STRAIGHT TALK: To defeat coronavirus, South Africa needs to rise above populist binaries

South Africa cannot recover from the coronavirus crisis if we view mitigation efforts as a trade-off between lives and livelihoods. Unfortunately, over the past few days, we have heard arguments starting to emanate from certain quarters that our country faces a zero-sum trade-off. For these commentators, we can either save lives, or we can save livelihoods, but we cannot do both.

This is a profoundly dangerous sentiment. As a group of eminent academics wrote last week, “Economic policy has health consequences. And health policy has economic consequences. The two need to be seen as parts of a coherent whole.”

This is exactly the approach of the Democratic Alliance (DA). Rather than a zero-sum game, we recognize that the solution to this crisis is a positive-sum game.

This means that we can only avert the worst of the human suffering caused by Covid-19 if we make sure that our economy generates sufficient economic activity to fund hospitals and the health response, and to ensure that people have enough money to feed their families, to purchase medicine, and to have a roof over their heads. At the same time, we can only avert an economic depression and the deaths that will follow in its wake if we make sure that our healthcare response to the coronavirus saves as many lives as possible, as quickly as possible.

The reality is that destitution is just as vicious a killer as the coronavirus. We need to protect human lives from both of these killers.

Unfortunately, over a period of many years, South Africans have gotten used to a type of politics that thrives on divisive binaries. We are used to hearing political leaders pitting people from different communities, races, genders, languages, cultures and backgrounds against each other. Too many in our society have gorged themselves on zero-sum politics, where “our people” are pitted against everyone else.

As a result, it is perhaps not surprising that so many people have defaulted to a simple zero-sum binary framing of the coronavirus crisis. As we have done so many times before in our history, too many South Africans are busy dividing themselves into laagers, based on an assumption that one can either be for saving lives but happy to sacrifice the economy, or one wants to protect economic output while sacrificing human lives, but that one certainly cannot be in favour of saving both lives and livelihoods.

In turn, the false binary between saving lives or livelihoods has bred a second, equally dangerous binary, namely that we can either have the current hard lockdown to the near-total exclusion of all economic activity, or we can have unfettered economic activity without any lockdown measures in place. Just like the binary between saving lives and livelihoods, this too is a false zero-sum choice.

Framing our society as a series of zero-sum choices has always helped strengthen populist politicians and demagogues at the expense of South African citizens. But if we apply the same tired zero-sum politics to the coronavirus response by framing it as a choice between lives and livelihoods, and between a total lockdown and no lockdown, we will unleash a wave of suffering on this country unlike anything that has come before.

More urgently than ever before, South Africa needs to rise above the kind of zero-sum politics that we are unfortunately so used to. Instead, we need to embrace complexity by understanding that our very viability as a country depends on protecting lives from the coronavirus, and protecting lives from hunger and destitution. And we need to recognize that we can only defeat this virus if we all work together to make the right decisions based on sound and publicly available data.

In practical terms, this means that we need to continually strike a fine balance between measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, and sustaining sufficient economic activity to fund the health response and protect people from destitution.

Once we’ve dispelled the first false binary between lives and livelihoods, we will recognize that the next logical question is not whether we need a hard lockdown or no lockdown. Instead, the right question to ask is what kind of lockdown is most appropriate, at any given moment, for saving both lives and livelihoods.

That is why the DA is in favour of smart lockdown model, which outlines different lockdown stages similar to the water restrictions and loadshedding schedules that we are all so used to. Based on the input of data like the rate of transmission and the number of people in need of hospitalisation, the smart lockdown model will give us the flexibility we need to tighten and loosen restrictions as the crisis evolves.

The government made the right initial call by responding quickly once the virus reached our shores. However, in the context of a rapidly evolving pandemic, what was the right balance two weeks ago is not necessarily the right balance today or tomorrow.

Extending the hard lockdown on nearly all economic activity beyond 16 April without also publicly sharing the data upon which this decision is based, risks unleashing economic and social devastation that can be avoided with a smart lockdown, which allows us to open some sectors now while continuing to enforce strict requirements like mask wearing and protecting vulnerable groups like elderly citizens.

With a smart lockdown, where decisions are based on publicly available data, citizens will also be able to understand how the situation is evolving and why there may be a need to tighten or loosen lockdown restrictions as the situation evolves.

Societies that reject zero-sum binaries are the ones that will survive this crisis and one day thrive again. For South Africa to be one of them, we urgently need to rise above the tired zero-sum dichotomies upon which so much of our politics and society is based. Like the Covid-19 disease itself, getting the balance right by embracing positive-sum solutions that protects lives from both the coronavirus and destitution under a smart lockdown model, is a matter of life and death for our country.