It is in our hands — with a lighter lockdown, controlling Covid-19 is now a matter of individual behaviour change
MR President, in the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic I asked you to be strong and muster the full might of the state to fight the epidemic. In the same letter, during my prayer for SA, I said that you were anointed to lead us not into death, fire and brimstone, but the rebirth of our nation as a country at peace with itself.
Since March, you have shown us what is possible in the land of our birth if we have you as our president. You have taken extraordinary actions to prevent a human catastrophe of enormous proportions in our country. We thank you. Amandla! We have escaped through the eye of a needle the dire consequences of the pandemic. It is remarkable that even people outside the medical profession can appreciate that SA didn’t have a 2020 flu season. Some would know that the Covid-19 virus has similar behavioural traits to the flu virus, except that the former is deadly, fast and furious. If anything, this is proof that the hard lockdown was a novel idea, as was the call for social distancing and the washing of hands with soap and alcohol-based sanitisers. Yes indeed, we fought in the streets, newspaper columns and our courts against many of the lockdown restrictions, including the smoking and alcohol bans. Mr President, forgive us; for we didn’t know what we were doing.
In your latest television series aptly titled Fellow South Africans, you announced various measures to open the economy gradually to save livelihoods amid decreasing levels of infection. Despite a massive pushback from multiple quarters, you single-mindedly focused on the task at hand and rescued not just the 2020 academic year but a whole generation of pupils. While opening up the economy and rescuing the academic year, we have learnt that elsewhere, including in China, there are serious risks associated with lifting lockdown restrictions too soon, or in a disorderly manner. Thus we welcome level one regulations as we know now that the virus isn’t on any level. It is still lurking in the shadows, ready to strike.
We have come to accept that as a society we must learn to coexist with the virus. Our best response remains non-pharmaceutical measures as there is still no cure or a vaccine. One of the enduring legacies of the fight against the virus will be the cementing of the virtue of transparency which, as we know now, is critical for building public trust. So, Mr President, don’t discontinue your television series, even if it comes once a quarter. Despite the good news that we have reached beyond the Covid-19 peak, we remain at risk. In comparison to our peers in the SADC region, SA continues to have the highest number of Covid-19 infections, accounting for 90% of all cases and 91% of all deaths. However, our case fatality rate of 2,1% is lower than the global rate. In contrast, Egypt has a 5,4% case fatality rate, higher than the global average of 3,5%.
We understood from our medical scientists that the virus doesn’t travel, but people do, and that’s how it is spread. As a result, we implemented the hard national lockdown earlier, followed by the risk-adjusted strategy of easing restrictions. It is the approach criticised by the DA’s political minnows that contributed significantly to limiting the spread of the virus and helped us buy time to build capacities for case management. Mr President, your mammoth task now is to mobilise society for the behavioural change needed as we ramp up non-pharmaceutical interventions as a new way to coexist with the virus. Simultaneously, you need society behind you as you rebuild the battered economy. If it helps, this son of uMaMlambo pledges his support for you. I urge you to remain steadfast as you navigate the terrain of balancing the constitutional as well as moral imperative to save lives first and foremost while protecting livelihoods.
It is clear that SA, working in tandem with the international community, faced the storm, and now we are beyond the peak. We are at this stage, Mr President, because right from the beginning you adopted, “a whole of government” and “whole of society” approach to the measures used to arrest the spread of the virus. Yet fears for a second wave abound. As you stressed, we have to do everything in our power, both locally and as part of the international community, to prevent the resurgence of this deadly pandemic, hence the partial opening of our borders.
Our new battle cry now moves from inadequate pharmaceutical response to people versus the virus. It is truly in our hands. Till next week, my man, in the meantime, our gratitude extends to your staff, front-line health personnel and some ministers such as Dr Zweli Mkhize. Stay strong, Mr President, as this war against an invisible enemy is far from over. “Send me.”
This Letter from Mahlamba Ndlopfu is written by Bhekisisa Mncube, a Zulu ambassador based in Pretoria. He is also an author of the Love Diary of a Zulu Boy (memoir) and former senior Witness (Media24) political journalist.
This opinion piece was first published in the Witness.