Giving up on the lockdown

Jeremy Gordin writes on President Ramaphosa's speech to the nation

On Saturday, William Saunderson-Meyer remarked that “[g]iven that the [Covid-19] pandemic has transformed every South African from being the Springbok rugby coach to being the nation’s chief epidemiologist, you’ll all have your own passionate views on those [infection] estimates.”

This quip was both witty and apt. It did occur to me, however, that the Rugby World Cup is over, and that the real Springbok coach proved he knew precisely what to do to win. But, I wondered, does our chief epidemiologist know precisely what to do to defeat the virus in South Africa?

If we’re talking about Prof Salim Abdool Karim, we’re evidently in safe hands. But, pace WSM (and Karim), it might also be worth bearing in mind that at the moment the Corona virus is an even less exact science than rugby, that the stakes (serious illness and even death) are much higher than winning the RWC (well, for most people) – and, above all, that whatever gravitas, knowledge and experience the good Prof commands, he’s not de facto our chief epidemiologist.

Given that we’re not talking here about directing 31 rugby players but about leading some 58-million people, not to mention quite a few undocumented visitors from north of the Limpopo River, “regulating the national response” to Covid-19 has segued – as it has in most other countries – into the hands of the government. Ours is led, in theory anyway, by a state president (Cyril Ramaphosa) and “his” (though he should be “ours”) minister of health (Dr Zweli Mkhize). This, I know, is a trite observation.

Not so trite, however, is that it’s by no means clear just how much in charge Ramaphosa and Mkhize are. The ruling party tends towards (what business mogul and international rugby player, Tony O’Reilly, would have called, his tongue tightly in his cheek) a collegial approach. Besides this, the cabinet is also, we are told, riven by factionalism, i.e., everyone wants a say, or at least to be in the room, lest the other faction gets away with something.

Flowing from this, it appears decisions are taken “by committee” – the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) – and we know that a camel is a horse designed by committee. Moreover, I don’t want to be impolite but sitting (or lounging) on the NCCC are some individuals whom I wouldn’t even mandate to decide whether to put another blanket on the bed on an icy winter’s night.

Second, partially as a result of the factionalism, Ramaphosa seems to go through phases of being unwilling to exercise his authority and squash idiotic suggestions. Sometimes, even, he seems to go AWOL. (“AWOL from the N-triple C, oh, AWOL from the N-triple C ...” I feel a song coming on.)

In short, notwithstanding the valuable work and advice of Karim, our de facto chief epidemiologist appears not to be one person – but an eerie, amorphous Golem. I imagine he, she, or it to have a squishy, unclear face like those in one of Francis Bacon’s paintings, e.g., “Three Studies for a Self-Portrait,” 1979.

This is not to deny that the creature’s public avatar is the President. But it is to suggest that perhaps we could do with more wannabe chief epidemiologists, if only to keep the Golem honest.

Which – and I thank you for patience – brings us to Ramaphosa’s address to the nation on Wednesday night.

Now, Ramaphosa’s address, ostensibly about “South Africa’s response to the coronavirus pandemic,” was, I think, what a wannabe academic might call bifurcated.

About three-quarters of the way through, the President switched from the Covid-19 epidemic to talk about “another pandemic that is raging in our country – the killing of women and children by the men of our country”.

Given that, as the president said, “[o]ver the past few weeks no fewer than 21 women and children have been murdered,” this shift of subject didn’t seem inappropriate.

But I was concerned that – while conceding that “it is not alcohol that rapes or kills a woman or a child” – Ramaphosa nonetheless went on to say that “if alcohol intoxication is contributing to these crimes, then it must be addressed with urgency” and that “[s]everal international and domestic studies show clear linkages between alcohol abuse and gender-based violence [GBV]”. He also noted that “violent crime – especially murders and attempted murders – has increased since alert level 3 took effect on 1 June,” i.e. since the stricter lockdown 4 was halted.

Again, I don’t mean to be impolite, but what other response is there to his points – other than Duh! If you remove a curfew and if liquor is more readily available to everyone, including violent and murderous people, clearly there might be an uptick in violence.

But the bottom line, unfortunately, is that femicide – and violent crime of all kinds – has been endemic in our society for decades, as has been the knowledge and experience that liquor inter alia helps fuel such crimes and that many South Africans, many people world-wide, have “drinking problems” . To put it gently, intoxication is a major bloody scourge.

Why has the President and his government only discovered this now? And why link violence and booze consumption to the Covid-19 epidemic? Maybe Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and others would like to take this opportunity to re-tool society completely, but I’d suggest they keep their eyes on one ball for the moment.

One other point about GBV. I don’t know a great deal about the subject, I’m (obviously) neither a social worker nor a psychiatrist, and I don’t want to seem to be offering “rationalizations” for the behaviour of killers and rapists.

But what I do know from years of being involved with newspapers catering to the communities from which the preponderance of GBV perpetrators seem to emanate, and also from working, while on the Wits Justice Project, with numerous awaiting-trial detainees and prisoners – is that there is one issue, among others, that repeatedly raises its ugly head.

In a patriarchal society, men feel particularly useless (emasculated, if you like) if they have no money; for they cannot take care of their families, they cannot take care of “their women”. And generally they have no money because they are unemployed. Now joblessness, to repeat myself, is not an excuse for committing a vile crime. But it can and it does drive some people, especially young men, out of their gourds.

And it could be cogently argued that the way the lockdown was initially implemented, especially its length and severity, resulted not only in hunger but in further despoliation of the job market and the attendant hopelessness of thousands, perhaps millions, of people.

One doesn’t want, I suppose, to be caught in polite pinko-liberal company quoting DA leader John Steenhuisen, but as he said yesterday: “The truth is that the world’s longest hard lockdown, and not Covid-19, killed our economy and ruined the lives of millions of South Africans”.  

As for the main part of Ramaphosa’s address (to which Steenhuisen was reacting), it was partially about a further “easing” of lockdown 3. I suspect the following “meme” doing the rounds on WhatsApp accurately sums up what Ramaphosa said in this regard.

It reads: “South Africa Level 3 advanced regulations: You may go to a movie, followed by dinner in a restaurant. Then you can go to the casino. You can get a room at the casino, shag a hooker and then get your hair done after breakfast. But you aren’t allowed to visit your friend for coffee. And def no smoking...”

Yet there were things that Ramaphosa did get right. “Even after 100 days,” he said, “we are still near the beginning of this epidemic and it will remain with us for many more months, possibly years.” He also said: “Over the last few weeks, the number of infections has been rising rapidly. Nearly a third of all confirmed cases have been recorded in the last week alone and more than half of all confirmed cases have been recorded over the last two weeks.”

But I don’t know how many people actually “heard him. After 84 days of lockdown, which included not only GBV but also murder and violence by the police and army, many pockets of hunger, bureaucratic bungling on an industrial scale and a plethora of risible regulations, South Africans seem to have had enough.

Even on a non-frontline, such as my suburb and those around it, one can see this. Traffic is almost running at the same volume that it was 100 days ago; the shops are fullish; the take-away joints have got clusters of people outside; the cops (if one sees any) are largely disinterested.

This mood, coupled with the further easing of lockdown 3, and the sense that countries in the rest of the world have passed the worst of their respective Covid-19 epidemics (which is not of course entirely accurate), and even Ramaphosa diverting to other issues during his speech, seems to have led people to exhale their breaths as though “it’s all over”.

The trouble is that it’s not. As Ramaphosa said, it’s just beginning. Gauteng, for example, is now reporting over 1 000 new cases a day, up from a few hundred a couple of weeks ago. In the country, there are, as of yesterday, 80 412 confirmed cases of Covid-19 (with 44 331 recoveries), and there have been 1 674 deaths. Regretfully, infections and deaths are likely to continue to increase quite quickly in the country’s main hotspots, and now pick up elsewhere as well.

The Golem is by no means off the hook. Nor are we.