More differentiated lockdown approach needed to salvage economy

Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said in May that different lockdown levels would be considered for different parts of the country, depending on the number of infections, but this has not happened.
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said in May that different lockdown levels would be considered for different parts of the country, depending on the number of infections, but this has not happened.

SA’s Covid-19 strategy should become more differentiated, practical and rational if it is to be effective.

Rather than one lockdown level for the whole country, provinces and cities with fewer infections should have their lockdown levels relaxed, provided they have the capacity to contain the virus.

A more differentiated approach to lockdowns will more sustainably relieve parts of the economy, ensure that crucial economic activities are resumed and less economic capacity is lost. A one-size-fits-all lockdown may cause more harm.

Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize on May  9 said the government would consider different lockdown levels for different parts of the country, depending on the number of infections. However, this has not happened.

Many countries have from the start of the Covid-19 outbreak adopted more differentiated lockdowns. China, in the beginning, had a hard lockdown in Wuhan, the epicentre of their Covid-19 outbreak, while having softer restrictions in regions with fewer infections.

Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize says in the past few weeks, the number of people coming into hospitals and clinics with COVID-19 symptoms has drastically reduced because the surge is slowly passing.

In Germany, regions that had high levels of Covid-19 had more restrictions on public life, while regions low levels of the virus had fewer restrictions. Last  week, Australia also introduced a more differentiated approach, with a state of disaster declared in Victoria, the country’’ second largest state, because of the high rate of infections. Other regions with fewer infections have fewer restrictions.

Scotland last week imposed a lockdown in Aberdeen where there was a spike in cases, while other cities and regions not as heavily affected had less restrictive measures.

SA could learn from differentiated Covid-19 approaches in other countries, increasing restrictions in towns and provinces where numbers are high and reducing them in places where they are lower. 

The army, police, extra medical personnel and testing could then be dispatched to high-risk areas. Such an approach will better contain the spread, but also boost a battered economy.

South Korea successfully used a strategy where the government set up a task force of national departments with regional and city governments, which identify high-risk and low-risk Covid-19 areas, and then increase restrictions in high-risk areas and lower them in low-risk areas.

Resources, medical personnel and security support can then be moved from low-risk areas to high risk areas.

The Northern Cape has had fewer Covid-19 infections and could under a differentiated approach ease lockdown restrictions.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and the National Coronavirus Command Council will meet on Tuesday to discuss the country's response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Western Cape premier Alan Winde has rightly asked for the Western Cape to have less restrictive Covid-19 rules to open selected economic sectors, as the province has largely managed to contain the virus.

In early July, Gauteng premier David Makhura said the province wanted national government to allow it to go back to levels 4 and 5 of the lockdown because of a spike in infections.

A differentiated approach can only take place if provinces or cities have the capacity to manage their outbreaks.

Though SA is not a federal system, provinces still have a margin of leeway to act independently, including on Covid-19 strategy.

The Western Cape should push the government on being allowed to have a province-specific approach, given that it has the necessary implementation capacity.

A differentiated strategy will also involve civil society organisations, business and ordinary citizens in Covid-19 strategy, rather than only central government holding the reins.

Community and civil society organisations should be empowered to educate communities in behavioural change, distribute food and help them access Covid-19 relief.

Government’s overall Covid-19 response must be perceived to be rational to secure buy-in from citizens.

Allowing minibus taxis to be 100% full, but not allowing restaurants to open, does not appear rational.

Banning sales of cigarettes and alcohol also does not appear rational. The sales of these items goes to the black market — and the state also loses income.

Government must also enforce the rules equally. The enforcement of social distancing, wearing of masks and clean hygiene practices appear to be inconsistently applied. Government officers themselves must adhere to the rules.

Allowing powerful groups such as taxi organisations to defy lockdown rules undermines compliance by other citizens.

The lack of efficiency in delivering Covid-19 services by government departments and agencies is also undermining the  credibility of government’s Covid-19 strategy.

The UIF has been widely criticised for the slow pace in which unemployment payments have been processed. Sassa has been similarly criticised for delays in processing the R350 emergency social grants.

Covid-19 payments to struggling companies and informal businesses have also been mired in red tape, with money not getting to the relevant companies on time.

Similarly, the government’s food distribution to the poor has failed spectacularly. When schools reopened the government astonishingly stopped the school feeding programme.

It took the Equal Education, Equal Education Law Centre and Section27 to launch an urgent high court application to get government to re-implement feeding nine million poor pupils at schools.

Pupils who normally received food through the school feeding programme at school because they come from destitute families, but who are at home during Covid-19, should get food delivered to them at home.

Rising corruption in Covid-19 contracts, appointments and food distribution further erodes the credibility of government’s Covid-19 strategy — and undermine citizens’ willingness to follow the rules.

A differentiated Covid-19 approach will require regular, updated and honest communication and information from government about the spread of the virus — which has not been the case up to now.

A differentiated approach combined with better enforcement, more rational rules, efficient government Covid-19 public service delivery and less corruption will go a long way in slowing the spread of the virus.

William Gumede is associate professor of the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg)

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