Goodbye to Covid-19?

Jeremy Gordin on the waning of the epidemic, the relaxing of the lockdown, and related philosophical questions

My gorgeous wife and President Cyril Ramaphosa are on the same page – but only when it comes to the “Jerusalema dance,” the creation and execution of which was referred to by the president on Wednesday night as the acme of “our South African-ness”.

As regards our arrival at Level One – or our impending arrival at midnight on Sunday – and regarding some of the president’s other averments, and the “reality” or otherwise of these, I shall not repeat my wife’s sentiments here.

Anyway, my impression is that Ramaphosa’s address was met country-wide with a huge hurrah. Why not? South Africans are weary, businesses are still battered and uncertain, and everyone simply wants to move on – into the so-called “new normal”. But did Ramaphosa and his advisors get it right about going to Level One?

An irrelevant question. He/they had no choice. The economy is so far down the hole that easing the lockdown is an easy decision – if anything, it’s weeks late.

Still, some of us like to keep some sort of purchase on reality – so, without baffling my brain or yours with too much data, what does one seem to know about Covid-19 in SA right now?

Ramaphosa said on Wednesday night that there has been a gradual, but steady, decline in new infections, hospitalizations and deaths. He was echoing minister of health Dr Zweli Mkhize’s more data-based report of 15 September, in which Mkhize said the epidemic is trending downwards in all provinces.

“The number of detected cases countrywide continues to decline – since the 22nd of August we have reported under 3000 cases a day – at the height of the epidemic during the month of July we would report anything between 10 000 and 15 000 cases a day. Supporting this decline is also a demonstrable decline in persons under investigation, general ward admissions, ICU admissions, deaths and excess [sic] deaths. Consistency across these indicators reassures us that indeed we are in the midst of a trough [sic] in the pandemic.”

This is good news. Still, I notice that, although mentioning excess deaths, Mkhize’s report gives the total number of Covid-19 related deaths as 15 499, while according to the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), the figure of excess, “natural” deaths from May 6 until September 8 was 44,467. I think we’ll be told or will find out – whenever (and if) the cemetery dust settles – that SA’s Covid-19 death toll was higher than officially stated.

Another noticeable word in Mkhize’s report is “trough,” one that Ramaphosa was also astute enough to echo and embroider on: “By any measure, we are still in the midst of a deadly epidemic. Our greatest challenge now – and our most important task – is to ensure that we do not experience a new surge in infections. Several countries around the world have been hit by a ‘second wave’ or a resurgence of infections. ... In many cases, the second wave has been more severe than the first. Several countries have had to re-impose a hard lockdown”.

Indeed. But whether “our public health response” can now get it together effectively to “further reduc[e] the transmission of the virus and prepar[e] for a possible resurgence” is another ball game altogether.

In short, probably more people died of Covid-19 than we have been told, and there’re still daily reports of deaths (52 in Mkhize’s report), but the epidemic is “trending downwards”. And, of course, Covid-19 is far from being over – even if the fat (or skinny) lady (or man) sings or dances the Jerusalema dance.

Covid-19 might come in waves but it’s here to stay (even when we get a vaccine) – like the sea, bad weather, theft, incompetence and all the other contagions with which we more or less live.

Meanwhile, Mark Oppenheimer, a Johannesburg advocate, and Jason Werbeloff, a local novelist with a PhD in philosophy, have written a short book called Lockdown: Did Government Do the Right Thing? (It’s available from Amazon as an e-book or paperback.)

The book is built around the well-known philosophical trope/debating issue, “Would you kill the fat man?” [i]

The scenario goes something like this: “Imagine you are standing beside a train track, and you feel the vibration of an oncoming train. Ahead of you, five innocent people are tied to the rails, screaming for help. You can save them. But there is a catch. Pull a nearby switch, and the oncoming train will be diverted to another track. But there is a woman tied to the other track. Are you willing to kill her to save the others?” [ii]

Extrapolating from this scenario, Oppenheimer and Werbeloff conduct a dialogue in which they discuss the following: the government locked down to save vulnerable lives, but at the same time forced businesses to close their doors. Question: did Government pull the right switch?

This dialogue involves inter alia the discussion of utilitarian philosophy (“you must save the maximum number of people”), on the one hand, and deontological philosophy (“you have a duty to treat each person with dignity and respect”), on the other.

Given that lockdown severely limits our freedoms, the discussion then moves on to asking whether the use of state power is legitimate, even if it does save lives. And thus a second thought-experiment, derived from political philosopher John Rawls, is debated.

“You wake up in a hospital bed, covered head to toe in bandages. You also have amnesia and cannot remember your name, age, gender, or race. A person in a white coat says: ‘I'm going to give you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I'm going to let you design the rules for the world that you step into when you leave here.’”

The challenge is to design, from scratch, the rules which will apply to everyone, yourself included. Your amnesia will motivate your choices. You would not want to design a society in which men will be treated much better than women because when the bandages come off, you might be a woman. You would not want a society that is racist because you might be in the disfavoured race.

You might also be someone who wakes up to find that you have diabetes, or another so-called co-morbidity. Would you therefore want a government that does lock down in a pandemic, to ensure that you have a hospital bed, which could save your life?

The authors have written, “If you enjoy Pop Philosophy that is easily accessible and makes you think, you’ll love this book”. I can’t say I loved the book, but it’s enjoyable, interesting and lucid. Don’t let the presence of Rawls, Immanuel Kant or John Stuart Mills scare you, as they do me – they are seamlessly and, as I said, lucidly integrated.

If I had any “problem” with Lockdown, it’s that it is by its very nature about “abstract” issues – not “real” ones. Let’s say you’re a tobacconist and you’re told you must close because the government is banning tobacco sales to help save people from being vulnerable to Covid-19. You can disobey but you’ll probably be fined and forcibly closed. But knowing philosophically that the government is behaving illegitimately doesn’t change anything, does it?

Or what about my friend who has an astonishing predilection for pork potstickers? He phoned me today to say that there is talk that his favourite Chinese restaurant might have to shut down because of the lockdown. My friend says he feels “absolutely bereft”. How to deal with him?

Didn’t Rabbi Karl Marx say something about “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

So, friends, we soldier on, wash our hands, wear our masks, see what can be done about changing the so-called governing party, since it certainly doesn’t want to change itself (why would it?), and you could do a lot worse than read Oppenheimer and Werbeloff’s book.

[i] Best book I know of that covers the subject is Would you kill the fat man? The Trolley Problem and what your answer tells us about Right and Wrong by David Edmonds (2014, Princeton University Press), also available on Amazon.

[ii] In the more common example, it’s not a woman but “a fat man” who can stop the oncoming train – but only if you push him onto the tracks.