A smarter, not stricter lockdown is necessary

As we entered the new year, we all hoped for a fresh start, and to just leave the pandemic behind. So, it is easy to feel discouraged as case numbers are steadily climbing and the country is again under level 3 lockdown. Nevertheless, we can all be hopeful that the new year will be different.

In the face of adversity and extreme uncertainty, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in March 2020. Although the lockdown undoubtedly saved many lives, it also placed an immense burden on all South Africans, especially those living in poverty. The good news is that we now know much more about the virus and how to protect ourselves than we did back in March.

Our team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich did various studies in informal neighbourhoods in South Africa to understand how people responded to the national lockdown. So, now, we also know more about how lockdowns affect our lives. We hope our research can inform a smarter lockdown that lessens the burden of social distancing, while allowing us to fight the latest resurgence of the pandemic.

We found the virus, and measures to curb its spread, had a significant effect on poor households. Many feared for their health. In addition, in townships in Ekurhuleni, poor families reported the largest effects of the lockdown were unemployment and children being at home. In rural Limpopo, poor families mentioned the burdens of travel restrictions, increased food prices and food shortages.

South African children studied very little during the lockdown, less than children in Accra, Ghana, where we conducted a similar study. In addition, the vast majority of South African children, who usually receive food at school, did not receive those meals under the lockdown. During interviews, many parents expressed frustration at their children’s constant complaints of hunger.


South Africans showed high levels of anxiety; many worried about their income or where they would get their next meal. South Africans, especially in urban areas, reported very low levels of life satisfaction, even lower than those living in poor neighbourhoods in Accra.

Government grants buffered many of the consequences of the lockdown on poor families, keeping many from regressing further into poverty. Given the already massive effects of the pandemic on the national economy, however, sustainably financing the national grant programme is a matter of serious concern.

The key question, therefore, is how we can continue to rein in this virus, while limiting the social and economic impact of subsequent lockdowns? We know physical distancing can help, but our (and other) research shows that a level 5 lockdown may not be worth it.

Under level 5, South Africans were not more likely to avoid large gatherings than Ghanaians, who had a more lenient lockdown. Many of the reasons people did not comply were not out of strict disobedience, but rather out of necessity: for example, people who share a toilet with their neighbours cannot stay inside and avoid others completely and those without private modes of transport need to use crowded public transport. In our study, South African public transport was the most frequently mentioned place where people said they cannot maintain physical distance.

Still, despite reports of people in informal settlements defying regulations and despite the extra difficulty of staying indoors in an informal settlement, we found that people did significantly reduce their outdoor movement. Using pedestrian counters in an informal settlement in Khayelitsha, we found that nighttime movement decreased significantly, especially during the weekends, when people typically gather socially.

We also found that people were more likely to physically distance or wash their hands if they were well informed, trusted the government, or perceived the government’s actions as appropriate. Although trust in the government decreased in areas such as Ekurhuleni during the lockdown, participants still trusted the government more than the police or their fellow citizens. Clear and effective communication is essential to foster trust in the government. For example, the government could increase transparency around the distribution of food parcels and aid.

In Ekurhuleni, most people inform themselves about the pandemic by watching television, and in Limpopo many people get information from the radio. The relatively low use of social media for information about the pandemic may have slowed the spread of information, but it could also have limited misinformation early on. Later in the pandemic, however, we did find misinformation, with many saying sunlight, antibiotics or herbal supplements can cure the virus. Furthermore, while most South Africans wear masks, we find that usage increased significantly once masks were made mandatory.

As we re-adjust to level 3 and consider the next steps, our findings indicate that many poor South Africans do generally comply with lockdown regulations as long as they are not prevented from meeting basic needs. Consistent communication campaigns that directly address common threads of misinformation are necessary in order to reach a diverse population to ensure people continue to make an effort to socially distance. Beyond the facts, the government should also explain the reasoning behind its lockdown decisions. The better people understand the basic facts about Covid-19 and the need for physical distancing measures, the more likely they are to adjust their behaviour and perhaps the less vulnerable they are to misinformation. Ramaphosa’s speeches are a good example of direct communication, but shorter and more accessible snippets could help as well.

Governments should also continue to improve sanitation in low-income areas, focusing on limiting the number of people who must share toilet and water infrastructure. Improved sanitation makes for more resilient populations — not only to Covid-19 but to many other pathogens, as well.

Finally, many people in our study supported the alcohol ban or at least some restrictions on alcohol sales. Since we found less nighttime activity when alcohol was banned and since there may be public support, the current re-enactment of the alcohol ban was likely the correct decision. As the illegal trade networks of alcohol expand, however, the alcohol ban might be less effective in the long run.

Everyone is feeling the strain of social isolation. We find that people reported much higher life satisfaction in August, when lockdown measures were lenient and some social interaction was allowed. We are all longing to meet with family and friends, to hug each other, to laugh, eat, drink, celebrate and pray together.

Although the successful development of several vaccines inspires hope for a better new year, vaccine distribution will not come quickly and the beginning of 2021 will likely look a lot like 2020. Whereas some restrictions on public life are unavoidable, we believe a smarter lockdown could limit the burden of social distancing, while upholding our fight against the pandemic.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Antoinette van der Merwe
Antoinette van der Merwe is a doctoral researcher at the Development Economics Group at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Antoinette’s research focuses on various developmental concerns such as child labour in gold mining in West Africa, as well as the effects of Covid-19 and early childhood development in South Africa.
Yael Borofsky
Yael Borofsky is a doctoral researcher at the Development Economics Group at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Yael’s research focuses on access to infrastructure in informal settlements in South Africa.

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