Hold the Covid-crazies to account

Andrew Donaldson says parliament needs to virtually reconvene, pronto


IT has been a month since Parliament shut up shop but it is time it gets back to work so that serious questions may be asked in the National Assembly of government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

All parliamentary activity was suspended late on Thursday, March 19. The institution was due to go into recess on March 23 until April 13. However there is now no indication of when it will reconvene. All we have been told, nebulously, is that it will do so only when it is “safe” to do so. And so parliamentary oversight is on hold until who knows when. The means by which the executive is held accountable for its actions is gone and its absence is more apparent with each passing day since the imposition of the state of disaster lockdown.

This is worrying. Around the world there is concern the powers granted to various law enforcement agencies to police lockdown regulations need to be balanced with human rights considerations. There is a fear that once the virus has been contained and restrictions eased, hard-won civil liberties will be lost, perhaps for years to come.

In South Africa, the authorities have done more than enough to ensure that such fears are well-founded. Reports of security force brutality were commonplace at the start of the lockdown, with videos of extreme abuse — residents assaulted in their gardens, pedestrians made to do push-ups and squats, and so on — quickly going viral on social media. 


These do, however, appear to be on the wane, but it’s not clear why this is. Perhaps the message is sinking in that people will be teargassed and shot with rubber bullets, but for their own good. It could also be that security forces have tired of beating sense into the ingrates. It is, after all, an exhausting business having to run after people, trap them in their yards and then flog them, especially after lunch on hot days. Anyway, moving around in large gangs and thrashing residents of overcrowded townships for not keeping apart from one another sets a poor example. Who is then not social distancing? 

But, whatever the reason, a return to more traditional police activity has been noted: several officers in the Western Cape have been arrested for liquor trafficking, a crime that has flourished directly as a result of the draconian lockdown regulations.* 

These are the sort of issues that must be raised in the National Assembly. There are also problems concerning basic and higher education, security, water and sanitation, informal settlements, social development, economic recovery and, above all, emergency health measures. I gather that these matters that will be attended to in forthcoming “virtual meetings” of those parliamentary portfolio committees directly affected by the lockdown.

This follows Parliament’s first such foray into web conferencing, a Covid-19 ministerial update on Good Friday. Typical, however, of government’s contempt for the governed, it was decided that the meeting be held behind closed virtual doors. As health committee chair Sibongiseni Dhlomo put it: “The nature of a teleconference means that members of the media and the public cannot be part of it.” 

All of which indicated that Dhlomo has little idea of how teleconferencing, and indeed Parliament, actually works. Following complaints by journalists, the meeting was ordered to be open and there came the country’s first virtual parliamentary committee meeting.

Which is great, I suppose, for committee meetings. But it’s not enough. The National Assembly is the big cheese of our democratic tradition. It is here, in the lower house of the people’s parliament, with all its tub-thumping bluster, that our elected representatives are seen to act on our behalf and, in the case of the Economic Freedom Fighters, even throw a punch or two. 

The assembly must reconvene — and pronto. And not in a virtual chamber either, but in the real thing. Nothing gives a better impression that they’re earning their pay than the sight of MPs struggling to their feet and waving their arms about on points of order. It’s just not the same with a video conference. The immediacy and human interaction so necessary for debate and dialogue is lost. Along with the detail of the designer shoes and handbags.

And yes, I am well aware of the pandemic and the need for self-isolation. But we could follow the example of the parliaments and legislative bodies in Europe which meet in greatly reduced form; those lawmakers who must attend sittings are spoilt for choice when it comes to taking a pew and do so with the reassurance that the nearest honourable member is at least three or four metres away.

Besides, in my experience, the vast majority of MPs, especially those in the ruling party, do absolutely nothing in the National Assembly. They certainly won’t be missed. When they do, in fact, make a contribution it’s just a rude noise to drown out political opponents in debates. 

This, sadly, is a place where braying like an alarmed ass nearing the meat factory passes for wit and drollery. 

At times, though, MPs hardly bother to even do that, and instead play on their iPads. Back when he was finance minister, Malusi Gigaba was a big fan of Candy Crush, a game deemed suitable for children aged five and over. To be fair, he had been having a spot of mistress trouble, and perhaps Mrs Gigaba had restricted his internet access.

However, to further protect MPs in sittings perhaps they could wear those controversial face masks with party colours and logos. There has been a bit of a stink about this, with parties being criticised for the “politicisation” of the deadly virus. Both the ANC and the DA claim they did not commission the masks, which they say were made by members in goodwill on behalf of those communities who could not afford to buy them. Nevertheless, both parties have called for their withdrawal. 

This is overly hasty, I feel, as the masks could still serve a purpose. One could wear them inside-out, as it were, if there were principled objections to the organisation in question. Also, when worn during a televised debate, their colours would enable viewers to readily identify the ideological strain of participants’ prattle. Blue: liberal, free market; green and yellow: nationalist, looters; red: clueless, angry that everything’s broken and there’s nothing left to steal. And so on.

But back to the pandemic opportunism, if I may. The EFF has condemned “with contempt” the publication of photographs of Gauteng premier David Makhura, Free State premier Sefora Ntombela, North West premier Job Mokgoro and Mpumalanga premier Refilwe Mtsweni-Tsipane on containers of sanitisers distributed by the government to the public.

“This is a direct abuse of power, tax payer’s money and outright populism,” the party said in a statement. “Above all, it is a desperate and shameful use of the Covid-19 pandemic for popularity… We call on the President Cyril Ramaphosa to reign on these attention seekers and put this nonsensical behaviour to halt. These Premiers must not be allowed to traumatize our people with their differently looking faces. Our people do not deserve such disrespect and abuse of office by these nasal gazers who pose as public representatives.” (sic

Almost immediately, photographs of hand sanitisers with the EFF logo began circulating on Twitter, and there was much chatter along the lines of pot, kettle and black. 

One world leader with a differently looking face (mottled marmalade) is of course the American president. He too is mining the pandemic for all its political worth. I had briefly entertained the idea of ignoring Donald Trump in this piece, but alas no.**

Covfefe-19 is raging, and it seems like the man-child is actively stalking me. Much to my annoyance, BBC news programmes, for example, are interrupted nightly without warning to cross over to his bizarre White House briefings. These, supposedly, are meant to focus on Washington’s responses to the virus and relief measures but are, in effect, nothing more than occasions of blatant electioneering and attacks on political opponents.

I can’t understand the rationale for this, and wonder if the Beeb does so to reassure their viewers that, however badly they believe Downing Street is handling the crisis, they should at least be thankful they’re not unemployed and living in New York.

There’s a row about the “Economic Impact Payment” cheques issued to millions of Americans to help them weather the economic meltdown having Trump’s signature on them — and that the decision to do so may have delayed the money getting out. 

Having previously denied that he wanted his name on them, the narcissist renowned for slapping his name on just about everything he owns, this week admitted that it was happening. “I don’t know too much about it,” he said. “But I understand my name is there. I don’t know where they’re going, how they’re going. I do understand it’s not delaying anything, and I’m satisfied with that. I don’t imagine it’s a big deal. I’m sure people will be very happy to get a big, fat, beautiful cheque and my name is on it.”

Enough, though, of the covidiocy and back to the grown-ups. DA leader John Steenhuisen, writing in Business Day, suggests that the country needs a flexible, “smart lockdown model” if the country is to have any hope of rebooting the economy. In a nutshell, conditions and regulations of the lockdown should be eased or tightened depending on the rate of transmission of the pandemic.

Steenhuisen’s proposal follows the announcement earlier in the week by Professor Abdool Karim, the epidemiologist, that any Covid-19 vaccine or treatment will probably only be available in 18 to 24 months, and that we’d have to live with the virus until then. 

The simple but brutal truth here is that, while the shutdown has bought some time, South Africa is unlikely to escape the worst of the pandemic. Karim also said that the country could not remain under a hard and often brutal lockdown for much longer and he called on leaders to “think and plan for a systematic easing of the lockdown”.

The only sustainable way forward for the country, Steenhuisen says, is to ensure that lives are saved from both the virus and from destination. 

“We can only do this if we adopt a flexible model that enables us to continually adapt and strike the right balance between containing the spread of the coronavirus and preventing avoidable economic destruction. The answer to striking that balance lies in combining Karim’s objective criteria for measuring the rate of transmission of the disease with the smart lockdown model. By feeding Karim’s criteria, based on the data gathered by the health system and community healthcare workers, into the smart lockdown model, we can answer the question that will define our lives for the foreseeable future: what stage of lockdown is most appropriate today?”

Take the matter up in Parliament. At once.


Footnotes, addenda, etc

* The extended lockdown, I note, has put paid to many pre-plague preparations. Those who’d banked on being imprisoned in their homes for no more than a month are finding that what initially seemed a healthy reserve of chateau collapsible and other bulk booze purchases in the stockpiled essentials is drawing to a sad end. But no need for panic. When police minister Cheek Bile and his goons treat the people as if they’re criminals, then the people shall act like criminals. Here then is a recipe for Pruno, as perfected and “cell-brewed” by generations of American convicts:

  1. Peel ten oranges and toss them in a large plastic bucket with a lid. (For the genuine “jailbird” experience, use instead a giant Ziploc bag.)
  2. Chuck in two cans of fruit cocktail chunks, juice included.
  3. Add 20 tablespoons of white sugar and, for acidity, three or four tablespoons of tomato sauce.
  4. You’ll need yeast for conversation into alcohol. Don’t have the store-bought stuff? Chuck in a slice of bread.
  5. Pulp this mess. (Use a potato masher.)
  6. Store the bucket in a warm place. The garage, maybe. Hint: to further aid fermentation, place the bucket in a larger plastic bath half-filled with hot water. Empty the bath and replace the hot water on a daily basis. (If you’ve opted to go “jailbird”, you may want to store the Ziploc bag in a toilet cistern. This brings, if I may, an “Alco-traz” authenticity to the process.)
  7. After a week, strain the mess and discard the pulp. The Pruno is ready to drink.

It won’t look bad. Appearances, however, are deceiving. The bouquet is terrible and it tastes awful. “Rotten fruit and old sick” is one description we’ve heard. But it is booze. The aftershock is best treated with, uh, a stiff belt of brandy.

* * * * * 

** It has been an interesting week for the Orange of the Species. On Monday, Trump raged at the media. On Tuesday, he launched into the World Health Organisation for their mishandling of the original outbreak in China. The next day, he announced the US would halt funding to the WHO. According to the Financial Times, American taxpayers provide between $400m and $500m per year. In contrast, Trump said, China contributes roughly $40m a year or less. The US, where more than 26 000 people have died as a result of the coronavirus, is the largest single contributor to the WHO. “With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Trump said, “we have deep concerns whether America’s generosity has been put to the best use possible.”

This is an extraordinary act of spite, and it seems childish to blame the WHO for the Chinese Communist Party’s initial covering up of the outbreak. It’s worth noting that the UN body did warn global leaders, Trump included, of the risk of human-to-human transmission of Covid-19 as early as January 10, and urged precautions, even though initial Chinese studies at that point found no clear evidence of that route of infection. Trump, on the other hand, insisted that “it will all work out well”.

On January 23, the WHO published an official report warning of human-to-human transmission and transmissibility higher than seasonal flu. The next day, Trump tweeted, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!” 

After the WHO had declared a public health emergency, Trump was asked on February 7 whether China was engaged in a cover-up. He replied, “No, China’s working very hard … and I think they’re doing a very professional job. They’re in touch with World Health.”

On February 26, he declared, “This is like a flu.” He was still playing down the virus the next day, despite warnings from various intelligence agencies and his own advisers. “It’s going to disappear,” he said. “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” The risk of infection for Americans “remains very low”. At the end of February, the US had only conducted about 4 000 tests for coronavirus, while other countries had tested tens of thousands of their citizens.

On March 24, Trump was still dismissing the idea of a lockdown. “You can destroy a country this way,” he said, “by closing it down.” He didn’t think much of avoiding packed gatherings and self-isolation, either. “I think Easter Sunday and you’ll have packed churches all over country.” Reality dawned a week later, on March 31. “This is not the flu,” he announced. “It’s vicious.”

Commenting on this, The Times political journalist Matt Chorley writes, “Usually when you want a second opinion on a medical matter you would have to find another doctor. Not so with Dr Trump. He has his medical principles. If you don’t like them, he has others.” 

Meanwhile, a recent poll of US voters for the The Economist reveals that 46 per cent of Republicans would trust medical advice from Trump “a lot”, compared with only two per cent of Democrats. Those more likely to trust the president are male, white, elderly, reasonably well-off and less well-educated. Funny that.