Was Ramaphosa right to extend the lockdown? South Africa

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Cyril Ramaphosa was entirely presidential when he stepped up to the podium on Thursday night and asked South Africans to “make an even greater sacrifice” and “endure” another two weeks of lockdown. He revealed that the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in SA had risen by 4.8% to 1,934 people by Thursday.

Ramaphosa was probably right that it’s too soon to end the lockdown, as doing so would lay the platform for a “massive and uncontrollable resurgence of the disease”.

However, it now remains unclear whether the lockdown may be extended again, after the end of April. However, the lockdown will have to end at some stage and, without a vaccine, many scientific models show that cases may then spike.

In arguing his case, Ramaphosa said the lockdown is working. He pointed out that before the lockdown, confirmed cases of Covid-19 were growing at 42% per day, compared to the 4% growth per day after the lockdown. (Actually, in the week before the lockdown, the growth was 28% per day.)

And yet, there were some holes in his argument.

Most conspicuously, mass testing in the general population has barely started, having ramped up somewhat in the last day or two. But without active testing, the growth in cases is a flawed barometer of success.

The fact is, while SA has performed 68,874 Covid-19 tests, only about 10,000 have been done in the state sector. The rest were performed in private laboratories, often for middle-class South Africans with medical aid.

So while Ramaphosa may be right that the lockdown is working in the middle-class suburbs, the data just isn’t there to say the same of the wider population.

At the same time, the government has yet to lay out an action plan for isolating people in the crowded township areas, should they test positive for the virus. Though the FM has repeatedly asked the department of health about this, it has yet to provide any answers.

On Thursday night, there appeared to be progress on this front as Ramaphosa said plans are being made — but again, he provided no detail.

Last week, the FM visited Alexander, a township of an estimated 200,000 people situated a few kilometres from Africa’s wealthiest square kilometre in Sandton. Already, two residents in Alex have tested positive for Covid-19.

Yet there was little sign of social distancing or isolation — a difficult ask anyway in that congested environment, where many of the shacks weren’t spaced one metre apart. On the narrow streets, residents didn’t keep much distance between each other as they arrived to collect free hand sanitiser.

One man told the FM he couldn’t see how the residents could apply ’social distancing’ when, in one case, 36 people lived in one large room, with 12 makeshift divisions.

The National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), however, claims that it’s modelling for Covid-19 does take into account the crowded conditions in township areas like Alex.

And yet, when the FM asked the NICD to elaborate on these models, the organisation’s spokeman Sinenhlanhla Jimoh said: “The modelling work is covered under a non-disclosure agreement with the department of health”.

“As a result, we are not in a position to release model projections,” she said. Instead, the department of health will then make a call on releasing the results.

This information blackout makes it hard to assess the success of the lockdown.

As John Steenhuisen, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance put it: “the absence of empirical data and modelling makes it very difficult to simply agree that a lockdown extension may be an effective means to curb the spread of Covid-19. The resulting economic fallout now means that it is not only lives which are threatened by the virus, but livelihoods”

Jobs, jobs, jobs

The economic impact looms large, not least because the country has suffered two credit rating downgrades in recent weeks.

During his speech, Ramaphosa repeated that he was aware of the impact on the economy. However, another two weeks of lockdown could spell the death knell for many small businesses, which employ the majority of the people in the country.

Two weeks ago, Edcon CEO Grant Pattison said it was possible that SA’s largest clothing retailer — which had to shut its doors since it wasn’t an “essential service” — may not be able to open again after a three week lockdown. Add in another two weeks, and the odds of the 18,000 jobs at the chain remaining intact become slimmer.

People’s savings are also under pressure.

Pension funds have already taken a beating this year, as the JSE has lost 23.5% since January. Many of those pension funds also have investments in property companies, which have come under pressure after some retailers — including fashion retailer TFG, fastfood chain KFC and discount chain Pep — said they won’t pay rent to landlords.

Ramaphosa addressed this issue on Thursday night too.

“I would like to appeal to all large businesses not to resort to force majeure (a declaration that a contract will be suspended due to an unforeseen event, like an act of god) and stop paying their suppliers and rental commitments as such practice has a domino effect on all other businesses,” he said.

It’s a nice sentiment, but even large companies are now feeling a cashflow squeeze.

The other concern is that even though Ramaphosa has pressed ‘pause’ on the economy, the work that the government needs to do in the background during the lockdown isn’t happening fast enough.

For example, it is taking too long to do mass testing, too long to isolate confirmed cases, and too long to get a proper publicly-available plan for implementing a lockdown in a township where social distancing can’t realistically happen.

On Thursday. Ramaphosa said he doesn’t want “a massive loss of life”. But he is getting a massive loss of jobs, nonetheless.

Ramaphosa has received acclaim for his handling of this crisis. But he now needs to take SA into his confidence and reveal how the data shows that Covid-19 could kill far more people than halting SA’s limping economy ever will.