OPINION: The idiocy of wilful obduracy

Columnist Norman McFarlane

A hot topic in the media – both social and formal – is the enduring debate about the wisdom of implementing lockdown.

Irrevocably coupled to this debate is speculation about the economic impact of the lockdown, with two diametrically opposed hypotheses.

The lockdown will kill the economy and more people will die as a result of civil unrest and starvation than Covid-19.

Without a lockdown, the infection curve will run rampant, healthcare facilities will be overwhelmed. and thousands of people will die, with consequent economic collapse.

If you talk to any epidemiologist worth her salt – I did – you’ll discover that nobody has a clue which hypothesis will stand the test of time, and we may never know.

It is the classic case of one outcome – many people dying – and two intertwined drivers – economic collapse and Covid-19.

But for now, all we can do is deal with the facts of the matter, and one of those facts is the economic contraction that we are already seeing play out. The International Monetary Fund estimates a GDP contraction of 5.8%, and the SA Reserve Bank estimates 6.1%, in the current fiscal year, as a result of lockdown.

This, of course, all comes on the back of the fallout of the Zuma years, state capture, and the eventual uniform sovereign debt downgrade to junk status, with the consequent flight of capital.

Government has attempted to implement measures to mitigate the economic impact of lockdown, but as things stand, anecdotal evidence suggests that these measures have yet to gain traction.

One would expect, therefore, that any low-hanging fruit on the economic tree would be picked with alacrity, to lessen the burden on an overburdened fiscus struggling to fund the relief measures government was forced to implement when it imposed the national lockdown.

The wine industry provides a livelihood for over 209  000 people in the Western Cape. It is also the second largest export revenue contributor in the agriculutural sector, nationally.

When the lockdown regulations were promulgated prohibiting the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol except for medical purposes, in support of the ban on alcohol sales during lockdown, it brought the 2020 wine grape harvest to a grinding halt, and it also imposed an implicit ban on the exporting of alcoholic beverages.

Lobbying led to an amendment to the regulations and the wine grape harvest was allowed to continue, but not exports. After further lobbying, the ban on exports was lifted for about a week, but then inexplicably, it was reimposed.

This, of course, all emerges from the ban on the sale of alcohol during lockdown.

The ban on alcohol sales – and therefore consumption – is abundantly supported by peer reviewed scientific evidence. Excessive alcohol consumption, to which over half of the 20% of the over-15 population that drinks is inclined, suppresses the immune system, placing drinkers at increased risk of contracting Covid-19.

But what the hell does the exporting of wine have to do with any of this? Bugger all, that’s what.

The wine industry exports about 50% of its production. It has been a reliable source of export revenue for decades, which the economy needs desperately right now.

It will also make an enormous difference to an industry that was struggling economically, long before the lockdown came into effect.

Why goverment flip-flopped as it did over the wine export issue remains a mystery, but Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula’s comments in a press release when the export ban was re-imposed are revealing: “On 7 April 2020 we adjusted the Directions (sic) to permit export of wine alongside agricultural produce destined for exports markets. Post the implementation of this Direction (sic) concern was raised about the unintended consequences of allowing transportation of wines in the light of the fact that movement of alcohol remained prohibited. These include the criminality that has reared its ugly head in the form of burglaries and theft of alcohol from closed outlets.”

Although we’ll probably never really know, what other conclusion can one reach, than Mr Mbalula suspects that alcohol exports might be hi-jacked?

Well here’s a suggestion, Mr Mbalula: since blue-light convoys are superfluous during lockdown, why don’t you retask them to protecting wine exports en route to port, so the country can earn some easy export revenue and keep the wine industry afloat?