Straight Talk With John Steenhuisen
28 April 2020
South Africa needs a much wider opening of the economy than suggested by government’s Level 4 lockdown proposals. The DA has submitted our Level 4 proposals for how to open more of the economy without compromising public safety.
Government’s approach to specifying who can and cannot work in Level 4 is unnecessarily blunt and restrictive. Many businesses which could be operating without significantly increasing the spread of the virus will be forced to remain closed.
This will do unnecessary damage to jobs and tax revenue - and to public compliance and confidence in the system - and soon render government’s approach unsustainable.
The only condition for a business to operate should be that it has, or can achieve, an acceptably low potential for spreading the virus.
Obviously, Level 4 sets a higher bar for “acceptable” than would a lower level. Recall that the lockdown levels indicate the level of threat posed by the virus. The DA’s Smart Lockdown proposes that for each lockdown level, government should specify the requirements for a business to be able to operate. Businesses can then decide if they are willing or able to meet those. They may choose to invest in the required mitigation measures, for example arranging private transport for staff, buying protective equipment, temperature screening staff/customers on entrance.
This way, government is putting decision-making power in the hands of those people who know and care most about each individual business: its employers, employees and customers. This approach harnesses the creativity, incentives and goodwill of everyone, within a reasonable set of rules.
Instead, government seems intent on centralising draconian powers in the hands of incapable ministers. The result is arbitrary rules enforced by military deployment.
Military deployment and military-backed curfews to ensure compliance are a tacit admission by government that the rules are not reasonable and that people and businesses cannot be trusted to act in their own best interest.
Under government’s Level 4, for example, no hairdresser may legally operate and no one can get a haircut, no matter how many precautions they take to reduce the risk of transmission. Under the DA Smart Lockdown Level 4, a hairdresser could operate as soon as a reasonable set of safety measures is in place. These safety measures would be quite demanding, given that Level 4 indicates a high level of risk. But they would not be insurmountable.
If people and businesses are empowered with information about the risk that the virus poses to themselves and their community, and how that can be mitigated, most will play by a reasonable set of rules. Indeed, an HSRC survey indicated 99% compliance in the first weeks of lockdown.
An authoritarian approach made sense initially, but as time goes on decision-making power needs to become more dispersed, within a given set of justified rules. If rules are reasonable, people tend to follow them. And those who don’t will be kept in line through peer pressure and whistle-blowing.
Compliance requires a good reason for the rule. The fact is, government is imposing harsh rules backed by military force and requiring a massive sacrifice from people without having given us a comprehensive enough justification.
Right now 25% of South Africans do not have money for food. If Level 4 is much the same as Level 5, ultimately more people may suffer and die from lockdown than from Covid-19. Remember, we’re going into the marathon phase of our covid-response – our strategy for controlling the virus has to be sustainable over an 18-24 month timeframe.
Government is demanding enormous economic and civil liberty sacrifices but has yet to share with us the epidemiological assumptions and calculations underpinning SA’s response to this virus, let alone any district-specific detail on the case, testing, hospital capacity and other data that feed into a determination of lockdown levels.
The DA has submitted a request for transparency, supplying specific information that we think should be shared with people by way of published dashboards. Compliance will be much higher in a transparent environment where the rules are reasonable, justified, and aligned to people’s natural incentives.
An 8pm to 5am military curfew is none of these things. It demonstrates a lack of trust in the people of South Africa to take individual responsibility for their own safety. The DA has submitted our position on a military curfew.
Ultimately, more social freedom and a wider opening of the economy using a Smart Lockdown approach based on trust, transparency and individual empowerment is in South Africa’s best interest.