If only climate change could muster the same immediate political impact as Covid-19. Or as one wit suggested on Twitter: the climate needs to hire the coronavirus’s spin doctor. Which begs the question: Could the spread of Covid-19 be the paradigm-shifting global shock that wakes us up to the peril that lies ahead?
There is uncertainty about how long the pandemic will last and how deep and long-lasting the economic crash will be. Like the 1918-1919 Spanish flu that is regarded as the nearest comparator to Covid-19, enormous social upheaval will result. The political implications are as numerous and as unpredictable as they are going to be profound.
During the first phase, the decision-making skill and composure of political leaders is sorely tested. Trust is the crucial commodity. At a time of social crisis, people look to the elected government for leadership, for reassurance and for a sense of hope. They want to know that a clear-minded plan is being put in place and executed decisively.
On Sunday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa passed that initial test. He was calm (though clearly anxious) and measured. He encouraged confidence in the government’s ability to handle the crisis and communicated its strategy with admirable clarity.
The package of measures announced were proportional to the scale of the crisis, and well-timed. As leading experts of the World Health Organisation (WHO) who have frontline experience of epidemics such Ebola and pandemics such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus of 2003 have said, it is much better to be a bit early in taking decisive action to contain the spread of Covid-19 than being a little too late (as China and Italy were).
It is now reasonably clear from the global pattern that has emerged that the key moment is when the infection rate hits about 100, with local transmission. From then, the curve soon spikes — within two weeks it will probably increase to several thousand.
Early travel restrictions, aggressive testing, assertive tracking, and the imposition of strict quarantine rules, have proved to be important. South Korea and Taiwan are the best examples.
Universal healthcare, skilled public health management and proactive communication to compel social compliance are also vital if a country is to avoid the worst case scenario — all of which raises questions about South African’s capacity for managing the crisis effectively when infection rates rise exponentially.
Ramaphosa’s Cabinet ministers — a remarkable 18 of them — then laid out more detailed plans at a marathon press conference on Monday morning. Again, most passed the trust test.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize exuded confidence and competence. So far, he is having “a good war”. Social crises always produces political winners and losers. Mkhize, as well as Ramaphosa, could be one of the biggest winners.
Both need it, but especially Mkhize.
In the run-up to the ANC national elective conference at Nasrec in December 2017, Mkhize was a leading light and the out-going treasurer general — potentially on course for the top job in 2022 or 2027.
But he had an utterly disastrous conference. Having allowed himself to be lured into a hopeless stalking horse “third way” position, the KwaZulu-Natal politician lost traction with both the Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma factions — and on the day of the election itself had to meekly decline the nomination for the position of deputy president in the face of certain humiliation.
Now he can use his handling of the virus as a launchpad for getting his political career back on track.
But much will depend on what happens next, in phase two. The weak link in the Cabinet chain of 18 on Monday morning was the transport minister, Fikile Mbalula. Crises tend to expose the flakes and the fakes. Mbalula was unconvincing about how the government plans to handle the danger of contagion posed by public transport.
This is the country’s Achilles heel. Hundreds of thousands of working-class people travel in congested taxis and trains. A small number of infectious people could trigger mass infection. Neither the government or the private sector have clarified who is still required to come to work, given this high risk context.
And so back to the Spanish flu. Confounded at the time, epidemiologists later ascertained that the apparently “democratic” brutal randomness of the pandemic was not quite what it had seemed and that poorer, working-class people had been disproportionately affected.
This, in turn, prompted a wave of anti-imperialist social protest. The Great Crash at the end of the 1920s and the consequent rise of fascism intervened. But after World War II, it was not the conservative war-time leader Winston Churchill who was elected in Britain, but Labour’s great social reformer, Clement Attlee, leading to the Beveridge report and the creation of the world’s largest welfare state, which had huge influence around the world.
This virus could go either way — encouraging further support for authoritarian government or spawning a new commitment to progressive or even radical social democracy.
At times of crisis, people tend to look to the government for help. It can serve to remind them of the importance of the state to stability, to public health and wellbeing, and to economic security and welfare when a disaster such as a pandemic affects normal life.
Supplanted in many places by autocrats or neo-fascists, trust in representative, liberal democracy has been in decline in the past two decades — including in South Africa as a result of a decade of state capture — the virus could help restore trust in democratic government and thereby provide a springboard for an ambitious programme of progressive reform.
Already, it is focusing minds on important structural issues concerning access to universal health care, the idea of a basic income grant, and on arresting the preoccupation with economic growth at all costs — ahead of economic development.
There is enough evidence of how China’s rapacious market-capitalism-on-steroids approach to rapid growth may be an underlying reason for why the virus originated in Wuhan.
One immediate lesson that has been extracted is that global supply chains are too tightly time-dependent. When large parts of China went into lockdown it was inevitable that the knock-on effect on global supply chains would tip the world’s economy into recession.
This does not mean that globalisation should be abandoned. On the contrary, the need for global co-operation and communication has never been greater. Besides, digital connectivity makes it impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.
But it does mean that we now have to come to terms with the fact that when the unstoppable force of growth meets the immovable objective of planetary and ecological boundaries, something has to give.
We now need to prepare for being apart in ways we have never been apart before and we need to be together in ways we’ve never been together before, without knowing how.
As the writer and public intellectual Bayo Akomolafe puts it “the times are urgent, let us slow down”. Now, the virus will force many of us to do so, while no doubt reflecting that one of the chief lessons of the pandemic is that we are all deeply connected.
How ironic that many of us will have to practice “social distancing” in order to have this pause for thought.
Will the moment pass or will it spur us to collective action? This is the political challenge, and opportunity, for leaders and activists alike.
Clearly, much of life will never be quite the same again — professionals will never travel as promiscuously as they used to, and offices will increasingly become outdated and irrelevant. Working remotely will become far more common, aided by technological gadgetry.
Public health systems will have to prepare for future threats, just as fossil fuel-based energy complexes will need to be swiftly replaced by renewable forms of energy.
And so regardless of whether in a year or more society tries to pick up where it left off before Covid-19 arrived, the fact is the pandemic represents a painful dress rehearsal for what lies ahead with climate change.
The virus makes the case that climate change has so far failed to prove: that our economic model is fundamentally unsustainable. If this doesn’t transform social behaviour and the way we manage our economic and ecological resources, then nothing will. The political risks, and stakes, could not be higher.
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group