OPINION: What happened to the social compact?

Norman McFarlane

It all started so well when President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation in March and told us that in order to slow the spread of Covid-19 – flatten the curve – the decision had been taken to put the entire country into a hard lockdown for 21 days.

That pretty much the entire population supported the decision and largely abided by the attendant regulations, is by now a matter of public record. Initially, the now much derided axiom, “we are all in this together” had currency. We all (well, most of us) truly did stand together.

But as the lockdown dragged on and the increasingly perplexing mix of regulations were communicated and then promulgated, lockdown fatigue began to set in.

With each extension of the lockdown, the plea from government that we are facing an unprecedented crisis seemed to be used to justify tediously restrictive – and often downright nonsensical – diktats on what we could or could not do, could or could not buy, when many of these restrictions could play no role at all in stemming the spread of the virus.

By way of a single example, how on earth could permitting wine exports to continue under lockdown in any way contribute to the spreading of the virus? Yet it took weeks of lobbying by industry bodies to get the national coronavirus command council (NCCC) to amend the regulations and remove one of the strangleholds on the industry that is the third largest export revenue earner in the agricultural sector.

As recently as Sunday night, President Ramaphosa, in an off-handed manner, suggested that certain of the measures implemented might have been overly zealous in their reach and impact, the closest he has come to apologising to the nation for the impact of the government’s response to the pandemic.

Make no mistake, reducing the spread of the virus remains the single most important objective of the national effort, as President Ramaphosa stressed once more in his Sunday night address to the nation.

The infection trajectory in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal is ascendent, and the other less populous provinces that have had relatively low rates of infection thus far, are set to follow suit.

But if the objective of the national effort is to contain the spread of the virus at all costs, what the hell does suspending alcohol sales have to do with anything?

By President Ramaphosa’s own admission on Sunday night, the limitation on the number of mourners at funerals – 50 – is routinely ignored. He cited one instance where over 1 000 people are known to have attended a funeral.

Religious gatherings may be limited to no more than 50 people, but the average church can hold up to five services on any given day.

The load limit on long-distance taxi journeys is 70%, but on short hauls, it is 100%, with, of course, the implementation of stringent sanitisation protocols, and wide-open windows at all times, and taxi managers held legally accountable for implementation and enforcement.

As an aside, what is the likelihood that taxi windows are going to be kept wide-open in the middle of a furious Cape winter storm, the likes of which have assailed the Cape Peninsula in the past two weeks, in the early morning or late afternoon, when most commuters travel in taxis?

If the national effort is supposed to be focused on containing the spread of the virus, how do funerals, church services, and 100% full taxis contribute toward achieving that objective? They don’t.

On the contrary, each is a disease vector of gargantuan proportions, which rubbishes the assertion that all measures enacted thus far at the recommendation of the NCCC, are aimed at containing the spread of the virus.

Banning alcohol sales we are told, will ease the pressure on the public healthcare infrastructure, attested to in the last couple of weeks by multiple medical practitioners.

This in turn will make trauma unit, critical care, and ICU facilities, available to cope with the surge in Covid-19 infections that is set to peak over the next two or three months.

But here’s the thing. How many of those infections will be forthcoming from funerals, church gatherings, and short-haul taxi commutes?

Surely it would have made more sense to limit funerals to family members only, ban all religious gatherings, and use some of the R500 billion set aside in Covid-19 relief to adequately subsidise the taxi industry so that it can limit its short-haul load factor to 70%, while implementing the necessary sanitisation protocols?

Instead we have a cart-before-the-horse solution, that reduces the load on the healthcare infrastructure, so that it can better cope with the Covid-19 infections that will inevitably emerge from funerals, religious gatherings, and 100% loaded taxis.

Of course people need to get to work in order to get the economy going and to stem the ongoing jobs bloodbath, but it makes no sense to increase the risk of infection for millions of commuters who are fortunate enough to have a job.

To compound matters, a national curfew has once more been imposed, but to what end?

In announcing it, President Ramaphosa noted that the alcohol-induced trauma cases which are clogging up the healthcare infrastructure, mostly occur at night, but if alcohol sales are once more suspended, surely the curfew is superfluous?

The hospitality sector haemorrhaged for weeks until it was permitted to open in a limited capacity with the advent of lockdown level 3.

It is only just beginning to find its feet, and although it has not been permitted to serve alcohol, it has nevertheless been able to start generating revenue.

A 9pm curfew means closing the doors at 8pm to allow staff and diners to get home. That narrows the dining window drastically during the week, which means fewer diners each night, exacerbated by the very necessary social distancing protocols.

The cost of opening and remaining open remains fixed, and with the concomitant decline in revenue because of reduced trading hours, many of those eateries that have opened under level 3, may now choose to close once more, to contain the losses. And that is a further nail in the economic coffin.

The regulations may well be enacted with best intentions, but it is hard to escape the criticism that they do more harm than good. Take note, Mr President.