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Has South Africa managed Covid well?

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Has South Africa managed Covid well?

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

7th October 2021

By: Raymond Suttner

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South Africa managed Covid as well as it could, according to President Cyril Ramaphosa. It is an important assertion and a question to consider because although it is very difficult to measure plagues in history, Covid-19 is said to rank among the 10 most deadly. Ways of measuring have generally improved over time, so that the scale of earlier plagues may have been greater than was recorded.

Unlike earlier pandemics, states now have at their disposal treatments that were unknown at earlier periods as well as the resources to develop vaccines at a speed previously impossible.

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Given the scale of danger and devastation of the current pandemic, it is important to know whether any state, and ours, has handled it as well as has been possible. There has been much more at stake than the capacity and outcomes of healthcare, given the savaging of economies throughout the world resulting in job losses, hunger and in many cases restriction of civil liberties.

Is Ramaphosa’s claim that South Africa managed Covid as well as it could a credible statement or is this part of a general incapacity for self-reflection? The statement is invalid for numerous reasons, many of these obvious to any person who follows news reporting.

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The embezzlement of millions of rands, in the name of fighting the Covid pandemic at a national and provincial level, in various state departments at different levels of government immediately depleted the capacity to confront the virus or diverted monies that could have improved people’s lives and better equipped them to face the challenge of the virus.

We know from the evidence that has been presented that large numbers of contracts were awarded to companies with no experience whatsoever in providing equipment or other services necessary for fighting the pandemic, resources needed to protect nurses, and to assist in the recovery of patients, or to prevent the infection of ordinary citizens. Some spending running into millions involved procurement of services without any bearing on combatting Covid-19 (as with various fumigation contracts).

This is part of the public record. It is not propaganda. It is not a statement of the DA or the EFF, but it is part of the record of criminality involved in addressing or under the pretext of confronting the Covid-19 pandemic. The Digital Vibes scandal entailed large-scale irregularity and alleged corruption, but it is only the latest case, not an exception from what was a widespread diversion of resources meant for the public good, into private pockets.

Patriotic response: I was one of those, initially impressed by the apparent seriousness with which the government faced the Covid pandemic, deferring to what appeared to be the best voices in the medical and scientific community more generally, being guided by them in the way they responded to the pandemic, and the regrettable, but apparently necessary curtailment of civil liberties to ensure our safety.

Limiting freedoms beyond what was authorised: We accepted the need to limit our freedoms, for the shortest possible time, to prevent the overburdening of health facilities and to preclude us from infecting one another by extensive socialising in closed gatherings, or in other dangerous environments. Much as we accepted this, within a short time it became clear that the monitoring, or rather policing of the lockdown, constituted a curtailment of freedom beyond the original restrictions to which many of us gave tacit consent.

It remains a scandal that not many, if any of those responsible for assaults on citizens, for unlawfully killing people in the name of policing the lockdown, have been brought to book. We know that completely unconvincing reasons were given for most of the attacks on innocent civilians, or civilians who may have been out on the streets because they lived in cramped conditions where it was impossible to stay indoors all the time. Breaking curfews and some other actions were unlawful, but the use of excessive force was beyond the exceptional powers conferred on authorities. We know that many of these violations were captured by media, often with videos of officials whipping or assaulting or humiliating citizens in other ways.

There was supposed to be a moratorium on evictions, but this was widely ignored by a range of authorities and the private security companies that were used, with people driven into the cold or rain continuing.

We know that these violations happened without so much as a word of criticism from the president for many, many months. And when he did refer to actions of the security forces, he said next to nothing about violations.

Now that is part of a wider problem of the lawlessness of the law enforcement agencies, and other public, private, and military forces in South Africa when they are deployed for activities affecting basic rights.

Consequently, the first thing that was obvious to observers was that the lockdown, which entailed curtailment of our freedom, not quite a state of emergency, but bearing many of the features of emergency rule, entailed attacks on our freedom beyond that to which we consented as being necessary as law-abiding citizens for the greater good of combating the Covid-19 pandemic.

It took some time for us to understand how the resources that were made available to fight the pandemic were being used by responsible officials in the provinces, in national government, and in a number of other spheres. Funds were allocated to enable health workers to deal with Covid-19 more safely, to create facilities for hospitalising people or for ensuring that they could receive the treatment that was warranted. It was not immediately visible or known that much of what was spent was disbursed recklessly and fraudulently in providing facilities that were substandard or inappropriate, according to the scientific community, for meeting the needs of the pandemic.

Covid-19, inequality and rebuilding the “social contract”: While the Covid- 19 pandemic was a disaster for a country that already had massive inequalities and had lots of unfinished business, to address, it nevertheless created an opportunity for rebuilding the “social contract” which some people believe, has been entered into by the citizens of South Africa, with its rulers.

The way in which citizens, initially, apparently trusted the government of the same ruling party that had embezzled monies during the period of State Capture during Zuma’s rule, was being given another chance. It was given an opportunity to show that when something urgent, something of an emergency nature arose, the citizens were prepared to stand together with the government to ensure that common, indeed patriotic goals, were realised.

We now know that the trust was betrayed at every level of government, and far from the best being done, as President Ramaphosa suggests, far more could have been done had these millions of rands not been diverted into private pockets or into spending on contracts where the service providers were in fact not suppliers of the type that were required.

In this period, the inequalities of South Africa interfaced with the onset of the pandemic and meant that the wealthier sections of the population were better placed to deal with social distancing, hygiene practices such as washing hands regularly, staying off the streets because they had homes to go back to and a range of other conditions not available to those who remain or have become oppressed. (I consciously use the word “oppressed” to refer to a continuing condition of the majority of South Africans who were oppressed under apartheid).

Job losses and diversion of grants: Unemployment and the pandemic played havoc with employment in a country which already has an unemployment rate of over 45% (the extended, accurate definition, including those who have given up looking for work). That unemployment has increased - especially among the youth whose joblessness had already been over 70%. What social grants were provided to assist people and families whose lives were battered beyond already hard conditions was in many cases abused, with the grants diverted to people not intended as beneficiaries, and being very difficult to access in the case of very many who qualified and needed it most.

It is now clear that a lot of the planning for the trajectory of the pandemic that was required (although as many scientists confessed, the path of the pandemic is continually changing), was delayed and resulted in a very slow initial rollout of vaccinations, now being acknowledged as one of the few ways of containing the devastation and returning to pre-Covid “normality”. It is true that those who are against vaccinations are not restricted to South Africa, but it may well be that the lack of trust in government in South Africa plays a special part in fuelling the resistance to vaccination.

But the pace of vaccination was also impeded by the initial snail’s pace at which vaccines were procured and the disposal of the initial Astra Zeneca vaccination on unscientific grounds (its inability to combat certain strains of the virus did not mean it could not afford a level of protection. This was one of the early signs of failure to listen to the medical community.

Even without the abuses that occurred during lockdown, one of the reasons why South Africa did not do as well as was possible with the combating of the virus relates to the character of post-apartheid ANC rule not only failing to address inequality, but ensuring its increase. It is very clear from the reception that Cyril Ramaphosa has received in election campaigning that the inequalities relate directly to the capacity of people to withstand Covid-19.

Wherever he went, he heard about lack of water, lack of decent housing, sewage flowing into the streets and a range of other basic needs that are not met but are required to adequately address the pandemic.

It has been found, not only in South Africa but everywhere else in the world, notably in the US, that it is the poorer communities that have been hardest hit by Covid. The poorest communities in South Africa have remained the poorest communities with the least resources at their disposal, not only because of the inequality of apartheid, but because of the failure to deploy resources with integrity, as in the case of a water project in Giyani among very many others. So, there was no way that South Africa was able to do the best possible to address the Covid pandemic.

The present government of Cyril Ramaphosa inherited a culture of corruption, State Capture, impunity, and various other factors that have increased inequalities. Many of the prime culprits continue to hold high office and to continue these practices.

Even in the most recent period where the level of deaths and hospitalisation have decreased, there are fresh doubts as to whether the best is being done, notably in allowing super-spreader large gatherings, very much against major scientific advice. Allowing such gatherings may help rescue a faltering election campaign, but it appears reckless from a health point of view, reinforcing the doubts over the handling of the pandemic.

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. His books include Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2 ed 2017), The ANC Underground (2008) and Recovering Democracy in South Africa (2015), all published by Jacana Media. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.

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