It’s not a case of jobs or lives. Jobs are lives

COMMENT

A week ago President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke again to the nation about the continuing crisis posed by Covid-19. He focused on curfews and trauma centres crowded because of alcohol-related injuries and reinstituted the ban on alcohol sales. He did mention the difficulty of containing the virus and sustaining the economy. 

“To drink or not to drink” was obviously a question that got framed with a Shakespearean sense of drama on every newscast and in every commentary.  Commentators and pundits were also quick to pick up on the point of whether the leadership should give greater priority to saving lives or saving jobs.

Forget the “drink or not to drink” question for the moment. My concern is the continuing argument that dealing with the coronavirus comes down to making a choice between jobs or lives. My problem is that the dichotomy misses the point. 

It’s not a question of jobs or lives, because jobs are lives. There is no way to keep people alive without keeping the economy alive. Oxfam just released a study corroborating the case I’ve been making for months. According to their report, titled The Hunger Virus, South Africa is “the emerging epicentre of hunger” on the African continent. According to News24’s weekly poll, one in three adults surveyed said they were going to bed hungry. With the closure of street food vendors during level 5 and 4 lockdowns some 500 000 people were put out of work and close to 70% of township households had fewer fresh fruits and vegetables to buy. As a result, “more people are likely to die from Covid-19-related hunger than the disease itself”. 

This finding is no surprise. The data from every continent and country is conclusive; having little income or experiencing the loss of income results in worse health outcomes. Translated, you can’t stem the tide of Covid-19, or its effects, by shutting down parts (or all) of the economy. Every unemployed person is a walking, talking, potential coronavirus casualty. The sooner the government recognises this, the sooner the economy and country will recover.


The so-called surge in Covid-19 cases is driven by primarily three factors. One, the novel coronavirus is spread because we have no immunity and no vaccines. Two, more cases are being detected because more people are being tested. Three, people are dying because people are trying to live on starvation diets. 

There is no way to get better health outcomes without people having an income. I have been beating this drum since the lockdown began and what we’re seeing with the “surge” is the chickens coming home to roost. 

So, what should the leadership be doing to deal with the coronavirus crisis? As the president has said time and time again, the simplest measures for containing Covid-19 are the best, certainly in the short term. Stopping the virus is a non-starter without a vaccine or herd immunity. Minimising the effect of the virus is possible by wearing masks, hand washing, and staying home if you’re sick. The government should continue to do everything it can to reinforce this message.

For those that advocate the need for more testing, test if you will. But, there are other ways to spend those resources. Testing will enable South Africa to identify more cases, but the reality is it can be predicted with a fair amount of accuracy where the most dramatic increase in infection rates and mortality rates will occur. That is, in clearly defined pockets of poverty.

This leads to the third, and most significant, thing the government can do to stem the tide of Covid-19, and that is, put people back to work. Stop with the bans on legal activities that provide jobs for people and revenues for the government to provide emergency relief for those that can’t fend for themselves. Take the wine industry as an example. This sector contributes nearly $2-billion to South Africa’s gross domestic product, ranks 16th among exports, and employs 300 000 people. The sector has a 350-year history and is an element of South Africa’s brand identity. Can you imagine the French gutting their wine sector?

There are those in government that don’t like smoking and drinking. I get it. Both can be bad for your health and lead to being admitted to hospital when abused. But, at the end of the day, the reason trauma centres are being overwhelmed is because the policies in place are increasing the incidence and seriousness of coronavirus infections. That is what the Oxfam report punctuates. If you starve the people, you feed the pandemic. 

If South Africa wants to slow the spread of the virus, stay with the basics. The people are trying to do their part. Are there some laggards when it comes to things like hygiene and masks? Sure there are, but for the most part people are working hard to do their part. You can’t get into the malls without a mask. Even people begging on the streets have masks. My hands get sanitised so much during the course of a day that I’m concerned that my finger prints might get washed off. 

Ministers and bureaucrats need to put aside their pet peeves. Chief among the government’s job is to ensure people have work, any kind of work, so that people are in the best position to fend for themselves and their families. If the government does this, South Africa will be able to ride this thing out and find a more promising future on the other side.

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Charles R Stith
Charles Stith was former president Bill Clinton’s envoy to Tanzania and is currently the nonexecutive board chair of the African Presidential Leadership Centre, a Johannesburg-based NGO

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