One of the more infuriating aspects of South Africa’s national lockdown, as we near the completion of 110 full days, is the seemingly arbitrary nature of many of the regulations.
More than enough has been said and written about the tobacco sales ban, but how can you justify allowing up to 50 people to get together indoors for a religious gathering, but claim that people visiting their families presents too great a danger?
Rule neither out, or rule both out, but they can’t simultaneously exist without the South African public wondering what rationale is being used in the decisionmaking process.
The latest contentious announcement came during President Ramaphosa’s address on Sunday, when he announced the immediate return of the ban on alcohol sales, completely blindsiding an industry with a value chain that affects almost a million South Africans.
Every Tom, Dick, and Harry has already had a moan on Facebook (we are becoming, like, a communist country, boet!), but now two medical experts are speaking out against the renewed ban, as well as the decision to allow taxis driving short distances to operate at 100% capacity, provided windows are opened.
Both Dr Angelique Coetzee, the president of the South African Medical Association (SAMA), and Professor Francois Venter, the head of the Ezintsha Health Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, serve on the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC), which advise the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC).
Let’s start with Coetzee, who spoke with News24:
[She] said the ban on alcohol would impact workers’ livelihoods and a better plan needed to be created.
She added it seemed South Africans had a major issue with alcohol abuse, which had contributed to an increase in causality cases in hospitals.
While the ban might be needed, Coetzee said the government could look at measures that were “less harsh”.
“You are willing to risk 100% loading of a taxi, but you’re not willing to risk and come up with a better solution than just shutting down all the alcohol outlets.”
She suggested other measures to curb alcohol consumption, including limiting outlet times, but more importantly, looking at the cause of why people abused alcohol.
Echoing what many have said regarding the booze sales ban, she added that “the moment they lift the ban, it’s going to happen again”.
She’s right, because after being told cigarettes would be sold under alert level 4, and then alert level 3, and then once again having the sale of liquor revoked, South Africans are going to panic buy in vast quantities the first chance they get.
Professor Venter, who recently warned people to investigate closely before paying for a COVID-19 “deep clean”, echoed Coetzee’s sentiments, saying there were “more creative ways” to ease the load on the healthcare system:
He said while an argument could be made to ban alcohol in hard-hit provinces like Gauteng, “there is no reason” the ban should apply in areas which did not have high Covid-19 infections as healthcare systems in these areas were under less stress…
He said the government needed to be consistent in its regulations to build trust and buy-in from the public to fight Covid-19.
“The government has shot itself in the foot repeatedly with irrational advice and what happens then is that it’s very easy for society to opt out and to say, ‘this is nonsense, I’m not going to participate’.”
Judging by what I’ve seen on social media, that point was reached a good few weeks back, which seems to be why Ramaphosa adopted such an ‘I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed’ tone during his address.
As Venter makes clear, and bearing in mind that we live in a country that has been let down by this government time and time again, it wasn’t a tone that was going to be met with great enthusiasm:
“I think what I was really disappointed with, was not enough attention to public transport, to the taxi industry.
“They should have been talking about what they were doing about that and reinforcing the physical distancing, etc, which he did but instead it did feel a bit like a moral admonishment, like your father talking to you, when government really have not held up its end of the social contract – irrational guidelines, inconsistent laws – and for that reason I think people will just shrug their shoulders and say ‘whatever’.”
“…It should be more about us policing communities and say it’s not OK to have our masks off in public, and for your youngest to go to a party is not OK, you need to start thinking about the consequences of that.
Instead, we were told off like unruly schoolchildren, which isn’t all that unwarranted, but was never going to sit well with people who have already given up many basic freedoms for more than 100 days.
Both Coetzee and Venter went on to further criticise the taxi decision from a medical and practical standpoint, which you can read here.
What the concession from Ramaphosa and the NCCC has made clear is how much power the taxi associations (primarily the South African National Taxi Council, or Santaco) hold, with government again backing down in the face of pressure.
Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana, speaking again with News24, expands on this:
“All that the taxi industry has had to do is to threaten violence and government backs down. Government emboldened them from a long time ago when backing down whenever they faced aggression from the taxi industry,” he said.
“This industry has continued to behave in the way that they have and government had allowed them to do that so what you see now is that the alcohol industry is unfortunately being targeted because it’s a soft target,” he added.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize says the government did not cave in to pressure from the taxi industry, but that appears to be a tough line to flog.
There is no win-win situation with this virus, and as the number of confirmed cases explodes, additional measures to slow that spread need to be considered.
Sadly, as with so many decisions in the years that came before this one, there doesn’t seem to be a clear, articulated plan, and kneejerk reactions with regulations that contradict one another further erode any public trust.
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