South Africa’s fumbling response to Covid-19 poses questions

So far I have steered clear from commenting on our country’s official response to the coronavirus pandemic, choosing instead to focus on more globally relevant issues surrounding the outbreak, but perhaps the time has come to venture onto the fraught terrain. I have so far avoided the local situation because of a whole latticework of reasons, which have to do with contradictory ANC policies and their implementation.

Although, like most South Africans, I was impressed by our president’s initial, decisive move to impose strict lockdown conditions to combat the spread of the virus, in this way giving the usually more-or-less dysfunctional state health system a chance to prepare for handling a potential wave of infections, as time has dragged on, I have been incrementally less impressed. Let me explain.

At the outset, a strict lockdown seemed like a good idea, on the important supposition, not only that people would obey the regulations, but also that they would, by and large, be in a position to do so. Both turned out to be incorrect assumptions, and the latter to be the more significant of the two. As other local commentators have already pointed out, thousands (if not millions) of poor people in informal settlements do not have the luxury of living in comparatively spacious homes, often having to settle for as many as five or more housemates in a shack.

How do you practice physical distancing under such circumstances? If no one living in informal settlements ever went outside it would presumably be safe, but they have to go out all the time, as numerous photographs taken in such urban areas have shown, with few among the crowds in the streets wearing face masks. Consequently, the lockdown rules pertaining to movement and personal protective equipment have really been obeyed by only a relatively small percentage of people, for reasons that the governing party failed to think through before implementing collective house arrest.

The importance of exercise

Then there is the ludicrous approach of those “in charge” of the pandemic response to exercise — its necessity and its practice. Initially, before the beginning of level five of the lockdown, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, indicated that exercise would be allowed — a sensible attitude, considering that exercise strengthens one’s immune system, which is of paramount importance in the present situation.


Then Police Minister Bheki Cele, somewhat like a bull in a china shop, elbowed in on the health minister’s terrain, overruling him, and banned all exercise. If this did not say much for the intelligence of Cele’s actions, the negative impression was exacerbated by the photographs circulating of him, on a “walkabout” wearing a face mask covering only his mouth. And this guy is in a position of authority over millions of South Africans? This is the stuff of theatre of the absurd.   

And it has far-reaching consequences. Take myself, for example. I am retired, and quite fit under normal circumstances because I go mountain climbing every day. Without exercise, at my age, I would be far more vulnerable to the coronavirus than if I had remained fit. Under these circumstances, should I get infected and become very ill, hypothetically I could sue the (ir-)responsible minister for denying me my constitutional rights to stay fit and healthy. And I’m willing to bet I would win such a court case, if I lived to see the end of it.

The point is not only that exercise is good for us, but also that it gets one out into the open air in present circumstances, so that your immune system gets a boost, as Bill Maher so humourously (but nonetheless  accurately) indicates in the video below.

But the absurdity concerning exercise does not end there. When level five of the lockdown made way for level four, this time, apparently, with Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in charge, we were informed that we could exercise between 6am and 9am. Wow! A six-year-old child would understand that, when you force a large number of people (particularly in cities) into such a tight time-slot to exercise, you get what occurred at the Sea Point promenade on the first morning of level four: thousands of people running and walking, in close proximity to one another, for about three hours. Presumably Dlamini-Zuma would like to lessen the chances of infection during exercise, right? How about the obvious — spread exercise throughout the day, so that people are thinly spread instead? Was that so difficult to think of? Enough said.

Or rather, not enough yet. The next absurdity concerns the incomprehensibly wide-ranging powers that members of South African Police Service have been given, and which they seem to be using indiscriminately. Instead of using the police to combat crime under conditions in which people without an income are more likely than usual to steal, or rob others in an effort to survive, our dear, brave police officers are expected to spend their time on petty issues, like checking whether people in clothing stores are buying “inadmissible” garments or items, like a belt for your pants (which is deemed non-essential, apparently; no problem if your pants slide down in public, evidently). And whose arbitrary and brainless decision was it to label fridges non-essential? One wonders whether anyone with a modicum of intelligence is advising the National Command Council on these matters. Apparently not.

Apart from the fumbling implementation of lockdown rules in South Africa by our command team, in light of the question I posed at the outset — how many people in this country are in a position to “lock down” effectively? — there is the more fundamental question of whether to lock down at all. Looking at the Worldometer for the coronavirus, it is striking that the top four countries in terms of infection rates are all countries that implemented various degrees of lockdown — the United States, Spain, Italy and Britain — while three countries that did not impose a lockdown at all, have fared much better.

The case for not going into lockdown

The most exemplary among these three countries is undoubtedly Taiwan, which is, ironically, but understandably — given Beijing’s heavy-handed interference globally, preventing recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty as a nation — not even acknowledged by the World Health Organisation. And yet, as the video above shows, this island country, with about the same number of inhabitants as the geographically much larger Australia, has fared exceptionally well compared to the latter country. As of May 9, it has had only 440 cases, and just six Covid19-related deaths.

South Korea has been impressive in its response, too, despite starting off with a sudden spike in infections brought about by a single person (“patient 31”) belonging to a tight-knit religious group. To date it has had only 10 840 infections and 256 virus-related deaths. Both Taiwan and South Korea owe their success to their preparedness — unlike the United States, where President Donald Trump had brainlessly dismantled the team of epidemiological authorities that former president Barack Obama had assembled.

These two Southeast Asian countries had the organisational elements in place before the novel coronavirus struck, owing to the SARS epidemic in the region in about 2003, and South Korea had fortuitously run a simulated response to an epidemic just before the new coronavirus outbreak. Taiwan, which boasts one of the best (universal) healthcare systems globally, could activate its National Health Command Centre, set up in response to SARS, immediately, with spectacular results     

The third of the countries that refused lockdown — Sweden — is more controversial, because of various factors, including a higher infection and death rate than the two discussed above. The fact that its daily social and economic activities were allowed, by and large, to carry on as usual, is seen as a factor that exacerbated these casualty rates (particularly because, unlike Koreans and Taiwanese, the Swedes, by and large, were not expected to wear face masks), but the person driving Sweden’s response to the pandemic, state epidemiologist Dr Anders Tegnell, has insisted that the country has achieved what it hoped it would.

Many medical authorities believe that Sweden has achieved a much higher immunity rate than other countries because of its policy — an outcome that reminds one of Bill Maher’s argument, referred to earlier, that one should expose one’s immune system to pathogens for the very purpose of developing immunity, even though he cautions that those people with already compromised immune systems should be assisted against the coronavirus. Needless to stress, there is much food for thought here, for those people capable of really thinking things through.

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Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier is an honorary professor of philosophy at the University of the Free State, South Africa. As well as philosophy, he engages in productive explorations of disciplines such as architectural and psychoanalytical theory and film studies

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