South Africans were relieved to hear that from 1 May the lockdown measures will be eased gradually. Margaret Blackie explains that the health of the economy and the health of its citizens are not mutually exclusive. Both priorities need to coexist in an intricate balance to maximise the country’s chances of overcoming this crisis. The relaxing of measures will still require individuals to practice physical distancing, to ensure that the country does not revert back to full lockdown mode.
By now it is clear that the pandemic is not going away any time soon. As Germany begins to phase in reopening, Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned that “we are still at the beginning of the pandemic.” We have now heard the plan for different levels of lockdown in South Africa. We can expect that we will move in between these levels over the months to come. As infections break out in specific areas it may require a move to more stringent levels until the spread is slowed again.
The challenge we face is this: Hard lockdown absolutely does slow the spread of infection. It does ‘flatten the curve’ and it will result in fewer deaths from COVID-19.
But a hard and prolonged lockdown has detrimental consequences. Those who are most economically fragile will end up in dire straits. And our capacity as a society to support those who have lost their jobs and businesses is directly related to the health of the economy. If we can’t support those who are struggling financially there will be negative consequences including deaths.
The need for health and economic activity
To suggest that we are choosing lives or the economy is a false dichotomy. It isn’t an either/or. We need both some form of lockdown and some form of economic activity.
Our government is trying to provide a nuanced response that allows for the greatest economic activity with the lowest risk of spread. The level of economic activity that is possible will be dependent on the number of people who are infected at any one time in each area. The fewer people who are infected, the greater the possible economic activity.
Social distancing is still the silver bullet – minimizing our contact with others is still the most reliable way to reduce the rate of transmission. The better we are at maintaining non-essential social contact, the more economically useful social contact will be possible. This is the both/and solution.
In theory it is an excellent model. But it relies on one very important factor – the reliability of the data that comes from testing people for the virus. The decision to strengthen or weaken the level of lockdown will be based on that. Decisions will be made on the data available. In this game – every decision will have negative consequences and some potential gain. Inevitably, after some time has passed it will be clear that some of those decisions ended with the negative outweighing the positive. It is easy to play Monday morning quarterback and criticize past decisions that were made with less information than will become available later.
Individual action still makes a difference
It is going to be tough, and we are all going to be frustrated at times. But in this time of deep uncertainty, we really do have one of the best examples of leadership across the world. Remember that we are truly all in this together. My actions will affect others. My choice to just pop in and visit a couple of people will have a ripple effect if any one of those people is infected.
Not only is each of people I came into contact with at risk, but so too are all those that they interacted with and all those that interacted with them. The numbers escalate very quickly. And data still suggests that we are contagious before we show any symptoms.
Our task in this time is to follow the instructions of the level of lockdown; to maintain social distancing and good hygiene. For those of us living in the suburbs, let’s be grateful for what we do have and do our best to follow the rules.
It is a substantial contribution we can make for the greater good of our country.