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The Conundrum we Face…

The conundrum we face as Covid-19’s third wave progresses in South Africa, with restrictions, as well as the current socioeconomic-related unrest: The Da Vinci Institute’s faculty member, Mixo Sweetness Sithole reflects…  

The much anticipated and feared third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has taken hold in South Africa. More people are contracting the virus, with more recorded deaths scaling up on a daily basis, as hospitals and frontline workers are stretched to capacity. Presumably, one of the major causes of this may have been instigated by the absence of a faster and more efficient vaccine rollout in the country. Additionally, the widespread unrest that has erupted of late does no good to the slow rollout of the vaccine. Subsequent to that, the already challenged economy is further harmed.

The government, spearheaded by President Cyril Ramaphosa, reintroduced stricter lockdown regulations to limit the spread of the virus – a restriction extended recently and remains in place until 25 July 2021. This amendment has seen major adjustments to the country’s level 2 restrictions previously announced by the president earlier this year. It is a justified and supported decision.

A chorus of approval to this decision resounded. Adding to the voices and calls for tougher restrictions: The South African Medical Association (SAMA), according to Business Tech, has indicated, “…that government should look at introducing further restrictions in South Africa to combat fatigue.” There are other consequences such as, difficulty in securing hospital beds in parts of the country as the cases surge.  This is a decisive step from broader society and government in attempting to limit the spread of Covid-19.

There are some special interest groups that felt rather unpleased with the outcome of further restrictions, owing perhaps to multiple reasons. Some religious leaders surmise that the ban on religious gatherings is unfair and unjust; business owners and finance industry experts argue that many businesses are buckling under the pressure and continue to collapse as the economic pressures mount; people, in general, do not seem to be interested adhering to the stricter levels of lockdown; hunger and unemployment among ordinary citizens are rising, coupled with poor living conditions that make social distancing a conundrum to practice. On the other hand, maybe as a result of all the above-mentioned challenges, unrest has begun to take hold. Many believe the current socioeconomic unrest is caused by the soaring unemployment situation.

Society had questions prior to the President’s announcement whether or not the country should reintroduce stricter measures to curb the spread of the virus; and about what those would mean in a country that has an economy already in a comatose condition, so to speak.

The consequences of the previous year’s strict lockdown regulations since Covid-19 flooded our shores could be an insightful handbook on how to further devastate an already struggling South African economy. Many sectors within this economy suffered a massive loss; and furthermore, people lost their jobs as a result; and more government expenditure was experienced.

There were noticeably two components to the first South African lockdown: Firstly, there were restrictions on movement, which resulted in a decrease in the demand for services that require social gathering – especially the entertainment industry. Secondly, the government had to shut down the non-essential industries – a shutdown that resulted in a decline in production. This is a picture that illustrates, therefore, that a move to stricter restrictions, as was practiced the previous year, may again this year likely cripple the economy even further. The recent socio-economic unrest, as we have observed in the last few days, is further indicative of a symptom planted partly by harsh lockdown restrictions.

The call for more restriction is without a doubt a sensible call, given the ever-rising number of infections and the increasing death toll, as well as the daily pressure that descends upon our healthcare system, with its fatigued workers. It is most welcome that the government must prioritise all people’s lives. There has to be a turnaround in improving the efficiency and progress in the vaccine roll-out in the country. The health system of the country, in and of itself, must be prioritised to meet the present demands of the ongoing pandemic. Indeed, restrictions may, as per the government’s expectation reduce the spread of the virus, however, let us also be wary of the reality that stricter restrictions do paralyse an economy, as indicated above, and may result in further recession – wider fiscal debt and possibly stagflation and sustained unrest.

Furthermore, the restrictions will not mitigate the spread of the virus if citizens continue to break the basic requirements of these tough restrictions; with unlawful gatherings, strikes, and marches. The globe at large is faced with a real conundrum, and cautious behaviour is expected to be applied by everyone, in our collective attempts to meet the government’s efforts halfway, in its efforts to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Priority should also be given to securing more vaccines into South Africa. Perhaps devising suitable responses will require that economists and epidemiologists systematically work together to understand the mechanisms at work and balance the health dimensions of policies to contain the pandemic and the economic fallout – especially on vulnerable groups.