Lifting Covid-19 restrictions long overdue - IRR

Institute also says there is something to be celebrated about freedom’s return

#FreeYourFace finally triumphs

South Africa’s mask mandate, vaccine pass, and venue capacity limits were repealed with immediate effect by Health Minister Joe Phaahla on Wednesday, 818 days after these lockdown measures were first introduced to try to combat Covid-19.

Many people will continue to wear masks in the cold winter, some will get Covid-19 booster shots, and some will avoid heavily crowded spaces too. The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) believes it should be everybody’s right to choose these things, and now it finally is.

The #FreeYourFace campaign launched by the IRR championed the freedom to choose, raising over 15 000 signatures to end the lockdown measures, disband the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), and to reform the legal system so that irrational lockdown abuses cannot be repeated (an ongoing mission).

When word of Minister Phaahla’s proposal to repeal the last remaining lockdown measures was leaked, the #FreeYourFace campaign team emailed and phoned all departments represented in the NCCC to make the case for finalising the repeal. This urgency was backed by scientific, legal, and economic evidence-based arguments.

According to UK official statistics, Covid-19 has been less deadly than the flu in that country at least since March 2022, predominantly due to that country’s high vaccination rate. In March, Professor Shabir Madhi noted that “we’ve made similar sorts of estimates for South Africa”, predominantly because of extremely high rates of previous infection.

A more recent blood-bank study found that “98% of South Africans have some antibodies” against Covid-19, roughly 90% having had previous infection. This study is still undergoing peer review, but its results comport with peer-reviewed evidence, including that researched by Professor Madhi.

Over 35 countries with less widespread immune boosts have already ended their lockdown measures, including Namibia, Jamaica, Kenya, Denmark, the UK, and the United States.

Legally, the rights that were limited for 2 years, 2 months and 27 days by the last lockdown measures included bodily integrity, freedom of movement, freedom to gather, and the right to privacy. These rights are enshrined in the Bill of Rights and may only be deprived in extreme circumstances if hard evidence shows that they work and that there is no other way.

The IRR’s attorneys reached out to government officials asking for any scientific evidence showing that the last lockdown measures that eroded these rights were doing any good and whether voluntary alternatives were considered. One official reply included the phrase “It is well known that…” lockdown works, but none contained any reference to even a single study purporting to show a causal connection between the specific lockdown measures in South Africa’s circumstance and Covid-19 mitigation.

Several lockdown measures were deemed “irrational” by the courts, most recently including Cogta Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s tobacco ban. The IRR served as a friend, or amicus, to the Constitutional Court to #SaveTheVote and oppose any postponement of last year’s elections. Arguments that Minister Dlamini-Zuma’s conduct was “irrational” were vindicated in the Court’s final judgment.

Economically, lockdown measures have been devastating to business. Over 1.5 million jobs were permanently lost. Over 55% of people aged 24 – 34 are not in employment, education and training (NEET). By contrast all pandemic job losses in peer countries like India, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, and Egypt have returned.

Cutting the red tape that strangled jobs, especially semi-skilled service-sector jobs, was long overdue.

Finally, on the social side there is something to be celebrated about freedom’s return. As Ireland’s Prime Minister said in January when the Irish lockdown was lifted: “Humans are social beings…we need to see each other again; we need to see each other smile; we need to sing again.”

* Afrikaans-language media are requested to retain the acronym ‘IRR’, rather than using ‘IRV’.

Statement issued by the IRR, 23 June 2022