Voice of the Cape

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‘Our test as human beings is right here in front of us’, says researcher on CoVID19 lockdown

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Weeks of rumours of a national lockdown was realized on Monday evening when President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered an assuring speech to South Africans. It came a week after he declared a National State of Disaster due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. In his address, a host of restrictions was announced that will see the majority of citizens behind closed doors between Thursday 26 March 2020 to Thursday 16 April 2020. Crucial businesses and service providers will, however, be exempt from the 21-day lockdown.

Ramaphosa’s speech was widely welcomed and called on citizens to remain calm and be unified in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. By Tuesday, the number of cases experienced its biggest jump of 152 cases, rising the national total to 554.  The president emphasized that the lockdown was crucial to flattening the curve and minimizing the virus’s socio-economic impact.

The director of research at Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI) Angelo Fick shared the sentiment of thousands of South Africans, who felt his decision was the correct one to make. Fick was impressed by government’s latest efforts to curb the spread of the virus and felt that it’s a ‘wait and see game’.

“It has been a long time coming. By long time, I mean that over the past 10 days many of us have lived through a years’ worth of anxiety and uncertainty. Given what we’re facing, I think the measures are appropriate and they give us the ability to be resilient and survive the crisis that’s coming,” he said.

“Now it’s up to 58 million of us to co-operate with one another in order to make sure that this comes down and that 21 days from now we can begin to see what the consequences are and react accordingly.”

Fick noted that the plan required extensive consultation as it impacts every sector of society.

“The achievability of this plan requires cooperation from everyone who lives in South Africa and not just individuals but organizations and institutions.  The delay in the announcement because a whole range of players and stakeholders would have needed to be consulted including the SANDF, police services, emergency services, medical fraternity, community health workers and various political parties and trade unions. This is not something the government can unilaterally enforce. It does require citizen participation and the participation of institutions,” he said.

Fick explained that it took time for religious organizations to come to the party and that, similarly, many people may still not be convinced of how real the situation is.

“We’ve seen the horrific statistics coming out of Italy and Iran and we’ve seen the positive consequences of the kinds of isolation that’s being advised here in places like Singapore and China. So, the onus is on all of us, again- all of us that have to work together to get through the next 21 days,” said Fick.

“It’s a sign of things to come in terms of a changing world that must be made by all of us. The political system that supports the economic system isn’t, I think, the best place to deal with the kinds of crisis that we will be dealing with this century,” he added.

He expressed that it should be a time of reflection as a society and as humanity.

“While the Covid19 outbreak is not linked or consequent to global climate change, what scientists have warned for the last 25 years is that global climate change is going to give a whole series of crisis based on  microbial threats that we will face as a species.”

“Permafrost in Siberia and Alaska and is melting and releasing microbes and pathogens that haven’t been with the human population at all- these have been frozen for 1000’s of years, possibly hundreds of thousands of years. The coronavirus is a simulation for us to begin to think how our current patterns of life will have to change,” he continued.

Financial backing in times of crisis is also crucial as the rollout of mass plans often require a lot of funding.

“The private sector’s donations is significant but they’re not going to be enough to deal with this particular crisis right now because the way in which the system has worked in the most unequal societies in the world is that those who have will get more and those who do not will get none.

The impact on the informal sector has had many concerned, as often traders or businesses rely on daily income to stay afloat.

“What we still have to figure out, is how people in the informal sector, who are not tied into the South African Revenue Services or to the UIF, how they will be sustained during this crisis. Those people are not tied to the formal economy in ways that can be traced and easily resolved.

“How they will be sustained will require, into charity, but actually cooperation, foresight and humanity from all of us. Again, it’s the weakest and most vulnerable that has to be sustained through this crisis – because this was a crisis made by the rich.

“Because it is spread by the kind of travel that only the narratively wealthy can afford. We now sit with a situation with the poorest and most vulnerable shouldn’t have to pay the price of our recklessness,” he stated.

In order to sustain the more vulnerable, Fick predicted systems such as debt relief, debt and interest payment holidays from banks. He said there would need to be reinvestment into the way of doing things.

Ramphosa had also announced a solidarity fund that would assist SMME’s and businesses suffering as a result of COVID 19. Fick emphasised that this fund will need to be well managed and free from corruption.

The president also condemned businesses who have been extorting costumers by hiking the price of certain goods. Last night he noted that arrests for corruption and profiteering will be expedited. Fick noted that the government has encouraged employers who can afford to, to allow employees to take paid leave for the 21 days off.

“Given the income inequality in South Africa, we know that some businesses can. Large supermarket chains, banks that post billions of dollars- not even rands- of profit every year, should be able to pay their workers. The supermarket chain who was able to pay one of its executive R160m a few years ago for one year’s work, should be able to afford to do that,” he stated.

“This is going to reveal whether or not business is willing to sustain the society and social order on which they depend for their corporate profits. This is, again about our responsibility towards one another as citizens. Whether we think of ourselves as individuals or as corporate citizens.”

Details surrounding how the economic packages will be handled was revealed by trade and industry as well as labour departments. Fick heatedly explained that businesses found exploiting customers who flock to stores for essential goods should be prosecuted.

“This is a massive accounting process to avoid people evading responsibility in order to profit from this moment. At the end of the crisis should we conceive an end, there will have to be an account and those people that participated in this (really) life-threatening and society of profiteering or non-compliance – will have to stand trial. we cannot have a situation where some people come out of this much richer on the bodies pf those that they’ve sacrificed in order to take those irresponsible decisions,” he said.

Sharing the concerns of thousands of South Africans, the director spoke to the country’s health system and status, in that hospitals were continuously overburdened and hundreds of communities are immuno-compromised due to high rates of TB, HIV/AIDS, diabetes and Upper respiratory tract infections.

“We cannot unless we are truly callous, simply suggest that t must be business as usual and sacrifice what is probably going to be hundred of thousands of people.”

He referenced a devastating situation in Kwa-Zulu Natal in the early 2000’s where thousands of people died due to a lack of ARV rollout as per the public health policy of the time. The presidency of Thabo Mbeki was blamed for preventable deaths of between 343,000 and 365,000 people due to the interpretation of the virus.

“You had young people hat become the heads of the households, the oldest in their families, at very young ages like 8,9,10 years old. If we’re looking to minimize trauma – and we’ve seen what the trauma does to people- if large numbers of people die in our society this isn’t just a matter of shrugging it off. We will become a society that is so disrupted by the trauma, that life as we think of it as normal- even in the abnormality of society- will pale in comparison to the horror we will be facing.”

The Rupert and Oppenheimer families also donated R1bn each to assist in the support of ailing businesses. Fick said that where the money comes from is a debate that can be held at a different time.

“At this point, we need all the money we can possibly access. this is not a matter where we can have moral nosebleeds about where the money comes from. Obviously, there cannot be strings attached by the people who give the money. The fact that we have R2bn extra, cannot be snarked at or poo-poo-ed.

We should be getting more money from the Ruperts and the Oppenheimers because they’ve made their wealth off the inequality in society and that’s a discussion and debate for another day. We have the R2bn- let us use it.”

Fick called for collective effort and for all South Africans to obey the guidelines and limits imposed by through upcoming lockdown, emphasizing the need for unity.

“This is not some kind of hoax, this is not some kind of moral panic. We do need to stop moving. we do need to stay home. We do need to start making sacrifices, those of us who can. and reach out through our institutions and organizations to those who are   going to feel the pinch much harder than the rest of us,” he said.

“This is a crisis time. Our test as human beings is right here in front of us,” said Fick.


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