If reports that South Africa could again enter a hard lockdown are correct, then this will have dire consequences for citizens and the economy. In terms of COVID-19 strategy, lockdown should be the absolute last resort.
According to Free Market Foundation it is a blunt, brutal tool that allows no element of proper strategy and nuance, and new hard lockdown could not come at a worse time. People are reeling from the destructive economic and societal effects of the first few months of this year, when, with the ostensible goal of fighting COVID-19, and without proper public consultation, government decided that the best strategy was to restrict freedoms (which earned Mrs Dlamini Zuma the unofficial title ‘Lockdown Dictator’ by the SA public).
“A hard lockdown affects poorer people much more than those in the middle- and upper-classes who can, often, continue working from home. A hard lockdown removes people’s choice to get on with their lives. The economy is a living organism – from street corners to corporate board rooms – it is people making choices, trading with each other, finding ways to improve their own lives and those of their families. It cannot simply be switched on and off,” said FMF Project Manager, Chris Hattingh.
To contemplate subjecting people suffering economically and emotionally to another hard lockdown, demonstrates, firstly, a lack of understanding of the effectiveness of lockdown, and, secondly, a lack of empathy and understanding of just how much people are struggling to put their lives back together.
Hard lockdown is not the correct strategy to combat the spread of COVID-19. Morally, such an approach assumes an authoritarian, paternalistic role for the state – individual dignity, agency, and responsibility are discarded. Further, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it has shown to not be an effective strategy in the South African context.
Given the country’s precarious economic state, the best possible approach would be to implement wide-scale testing (and let the private sector carry weight too) identify and encourage people who are in the vulnerable age-range (and those with underlying comorbidities) to self-isolate, and give everyone else the chance to continue as ‘normal,’ as best they can.
Government could also, for example, provide masks and sanitiser to people in poorer communities, but it must recognise that grinding hunger and poverty – which become more widespread as economic freedom declines, as a result of the wrong policies – also have a detrimental effect on people and that COVID-19 is not the only danger to health and well-being.
Hattingh added, “As a result of restrictive labour and growth-inhibiting government policies, South Africa was already in the midst of an unemployment crisis before COVID-19 hit our shores. It is estimated that about 3 million people lost their jobs in the first 3 months of the lockdown. Statistics South Africa announced that the gross domestic product (GDP) fell by more than 16% between the first and second quarters of this year. Based on the expanded definition, unemployment has risen to more than 42%. People who are unemployed are not just a statistic. If hard lockdown returns, more businesses will be forced to close, and more lives and dreams will be destroyed.”
In June, it became clear that government had not used time spent in hard lockdown effectively to prepare the public healthcare sector for what it expected to be a tsunami of positive cases. A top-down, all-controlling, government-based approach to a crisis creates delays, miscommunication, lack of incentive to respond effectively and efficiently, and swamps more agile private sector players in bureaucracy. There is no reason to believe that, if we returned to hard lockdown, state-caused problems will simply disappear.
A lockdown is perhaps one of the most visceral examples of what happens when a summary stripping away of economic freedoms and civil liberties is implemented. If South Africans are to have any chance of rebuilding a better, transformed country in the wake of COVID-19, they need as much economic freedom as possible to innovate, build, and invest. Another hard lockdown now would set South Africans’ potential back decades.