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Should South Africa end the National Lockdown?

This week an open letter signed by 19 doctors was published. In the letter the doctors argued that our country needs to end the hard lockdown we are currently experiencing, in order to help our economy survive while preventing further deaths caused by the national lockdown itself. They argued that the lockdown presents economic risks, but in addition to that health risks for a large amount of the population. The question is, are they right? 

It is after all the opinion of doctors, so surely they know what they’re talking about? Surely, then we should end the hard lockdown? Possibly. However, just because they are medical professionals does not mean they are correct. Let’s take a look at some of their arguments. 

One of their points was the following: 

Many patients without Covid-19 are not getting the treatment they require due to the hospitals being emptied for Covid-19 patients. Many of these patients are avoiding hospitals and having their out-patient appointments cancelled. Disruptions in regular prevention programmes, such as immunisation schedules for infants or sexual and reproductive health promotion will undercut our few hard-won health gains since democracy. Together these are steadily building up a backlog of health care that is potentially a crisis in itself.

I cannot argue with that, as I don’t have the evidence to do so. I think that is one of the strongest arguments one could present. We forced a lockdown incredibly quickly because we have an at risk population when it comes to COVID-19. The problem now is that the same people the government wants to protect are now also at risk because they are not getting the medical care they need. That is not great. 

Would ending the lockdown solve that though? Possibly not – COVID-19 will still be around and many of those patients will still not want to go to the hospital. 

However the doctors counter that possibility by arguing that the risk of death from COVID-19 has been overstated, as they state that the mortality rate of the virus is at 0.5%. I would disagree with that. The mortality rate should be based on the sum of recoveries and deaths rather than the sum of active cases and deaths, as argued in this post on COVID Data. In truth it is somewhere in between those two, but if you look at recoveries vs deaths, then the mortality rate is, 5.2% (at the time of writing). Still far less than predicted. In that case, they are more right than they are wrong. 

They do argue though, that winter presents other dangers beyond Coronavirus and in that I cannot argue. With the restrictions from the hard lockdown, those dangers can only increase. 

On top of all of that, there has also been a mass loss of jobs and salaries, which they argue ending the hard lockdown will help. When one thinks of South Africa’s informal economy, you can’t argue with them there. 

They ended there argument by saying the following: 

Last and by no means least, it may be well served to reassure the public, as there is an ill-founded fear that contraction of Covid-19 is fatal, and the misconception that a lockdown would purge us of Sars-CoV-2. This present fear has caused many people to discount the future of our country, which is currently at risk.

Sars-CoV-2 is here to stay. The truth is that people will die, but even more will recover. We will do our best as a country and medical fraternity to treat the infected patients, but we also need to start paying attention to the other illnesses which have continued to progress relatively untreated.

I find that argument bleak, yet incredibly hopeful. They may be correct. Their argument is sound and they consider most aspects of the current crisis. 

We did also receive a national address from Cyril on government’s strategy to lessen the financial impact the lockdown has had on individuals and businesses. Billions of rands have been allocated to this, and that is amazing. The government really does seem to be doing the best they can. 

Would those relief measures be as helpful financially as ending the hard lockdown? Let’s look at a part of the plan to relieve those who have been most adversely affected. 

…This means that child support grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R300 in May and from June to October they will receive an additional R500 each month.

All other grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R250 per month for the next six months.

In addition, a special Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant of R350 a month for the next 6 months will be paid to individuals who are currently unemployed and do not receive any other form of social grant or UIF payment.

Certain individuals will be receiving a grant of R350 a month. Alright, that is insane. Looking at that amount, I am humbled and horrified by just how privileged I am.

Would those individuals be able to make more than R350 a month if the hard lockdown was ended? In all honesty, I think it’s hard to argue they wouldn’t be able to. In an informal economy, I think you could earn more than R350 a month quite easily, especially informal traders selling food. 

To be honest, with all of that I think I have to agree with the doctors. Their argument has two main tenets:

  1. The hard lockdown presents more health risks than it prevents.
  2. The hard lockdown creates adverse economic risks.

The first point, they will know more than me. But I think I agree with them. I know I refuse to go to the hospital at the moment. I am trying to avoid severe injuries for that reason. So I can completely understand their argument. 

On the second point, I have to agree with them. To help the survival of individuals we need to allow certain parts of the economy function once again. 

All of that being said, I think we can all agree to reopen the country immediately would be a huge mistake. If we did that, people would absolutely have mass gatherings, which would result in a huge spread of the virus. No one is arguing for that. 

Looking at the stats, extending the lockdown was the right decision. However, we now need to look at other risks to the South African people, that were here before COVID-19 and will probably be here after COVID-19. The government is looking at them, but a sad truth is that R350 or R500 a month will not feed someone for a month. 

It does look like the government is planning a phased reopening of the country, which is absolutely the right approach. We need to protect our people economically and medically. 

Those of us who can work from home, to be honest, need the reopening of the country far less than the impoverished individuals in the country. For us, it is a justifiable want but not a need. 

So to end this, to answer the question, should South Africa end the national lockdown? The real answer is both yes and no. I would argue we should end the hard lockdown and maintain a slow and phased reopening of the country. Isn’t that exactly what the government is doing? It seems so. So is this argument in support of the doctors and the government? Absolutely. I believe we should maintain the hard lockdown until the 1st of May and from there on we move into various forms of soft lockdown over time. 

The virus is still spreading, but so is hunger. In a country like South Africa, what needs to be done now is something that protects our people from COVID-19, but also from other dangers that our country poses.

Whatever we do, let’s just make sure we don’t have mass gatherings protesting the lockdown, like our friends in America

Featured Image by Matt Seymour on Unsplash