Coronavirus News Africa

OPINION | Lessons from the lockdown: Will an extension work?

2020-04-08 21:40

The first two weeks of our lockdown offers powerful insights with which to inform our decisions about what should come next after the lockdown is set to end on 16 April, writes John Steenhuisen.


It has now been two weeks since President Cyril Ramaphosa initiated a nationwide lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic. With one week left to go of the 21-day lockdown, it is vital for us to assess whether it is on track to meet its goals.

We must do so in a way that acknowledges that this pandemic is the most rapidly evolving global crisis that the world has witnessed in at least a generation. Governments and societies all over the world are being challenged to continuously respond, update and modify their approaches, almost on a daily basis. Humanity is truly all in this together, which means that we are each others greatest resource in this time of crisis.  

A quick scan of the global environment shows that different countries are increasingly implementing divergent measures in response to their unique local contexts. 

The Czech Republic, which has strictly enforced the requirement for all citizens to wear face masks whenever they leave their homes, as well as Germany, have taken the first steps towards relaxing the most stringent lockdown rules in response to evidence that infection rates are stabilising and, perhaps, set to decline. 

But Sweden is reportedly considering stricter enforcement measures amid a continued rise in infection rates after initially adopting an approach premised on not shutting down its society and economy. At the same time, Japan has declared a month-long state of emergency, but plans to allow basic economic activities to continue. 

On the one hand, global experience makes it clear the South African government made the right call when it decided to act quickly. On the other hand, beyond the fundamental requirement to enforce physical distancing to slow down the spread of the virus, the ways in which countries are increasingly tailoring their response measures to their own unique circumstances shows that one size does not fit all. 

In the days, weeks and months ahead, South Africa will need to learn from other countries by adopting those measures that are appropriate here, discard those that are not applicable to us, and, in some cases, come up with entirely new responses that suit our unique social and economic context. 

In addition to being able to learn from global experience, the first two weeks of our own lockdown offers powerful insights with which to inform our decisions about what should come next after the lockdown is set to end on 16 April.

The global lesson

The first lesson from our lockdown is that the government must better communicate the outcomes it wants to achieve through any Covid-19 response measures. In his speech announcing the lockdown, and in all subsequent addresses, President Cyril Ramaphosa did not once tell the nation what the criteria were by which we would be able to judge the success or failure of the lockdown.

While we all understand that the lockdown rightly endeavours to slow down the spread of the virus, we do not know what outcomes, based on which metrics, would constitute success. Up to today, South Africans still have no idea what the exact quantifiable target of the lockdown is. 

Is it to bring the number of new infections down all the way to zero by the end of the 21-days? Is it to stabilise the number of daily new infections at, say, 100 or 200 cases? Is it to reduce the rate of infection to a certain level, perhaps to below one – meaning that, on average, every person who has the disease will infect less than one new person?

Or is the goal of the lockdown perhaps to ramp up testing to ensure that tens of thousands of people are being tested every single day in order to get ahead of the spread?

Or is the metric of success for the lockdown to slow down the spread of the virus in order to buy time for the country to rapidly expand healthcare capacity by, for example, building temporary hospital facilities, procuring ventilators and personal protective equipment, and doubling or tripling the number of hospital beds? 

Alone or in combination, these are all potentially meaningful goals. But the point is that we do not actually know which of these goals form the basis for judging success or failure. The government must tell citizens what exactly the measures of success are for the lockdown, so that we can all know whether we are on track or not. 

These questions are important because the answers should help determine what comes after 16 April. Under the status quo and in the absence of clearly defined targets, it appears that the government will decide whether to extend, suspend, or amend the lockdown on the basis of metrics that the public knows nothing about.

Another lesson we have already learnt from two weeks of lockdown is that strictly top-down enforcement in the South African context is a dangerous thing.

Socio-economic effects

At least eight people have already died as a result of the actions of the security forces or in detention. Heavy handed police and military action without bottom-up community engagement and social mobilisation, coupled with Parliaments complete abdication of its responsibility to hold the executive to account at this time of crisis, is a recipe for disaster that cannot be allowed to continue. 

We have also seen the combination of high levels of informality and poverty, as well as an incapable state without adequate resources to cushion citizens from the economic costs of the lockdown, are conditions which simply do not exist in wealthy countries with strong states.

We simply face a unique challenge in trying to support 30.4 million impoverished citizens, and millions more who are at risk of losing their livelihoods, with a state that has no money and little capacity.

Life on 17 April 

After two weeks of lockdown, we know this much about what should come after 16 April: one size does not fit all, and every country needs to make decisions based on its own unique context.

Any government relief measures for Covid-19 also need to be communicated alongside a clearly defined goal and quantifiable targets of what the measures aim to achieve. 

We also know that Parliament needs to have full oversight powers over any and all measures put in place by the executive to achieve these targets in order to protect civil liberties and to guard against government overreach. 

And finally, we know that we must acknowledge the real trade-offs that come with enforcing physical distancing in our particular context of an under-resourced and weak state governing a society characterised by widespread poverty and unemployment.

Whatever life looks like in South Africa on the morning of 17 April cannot be arbitrarily decided, but instead needs to be informed by these key lessons from two weeks of lockdown.

– John Steenhuisen is the interim leader of the DA

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