A very expensive bazooka

Jeremy Gordin questions whether the 21 day lock down will actually hit its target

Despite anxiety, confusion and ignorance at ground level, there’s been much ululation about the decision by President Cyril Ramaphosa, his government, medical “experts” (we hope) and other people (mainly so-called captains of industry, it seems) to lock down the country for 21 days from Thursday night at midnight.

As of this morning, the official number of confirmed Covid-19 cases has risen to 709, due to a rush of test results coming in; and it seems that it is this rising tally that is the spectre hovering above Ramaphosa, Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize and the government.

The thrust of our government’s lockdown is to slow the tally by forcing people not to infect each other; and of course, the spread of the virus locally is exacerbated, as Ramaphosa noted, by two main issues. The first is that “our health services” will be stretched “beyond what we can manage” – i.e., our hospitals will not be able to cope, and sick people will therefore not be treated; second, there exist large numbers of people with “suppressed immunity because of HIV and TB, and high levels of poverty and malnutrition”. 

What we have done here – or will do from Friday – (“All shops and businesses will be closed”), is to shut almost everything down.

Let’s unpack the “wisdom” behind this decision a little, however.

This step is more extreme than anything yet taken in the UK, Germany or Australia, let alone those countries/states which have best controlled the epidemic – despite their proximity to China – such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore.

The economic pain that will be inflicted by this decision, over and above the actions already taken to stem the Covid-19 epidemic, is going to be excruciating. This will bankrupt many businesses (many of which, especially the non-corporates and “small” ones, notably restaurants, are already in dire straits); send thousands into unemployment; and further immiserate many of those living hand to mouth in the informal sector.

In short, we will tank our already tottering economy. It will also lead to a collapse in tax revenues, and probably give us the “final” push over the fiscal cliff.

The lockdown is, I’m afraid, going to be a financial disaster – and the disasters that flow from that, for many, many people. And I don’t believe I am exaggerating.

Government has decided then to pull out and fire a huge and very expensive bazooka, but is it going to hit its target?

The first point is we know very little about how the epidemic is spreading in South Africa. We do know that hundreds of worried South Africans coming back from overseas have had themselves tested, with many testing positive, and some of them infecting close contacts as well. But we don’t know the degree to which the epidemic has begun to take hold in townships and informal settlements, as the government has not rolled out the kind of proactive testing that is necessary to identify clusters in such areas. This, we are promised, is still to come. 

Government does not know if the epidemic is still small, and containable with the measures it has implemented so far, or is already expanding on an industrial, European-style scale. It has fired off its bazooka in the dark.

Hopefully our trajectory is currently closer to that of Australia than that of northern Europe. There 160 000 tests have been conducted across the country, and 2 136 cases confirmed. A majority of these are still of people who brought the virus back with them from overseas, and their close contacts. The local epidemic in that country is still only in the hundreds, though the first local clusters have been detected.

The likely reason that Australia – and hopefully us as well – haven’t already seen the kind of explosive exponential growth in Covid-19 that Europe has experienced is because, it seems, the SARS-Cov-2 virus is at its most infectious in dry and cold weather. When the weather is hot and humid it is far more lethargic, though it can still be transmitted person to person, especially when people are crowded together for long periods.

As we head into winter though and the weather becomes colder, and drier in the eastern part of the country, infections are likely to move onto an upwards trajectory.

This then is the time that government should be focused on getting personal protective equipment into the hands of doctors, procuring essential supplies for hospitals, such as beds and ventilators, rolling out mass testing, drawing on the managerial skill and expertise in the private sector to rapidly build up a contract tracing capacity, and so on. But what is it going to be mainly focused upon? Shutting down most businesses and then trying to manage the resultant economic fall-out, and social unrest.

As the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently noted on Twitter:

Asking people to stay at home and other physical distancing measures are an important way of slowing down the spread of the virus and buying time – but they are defensive measures. You can't win a football game only by defending. You must attack as well. To win, we need to attack the virus with aggressive and targeted tactics – testing every suspected case, isolating and caring for every confirmed case, and tracing and quarantining every close contact.”

In other words, government must combine the defensive measure of the “lock down” with the rapid identification of existing local clusters of infection in order to neutralise them quickly, before the winter makes a hard task close to impossible.

I really don’t want to be a killjoy, but our government departments have not exactly shown themselves to be champions of getting things done smoothly, efficiently and quickly in the interests of the average citizen; and I’m being kind. As for corruption, playwright Tennessee Williams once wrote: “Mendacity is a system that we live in.” Well, corruption is the system that we South Africans live in.

But if government does not do this – and just slows down the pace of infection – then what exactly has been achieved? We go back to work in three weeks’ time a poorer and unhappier country, with far fewer resources at hand to manage what is to come.

And, when the Covid-19 epidemic then takes off in the winter anyway, as it was always going to do, then what?