When Gulliver awakes

RW Johnson writes on the lockdown and the quiet before the storm

Andre Gide once complained that “the great misdeed of journalism is to make you write when you have absolutely no desire to do so, when you are uninspired, the weather is heavy, your pen scratches, thoughts do not flow, and the sentence remains shapeless”.

I have seldom felt like that but Covid-19 is a severe test. I am entirely fed up by switching from one channel to another only to find that Coronavirus is on all of them and that, for the umpteenth time, I am being told to wash my hands and even having that art demonstrated to me. What I regard as real news – economic crises, wars, foreign affairs, elections and so on – seems to have vanished behind a screen of men in white coats, all telling one much the same things.

I wonder continually what would have happened if Covid-19 had appeared in, say, 1800. Probably we would never have heard of it. We would notice people getting sick, but then that was normal enough, and quite a lot of old people would die. But that was what old people were expected to do.

There would be more talk of influenza but there would be no lockdown and simple herd immunity would take over. We might lose perhaps ten percent of the population but this would be quickly made up in that age of large families. After all, society had survived the plague, which killed at least a third of the population of Europe in a six month period in 1346, and which then lingered in periodic outbreaks for the next three centuries and more.


Perhaps above all the difference was then that people were used to sudden and youthful death. Mothers and babies died frequently in childbirth and a high proportion of children died before they were ten. In the Age of Shaka the average life expectancy of a Zulu was around 28 – a figure to which it briefly returned during the worst of the Aids epidemic. Even in England in 1900 the average life expectancy was only 52. Only the lucky knew their grandparents or their grandchildren.

South Africa entered lockdown somewhat unthinkingly: our leaders saw richer, more developed countries lock downt and thought it best to copy them. But it is far from clear that they were wise. South Africa cannot long endure lockdown without suffering irreparable damage and, if we are forced to re-open before the virus has run its course, what will really have been achieved? It is no good pretending that only issues of health count. People can feel very virtuous while insisting on that but that doesn't make it true.

In 1964 Barbara Castle, the minister of transport in the British Labour government, imposed a 70 m.p.h. limit on the country's motorways. Sports car owners, long used to boasting of doing “a ton up” (100 m.p.h.) and more on these wonderful roads, held angry rallies against this monstrous woman who could not herself drive a car. At year's end the argument ended when road accident deaths fell from over 8,000 to 5,500. It was perfectly clear that speed did kill and Mrs Castle had saved some 2,500 lives.

But the problem was, if you could do that by reducing average speeds, then why stop there ? Why not lower the limit to 60, 50 or even 40 m.p.h.? There was, after all, no doubt that this would save further lives. The awkward truth, which no government is willing to own up to, is that speed limits are trade-offs. In practice every country wants to save lives but it also places a value on being able to move people and goods around the country reasonably quickly. In practice the British government decided it was willing to lose 5,500 lives a year to achieve that. Every country has to make similar calculations.

And not just about speed limits. We all know that tobacco, alcohol and marijuana can have very bad and dangerous side-effects but in practice governments make similar trade-offs for how much revenue they can take in from the sale of narcotics and intoxicating liquor. And most countries, South Africa included, is willing to put its young men and women in harm's way quite routinely as a matter of foreign policy. It is no good pretending that we have an absolute duty to save lives: in practice we are involved in trade-offs with human lives all the time.

On average 56 South African are murdered every day – this is eight times the US rate and only Colombia seems to be more murderous. That is, in any ordinary week, 392 South Africans get murdered. This is far more lives than have thus far been lost to Covid-19. Yet no one talks of a national lockdown in order to reduce the murder rate – and, of course, the murder rate has fallen during the lockdown.

In practice we treat those 56 lost souls a day as a reasonable trade-off for having the sort of society that we have. Of course, it helps that most of the murder victims come from places like Khayelitsha, Thembisa or Umlazi, for the truth is that our political elite today cares as little for the lives of such folk as did their pre-1994 predecessors. After all, none of them live in such places. If Sandton, Camps Bay and Umhlanga had the same murder rates we would doubtless see more action.

Once we accept that in practice we are always involved in trade-offs for human lives, it becomes easier to see that of course we will re-open our economy long before it is safe to do so. However, it is likely that the better-off elements in society will continue to be far more cautious than the poor: they will patronize fewer cinemas, restaurants, concerts and the like. This will mean fewer jobs for the poor as cinema attendants, waitrons and the like but for the well-off it merely means more home cooking and Netflix. The likelihood is that this will mean that the bulk of Covid-19 victims will be in places like Khayelitsha, Thembisa and Umlazi and although this will be greeted with a good deal of regret in practice it will be tolerated.

This is likely to be true partly because it is, of course, the poor who are anyway most driven to break the lockdown. The longer the lockdown goes on, the greater their desperation will be and the more unruly and out of control will be the social repercussions. No amount of homilies from Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma or orders from Bheki Cele will change that. And soothing words from Ramaphosa on TV will also have a very limited purchase on the situation.

It is important to realise that we are currently in something of a dream world. The crisis came suddenly, the government reacted and everyone was caught off-balance. There is a general expectation that before long things will have to return to normal. People are bound to feel that: “normal” is the only thing they have to compare with. The fact that this is merely the beginning of a crisis which could last years is not widely understood.

For the moment there is an illusion of a wise and compassionate leader who is fully in control. And the government is seen as virtually all powerful. There is a certain amount of testy comment about some of the more obvious absurdities –the ban on tobacco, the restriction to 6 am-9am for walking and jogging – but that is all. Yet the fact is that we have a hesitant leader, easily contradicted by his own ministers, that there is no overall plan of where we go from here. And this is a weak government, full of incompetents and with minimal capability for implementation. The horrible farce of the maldistribution of food parcels was but a sign: we all know that the longer this goes on the more incompetent the government will appear.

Until now politics have largely disappeared under lockdown. But before long politicians and trade unionists will do their sums, will realise how horrendous the job losses will be and also how swingeing the structural reforms required to re-start the economy will be. They will quickly realise that these changes will threaten their political power, their jobs, their incomes and their whole social position.

This will inject a new and furious energy into the situation. In effect the whole of South African society will have lost perhaps 10 per cent of GDP, which is to say there are bound to be many new losers in our national game of musical chairs. If a million jobs are lost all the trade unions and the SACP will be major losers – look how tamely they have been forced to take the pay freeze in the public service. And some say two million jobs may go. But there will also be any number of failed businesses, lost contracts and broken hearts. People won't exactly forget Covid-19 but a pre-occupation with it is likely to be the preserve of a relatively fortunate minority.

So, for the moment, politics is mainly about grumbles about alcohol and tobacco. But this is Lilliputian stuff. Before long Gulliver will awake and then the whole game changes. We are continually told that nothing will ever be the same again but the truth is that we stand on the eve of major changes which none of us can predict.

RW Johnson