As a second wave of covid infections is hitting some parts of South Africa, we should be looking to learn the lessons of the first wave, to respond more effectively this time.
And indeed, the most important lesson to be learnt is that lockdowns are both catastrophically destructive and ineffective.
President Ramaphosa will probably never state this outright, as that would mean taking responsibility for the tragic consequences of his ill-fated decision to force South Africa into one of the world’s most severe and prolonged hard lockdowns that has so devastated millions of lives. But the fact that he did not implement one last night is a tacit admission of this rank failure.
To be clear, the DA is unequivocally against lockdowns because they have been conclusively shown to be net harmful to younger, poorer societies such as South Africa’s, with the poor suffering disproportionately. (Unsurprisingly, the only people in South Africa I’ve heard support lockdowns are those who are guaranteed an income at the end of each month. The poor have learnt the hard way that lockdowns are totally disastrous.)
Everyone agrees that the socio-economic impact of lockdown is negative. But many people are under the impression that the health impact could be net positive, and that lockdowns may therefore be an effective tool. Yet there is no evidence to support this claim.
To quote Wits professor of vaccinology Shabir Mahdi and The Scientists Collective: “What we can be certain of is that the type of hard lockdown imposed in March will only inflict further, perhaps fatal, damage to an economy which was on the ropes before the pandemic – and which the hard lockdown rendered moribund. It will also significantly undermine any chance of an economic recovery, without achieving any meaningful net health impact.”
So how should we be responding to this second wave, in order to minimize human suffering from all causes? (I say from all causes, because deaths caused by lockdown are just as important and tragic as covid deaths although it is now in the president’s interests to afford covid special status, to somehow justify his prolonged hard lockdown.)
As the DA have been saying all along, individuals and groups need to be empowered with greater decision-making capacity, since each person, household, or group has a different risk profile, and must act accordingly.
At the same time, it needs to be made clear to people, as per President Ramaphosa’s message last night, that they need to play their part in slowing the spread of infections. Behavioural changes are the best tool we have to slow transmission.
However, government should be targeting far more of its communications and resources specifically at the group most vulnerable to Covid – the elderly and those with serious co-morbidities – as they are most likely to require hospital treatment.
Concurrently, government should be increasing hospital capacity at existing hospitals and at temporary field hospitals while improving traffic policing and law enforcement in high-crime areas to reduce pressure on our trauma facilities.
Government should also be doing all it can to ensure a spot at the front of the queue for Covid vaccines. Unfortunately, our government has missed the deadline for the first payment in the COVAX vaccine initiative. This means we now fall back in the queue, and South Africans might have to wait even longer before securing a vaccine. This is unacceptable. Government should rectify this immediately to book our spot in the queue.
There is much that citizens and government can do to minimise overall human suffering during the second wave. And there is room for disagreement on the exact strategy to follow. But I hope we can all now agree that lockdown is a terrible mistake never to be repeated.