchitis, instead. Infecting the upper respiratory tract makes it more infectious, but less serious.
This is consistent with a virus that is becoming more transmissible and less virulent – both of which generally offer evolutionary advantages to viruses – and raises the hope that SARS-CoV-2 will soon become just another seasonal virus with a tolerably low mortality rate.
In a bizarre move, the Department of Health first ended its policy of contact tracing and close contact isolation, on the grounds that containment strategies are no longer appropriate and should be suspended in favour of mitigation policies, before reinstating it based on undisclosed ‘additional inputs and comments’, which, rumour has it, emanated from healthcare worker unions.
Knowing full-well that imposing new restrictions and maintaining a curfew over New Year’s Eve would lead to widespread civil disobedience, the government has also dropped most other restrictions on long-suffering South Africans.
Except for night clubs. Although up to 1 000 people may now gather indoors, and the regulations bizarrely do not require indoors venues to be ventilated, they definitely may not gather indoors in a nightclub, because then they’d be having fun, and nobody should be having fun on NDZ’s watch.
Normalising our response to the virus is long overdue. Treat the sick, protect the vulnerable, vaccinate widely, and take reasonable sanitary measures, but otherwise allow the economy and society to return to normal.
As I write this, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen, also called upon President Cyril Ramaphosa to lift the State of Disaster, and put his reasons well:
‘South Africa needs certainty.
‘Investors need it, tourists need it, teachers need it, schoolchildren need it. Schoolchildren need to go to school full time. Not a couple of days a week.
‘People need to know they can invest in businesses large or small without the rules of the game suddenly changing. Without investment, there will be no job creation and no sustainable poverty alleviation.
‘The National Coronavirus Command Council is profoundly undemocratic. There is great risk to our democracy in a small group of individuals taking decisions on all our behalf without parliamentary oversight and other democratic checks on power.
‘The State of Disaster has become no more than a cover for increasing centralized (sic) control and evading accountability. It must go.’
It is entirely feasible to maintain limited sanitation measures as regulations under public health legislation. The perfectly reasonable desire to keep people masked and distanced in high-risk indoor settings, however, is not sufficient to justify a continuation of the State of Disaster, nor for retaining autocratic control over the country through the National Coronavirus Command Council.
The ur-justification for imposing all these draconian restrictions upon the population was that the government needed time to prepare the healthcare system for the expected onslaught of coronavirus cases and deaths.
A few weeks to ‘flatten the curve’, remember? That justification never really held water, and now, more than 95 weeks later, the fourth wave placed hospitals are under no pressure at all.
End it. End the State of Disaster. Disband the National Coronavirus Command Council. Free us so we can rebuild our society and our economy, and go dancing again.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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