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DA MP to Verashni Pillay: It's a political football game of your imagination

OPINION

Verashni Pillay’s opinion piece “Stop using the lockdown as a political football” resorts to the default and well-worn misrepresentation deployed against political parties when they engage in political debate and contestation on matters of societal importance: that they are making an issue into a “political football”. Well, as the saying goes: when they start attacking you instead of your arguments, you’ve won the debate.

Indeed, Ms Pillay might need to clarify for us where she stands on the value and merit of debate. On the one hand she writes that “there is a debate over the details of the regulations and lockdown stages…which is good” but when the DA engages in that debate, it is dismissively reduced to turning the lockdown into a “political football”.

To mix my sporting metaphors, much of her opinion piece reads like a high school debating society case study in a rhetorical strike-out:

Strike 1: Ms Pillay’s piece propagates the exact same strawmanning that she accuses the DA of doing. Our opposition is to the unjustified continuation of the national hard lockdown. There are three distinct elements to that position.

The first element is the unjustified continuation due to the national government not sharing its data and modelling publicly. If the data justifies lockdown continuation and the government shared that with the public, the grounds for any opposition would wither away.

The second element is the uniform, one-size-fits-all nature of the lockdown. Ever since the DA first proposed the notion of a “smart lockdown” strategy, we have advocated for disaggregated approach that customises lockdown to local contexts and condition.

The third element is the hardness of the lockdown. Much of this is about the authoritarian and often irrational regulations previously promulgated that have little bearing on actually slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It speaks to the very heart of political value systems, namely whether one believes that things should be permitted unless expressly prohibited, or whether things should be prohibited unless expressly permitted by the authorities.

In light of the above, Ms Pillay would have to elucidate what precisely about the above position is “creating a political strawman” or “bogeyman” of “lockdown fundamentalists”. We are simply calling for a data-driven, disaggregated and dynamic approach to pandemic response and the narrative framing of the piece seems simply to be an attempt to paint the DA into a villain caricature of her own making.

Strike 2: The piece repeats the woefully simplistic and short-sighted idea that supporting the opening up of the economy (which should obviously happen safely with due regard for public health considerations) is about the revenue and profitability concerns of business.

Firstly, the call to open the economy is fundamentally about the livelihoods of millions of individuals and households whose ability to put food on their tables and keep a roof over their heads has been destroyed by the hard lockdown.

Perhaps Ms Pillay should peruse the avalanche of queries and requests for assistance received by the DA from panicked employees and small business owners, which are only a small sample of the real economic distress picture out there, who have only weeks of financial runway (if lucky) before permanent business closures and/or job losses become an irreversible reality.

Secondly, the call to open the economy is, crucially, about keeping an eye on the need to ensure the fiscal resources to implement the health response to COVID-19 in the medium term. How is that supposed to be funded for the next 18 – 24 months (the timeframe that SARS-CoV-2 is estimated to be an ongoing concern) when tax revenue has declined owing to reduced economic activity (especially a sharp drop in excise tax collection due to the alcohol and cigarette ban)?

There was a case for the initial hard lockdown: to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus temporarily while mass testing was implemented and the healthcare system increased its respiratory illness treatment capacity. Whether that case still exists for the continuation of the hard lockdown is what the public debate is about.

Strike 3: The observation is made that the lockdown debate has scientists, researchers and experts making pronouncements on matters that are not in their field. Perhaps that’s because the inputs and opinions of other fields were not originally sought by the government to design and implement the pandemic response strategy.

If some of the projections are true for example that the economic devastation of the extended hard lockdown will kill more people than the pandemic itself, is that not some analysis and modelling that should have been factored in during the initial 21-day lockdown to influence decisions on easing out of it? More crucially, are those projections invalidated simply because they are not coming from epidemiologists or other health experts?

South Africa is poised to experience an economic massacre of epic proportions, especially on the small business landscape, and millions of households are plummeting into penury against the background of a national government that has tumbled over a fiscal cliff, yet Ms Pillay seems more concerned with being a self-appointed referee in a political football game of her imagination.

When the dust has settled and the true horror that manifests in the wake of the hard lockdown makes itself known across the country, such sanctimonious sophistry will not have aged well.

Zakhele Mbhele is a DA Member of Parliament.