OPINION: The uncertainties and the inconsistencies

Norman McFarlane

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a two-week extension to the national lockdown last Thursday, reactions ranged from relief to outrage, with a measure of resignation in between.

Two weeks into the enforced isolation, we could literally see the light at the end of the tunnel, and many people were perhaps inclined to just endure for the remaining week, the inconsistencies that had emerged in the lockdown regulations, and the manner in which they were being applied.

But when that announcement happened, it was as if the clock had been reset, much like the experiences of Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, in the 1993 satire, Groundhog Day.

Bizarrely, the oft-seen graphic on a national TV news channel still reads “21-day lockdown”, the number of days left, rather than “35-day lockdown” which, with the 14-day extension, it has explicitly become.

Although a fair number of the regulations promulgated rather hastily were confusing, counterintuitive, and in some case, ridiculous, government has moved to make amendments when pressed to do so.

The shutting down of the wine industry and wine exports made no sense, and after some hefty industry lobbying, the necessary amendments emerged, saving the harvest and thousands of jobs.

What doesn’t seem to have been resolved, is the interpretation of what constitutes essential and non-essential goods, except for those explicitly named: tobacco and alcohol, but more about those later.

A visit to any two supermarkets, even of the same retail group, will highlight perplexing inconsistencies, where an item available for sale at one store, is not available at the other.

Inevitably, this is due to an interpretation issue at store level, because the listings of essential and non-essential items in the regulations are not exhaustive, but that is cold comfort for the shopper who is in pursuit of an item that is out of stock at one store, but in stock, and not for sale at another.

Which begs the question, why are so many commercial items that can have no possible impact on the transmission of Covid-19, considered non-essential goods?

Take clothing, for example. Howe on earth will buying new clothing promote the spread of Covid-19? The argument that it might have been handled by a Covid-19 infected person is nonsensical, since so could every food item one buys.

The restriction on sale of baby clothes was lifted after a public outcry, so why not lift the ban on clothing general?

The same goes for books and magazines. Not everybody has access to an e-book reader, and all the libraries are closed.

A meme doing the rounds on social media, reading something like: “I feel sorry for all those husbands who have been saying ‘I’ll do it when I have the time’”, raises the question of why are hardware and garden items considered non-essential.

Things break around the house, tap washers start leaking, gardens need to be fertilised, and more and more people are starting to plant their own fruit and vegetables.

The economic consequences of lockdown, essential as it is deemed to be, will have catastrophic economic consequences.

Surely it makes sense to allow the retailers who service these market segments to do so?

It would give an added boost to the economy, and, arguably more important, it would provide continued employment for many people who are now sitting at home, on leave – paid or unpaid – facing a pay cut, or the unemployment line.

Much has been made of the beneficial impact of the ban on alcohol sales, in particular, the decline in drunk driving incidents, and the suggestion that it should also reduce the incidence of domestic abuse.

The reason for fewer drunk driving cases is surely because there are so few people on the roads, and on the domestic abuse front, women’s advocacy groups have been vocal about how they fear just being cooped up at home is likely to result in a spike in domestic abuse.

It is worth noting that South Africa is probably the only country in the world that has imposed such a ban as a Covid-19 containment measure, the efficacy of which is open to question.

Once more, the question must be asked: how does banning the sale of alcohol reduce the transmission of Covid-19, or is it a gratuitous measure, sneaked in under the radar to more broadly curtail alcohol consumption?

And let’s not forget the increasing number of incidents of crowds looting liquor stores with the police seemingly powerless to stop them.

The other risk is that people will start to make their own liquor – its already happening if what is going down on social media is any indication – with all of the attendant health consequences that might engender.

Liquor industry bodies are taking the matter to court, so chances are, there will be a court ruling in the near future, which will indicate the way forward.

South Africa is also the only country to impose a ban on tobacco sales.

While there is evidence to suggest that smokers – and ex-smokers – are at greater risk of a severe outcome if they contract Covid-19, that needs to be weighed against the impact of the tobacco ban in the form of illicit sales and the consequential lockdown breaking by smokers who are likely to go to significant lengths to satisfy their addiction.

Let’s hope that as the lockdown wears on, pragmatism will prevail.