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JUDITH FEBRUARY: We need clear COVID-19 messaging from government

OPINION

The lockdown is all over, bar the shouting.

One can now go to churches of a different kind - the casino and the restaurant.

It was inevitable that South Africa would reach this point of reopening. Lockdown cannot be sustained forever. At some point people have to resume - and be trusted to resume - their ordinary lives. And so, for governments all around the world, the reopening of the economy has been about calculated risk, or what President Ramaphosa has called the ‘delicate balance’ of protecting livelihoods and saving lives.

In South Africa that balance was of a special kind given our deep levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Generally speaking, 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. The intention was always about ‘flattening the curve’ and preparing the country for the inevitable surge in infections.

We will learn, in time, whether government used the period during which South Africa was in hard lockdown to prepare adequately for the health crisis yet to come.

The Western Cape will be heading towards the spike first in the country, it seems, and already health services are under severe pressure.

So when President Ramaphosa addressed the nation on Wednesday evening, his emphasis on personal responsibility was the most obvious next step.

Ramaphosa announced what government has previously called ‘advanced level 3’- a clear adjustment of tone given the economic pressures the country faces as a result of the coronavirus lockdown.

What one looks for in addresses of this kind is a measure of empathy and understanding, but also consistent internal logic.

On empathy and understanding, Ramaphosa can ‘tick the box’. He clearly does have sufficient levels of empathy - whether he acts in accordance with that at all times is debatable, but he is hardly the narcissistic Donald Trump - a relief in the circumstances - or a derelict, laughing Jacob Zuma.

It bears repeating that the internal logic of lockdown was abandoned in late May when Ramaphosa announced that churches would reopen for 50 worshipers at a time, when clear evidence from around the world indicates that the reopening of churches has had a direct impact on the increase in infection rates.

In his latest address, Ramaphosa announced the reopening of restaurants, personal care salons, spas and casinos. All reopening is naturally subject to health protocols. That is understandable, yet the internal logic has again been abandoned as it would mean one can visit a restaurant, casino or hair salon, but not do a house visit to friends and family.

And the tobacco ban remains in place even as every other ‘ban’ is tumbling like skittles around it. This has become an intense and personal battle between the industry and the minister of COGTA, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

It would appear that government prefers some lobbyists above others. How else can we understand the inconsistency in its approach? Disallowing family visits seems absurd in the circumstances.

Ramaphosa was right to place a renewed emphasis on personal responsibility. Yet, citizens are less likely to take responsibility if certain rules which defy logic remain in place.

As usual, we will have to wait for the relevant ministers’ briefings for sectoral reopening dates.

Given the extent to which lockdown rules have been eased, this also makes little sense. By now most businesses have been waiting to reopen and have hatched plans regarding safety protocols. A date should simply be announced without leaving us at the mercy of ministerial briefings, which mostly consist of endless repetition and little substance.

Personal responsibility will require discipline South Africans are not well known for.

It will also require public education. The public education aspect of dealing with the pandemic was always going to be difficult in a country as disparate as ours.

This week the indefatigable Health Minister Zweli Mkhize called for a ‘grassroots’ fight against the virus as he launched the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Social Behavioural Change. It includes faith-based organisations, trade unions and civil society.

“The fight against COVID-19 is going to be won at home, in a church, in a taxi, on the streets, in a restaurant… and in every part of our social lives. It is not about whether there is a curfew or there is a policeman watching your movements. This is now about every South African taking the fight on,” Mkhize said.

It took a while for government to get to this point.

It skipped a beat right at the start with the failure 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.

But, it needs to be more proactive in partnering with communities. Mkhize’s MAC is a first step. Government’s focus should now also 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.

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 the large swathes of the economy should not signal that the worst is over. Ironically, this seems to be the case.

The worst is 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.

Ultimately, however, dealing with the pandemic will require behavioural change in a country where it is often difficult to make those changes.

It will be a while until we reach the so-called ‘Post-COVID’ world so often spoken about. In the meantime, it really is up to us.

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