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JUDITH FEBRUARY: We can’t afford to take our foot off the pedal with COVID-19

opinion

‘My fellow South Africans…’

It’s been almost three weeks since we heard those words used by President Ramaphosa in an address to the nation.

It’s 100 days since South Africa reported its first COVID-positive case.

As of Thursday afternoon, 1,284 have died from the virus, and 58,568 people are confirmed as infected.

100 days seems like a lifetime ago. Does time speed up or slow down during lockdown?

Generally speaking, President Ramaphosa and his Cabinet colleagues had the country’s support when he announced the hard lockdown in late March. Even during its extension we understood the need to buy time to prepare for the inevitability of a spike in infections. This was particularly so as South Africa approaches winter and with so many living with HIV/Aids and tuberculosis in communities across the country.

Yet, almost inexplicably in late May, Ramaphosa announced that churches would reopen for 50 worshipers at a time. He appealed to faith leaders to assist government in ensuring that the restrictions were adhered to. That was a turning point of sorts.

It seemed then that a kind of illogic was informing the risk-adjusted strategy of reopening the economy and society.

After all, evidence from around the world indicates that the reopening of churches has had a direct impact on the increase in infection rates.

Questions then arose more frequently than before. For instance, if churches can reopen, why should families not visit each other, why should personal care salons, following hygiene protocols, not reopen and so on? The internal logic of the rules must be able to consistent, after all.

In the Western Cape, currently the epicentre of the pandemic, we have seen an increase in the number of trauma unit beds needed on weekends. This has largely been the direct result of the alcohol ban being lifted. Yet, the tobacco ban remains in place. The courts have now been asked to intervene in the tobacco matter. This has become an intense and personal battle between the industry and the Minister of COGTA, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

In addition, the courts have also been called upon to scrutinise the powers of the National Coronavirus Command Council of Cabinet. Unfathomable too is that the courts had to intervene in securing justice for Collins Khosa. A democratic government should hang its head in shame that Khosa’s family was compelled to approach the Pretoria High Court for some semblance of accountability for his death during lockdown.

But shame is a rare commodity in our politics.

We live in a constitutional democracy and so challenges before our courts are part and parcel of democratic governance. Approaching the courts should, however, not become the norm even as we have seen the courts as the final bulwark against a government determined to undermine the rule of law at every turn during the Jacob Zuma years.

And so, at the unbanning of churches and the move to level 3, it seemed as if something slipped. A carelessness has crept into our dealing with this deadly virus.

This inattention can be seen all around us in the conduct of South Africans and also in the urgency which seems to have seeped away from government communication on the issue.

Some ministers unhelpfully insert themselves into the discussion from time to time - think Fikile Mbalula and Bheki Cele. Apart from the indefatigable Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, the urgency among his colleagues seems to have dissipated.

As ever, clear communication is everything. We have been urged to wear masks, sanitise and practise social distancing. Yet, the recklessness is pervasive as the infection rate increases. Perhaps it was best encapsulated in the social media clip of a man who had queued for alcohol on 1 June. Once procured, he drank straight out of the bottle on his way out of the shop.

Traffic lights have been regularly rammed out of the ground thanks to drunken driving, people in taxis are seen without masks, workers are seen sitting in groups outside shopping malls during their tea breaks, only to slip masks on when re-entering. Runners are often spotted without masks and different retail stores waft between strict and loose compliance.

The public education aspect of dealing with the pandemic was always going to be difficult in a country as disparate as ours. Government skipped a beat right at the start when it failed to include community workers and local leaders as they attempted to educate citizens about the dangers of the virus. Public information campaigns have been too little too late and not as pervasive in all areas as they ought to be.

The ‘top down’ approach so loved by our inefficient state simply increases citizens’ scepticism and also provides ample opportunities for fed-up citizens to breach regulations.

The clear messaging that now has to come from government is that the pandemic is not yet at its peak and it is deadly and dangerous. The reopening of large swathes of the economy should not signal that the worst is over. Ironically, this seems to be the case.

The worst is still coming in fact and wide-scale public education and benevolent ‘policing’ within key areas such as taxi ranks and spot checks at workplaces to ensure that protocols are being followed should be the order of the day.

In addition, our focus should be a far-reaching, single-minded 11-language campaign to educate people about this virus. It should reach everyone - rich and poor, young and old.

It is also time for government to communicate regarding its current approach to the pandemic. The abandonment of good sense and science came along with the reopening of churches. Now it feels as if we are in one court challenge and one bureaucratic ‘fix’ after the other and the approach feels haphazard. This may or may not be the case, but we need to understand government’s latest thinking on the lockdown.

What we see from the outside looking in is bureaucratic-speak about adherence to lockdown level 3, yet the reality on the streets is that adherence is predictably patchy.

When government’s internal logic falters, then it becomes very difficult to manage a pandemic during these unprecedented times.

On Thursday, Cabinet announced that it had deferred a decision on adjusting lockdown level 3 to next week. It is waiting for an update from the Health Department.

One hopes the next communication will explain the decision-making process where sectors remain closed. There are some sectors where reopening is obviously problematic such as travel and most of the tourism sector, sadly. Yet the closure of other sectors is not as clear-cut and so the rationale needs to be communicated lucidly. Perhaps Cabinet can also address us on a more widespread public education campaign?

The urgency needs to return to government’s overall strategy and communication. We simply cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal at this most dangerous point in the pandemic’s spread.

It is, of course, our collective responsibility to deal with the pandemic and we do not ask for perfect government, only for accountability, consistency and openness during a time of global disease and unease.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february