Western Cape heading into covid surge, yet should move to Level 3.

Over half of SA’s confirmed active covid cases are in the Western Cape, where the virus is more established than in other parts of the country and is now moving into the phase of rapid growth ahead of the peak. Yet the province has done what it can to prepare for the peak, and should move to level 3. Leading experts predict that many provinces will catch up to the Western Cape’s trajectory in the coming months. They should not be returned to level 4 or 5, regardless of readiness.

As of 23 May, the Western Cape had 6 146 active cases – people currently known to be infected – out of a total of 11 239 active cases in South Africa. Case numbers are expected to peak in June/July, a couple of months before other provinces, where numbers are expected to peak between August and October.

Why has the Western Cape’s infection curve been ahead of South Africa’s? One reason is that Cape Town is Africa’s most popular tourist region, and thus welcomed the most visitors from the hardest-hit regions in the world, including China, Europe and the United States while the epidemic was progressing. Many of the country’s first cases were reported in the Western Cape, and it is likely that the province has had the highest number of infections all along.

Secondly, the Western Cape has been testing more of its population than any other province. So far, it has tested 1350 people per 100 000 of population, while other provinces have tested between 140 and 850 per 100 000 of population. The more tests conducted; the more cases will be recorded.

Thirdly, in contrast to other provinces, the province’s testing strategy is focused on testing in ‘hotspots’ – places where the infections are concentrated – as opposed to general testing of the population. This means the ratio of positive tests to all tests will be higher, because of testing being focused in places where the virus is suspected, or more likely, to be present.

And fourthly, the Western Cape is performing post-mortem testing. This means patients who were not tested for covid before they died have a greater chance of still being picked up. If someone is not tested for covid before or after they die, their death will not be recorded as a covid-related death. This shows the impact of testing on the reported covid death rate.

Yet, despite the growing numbers, the DA and Premier Alan Winde are adamant that the province should move to level 3, and is probably more ready to open than any other province. Why?

The dual purpose of the lockdown was to buy government time to: 1. increase the capacity of the health care system (“raise the line”) and 2. ramp up more targeted measures to slow the spread of the virus (“flatten the curve”), in particular testing to trace and quarantine infected individuals. The Western Cape has used the time effectively and has been transparent about the increased health and testing capacity that has been achieved:

  • R725.5 million has been committed to covid-related expenditure across the Western Cape Government.
  • The conversion of the CTICC into a temporary hospital facility that will provide 850 additional beds at the peak of the pandemic, set to open 8 June.
  •  Additional temporary hospitals along the R300 in the Metro, in Khayelitsha, and in the Cape Winelands that collectively provide an additional 616 beds, to open soon.
  • 18 testing and triage centres (12 are already operational) to provide additional support at these facilities.
  • 3888 Community Health Workers are operating across the province, with a further 464 due to start work soon
  •  The number of tests have increased from 7 975 on 1 April to 94 275 on 18 May. This is an increase of 1182%.

Some in government believe the Western Cape should be held at level 4. This would be a mistake, just as it will be a mistake to return other provinces to level 4 in the months to come, whether or not they have used the lockdown time to prepare their health systems.

Extended hard lockdown creates more problems than it solves. It presents a greater risk to people than does the virus itself, and will ultimately result in more human misery. It too threatens lives. There is a strong link between economic devastation and increased mortality. The ability of the public health system to treat those with diseases and potentially fatal injuries requires resources which come from tax revenues. Without these resources lives will be lost.

Lockdown has a direct impact on government social and health spending. Aside from the impact on the fiscus, economic decline will lead to job losses (National Treasury estimates between 3 and 7 million for South Africa) and loss of income, which in turn means starvation and malnutrition for millions of people. Poor nutrition and low incomes are further directly linked to compromised immune systems reducing quality of life and years lived and also making people more susceptible to contracting covid.

Government’s worst-case mortality projections of 45 000 covid deaths this year, while grim, reflect that the covid response has been grossly out of proportion to the threat. We need to bear in mind that more than 400 000 South Africans die from natural causes each year, including around 37 000 from tuberculosis and 32 000 from diabetes, as well as 15 000 in road accidents and 21 000 from murder. (In the US, between 1 February and 16 May this year, across all ages, more people died of pneumonia than covid.)

None of these threats to human life lead us to mothball our economy and stay indoors, and for good reason. While every death is a human tragedy, we cannot avoid all deaths, nor sacrifice society’s other competing needs, such as food and mobility.

STRAIGHT TALK WITH JOHN STEENHUISEN | Help us end this lockdown

Help the DA challenge the hard lockdown in court

This speech was delivered by DA Leader, John Steenhuisen, on 14 May 2020.

Help us end this lockdown crisis

My fellow citizens

In these unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that we stand together and support one another.

Our deepest condolences go out to those who have lost loved ones to the Coronavirus. And our prayers are with those who find themselves facing enormous hardship in this lockdown crisis.

Together we will overcome this and rebuild our country.

Together we will find a way forward.

South Africa tuned in last night in the hope that our President would show us a way forward, but an hour later he had barely said anything.

He told us his government had often got it wrong these past seven weeks, which is true.

He told us that South Africans have played their part and made sacrifices, which we know.

But when it came to the part we were waiting for – the urgent opening of our economy so that people can get back to work – South Africans were left bitterly disappointed.

What President Ramaphosa announced last night was simply not enough.

Remaining in hard lockdown until at least the end of May, and possibly even longer, is not good enough.

Remaining imprisoned by a night curfew enforced by armed soldiers is not good enough.

Remaining subjected to a slew of irrational, petty regulations that do nothing but kill businesses and turn decent people into criminals is not good enough.

And having all of these decisions passed down by a secretive sub-group of the Executive with no clearly defined authority is certainly not good enough.

South Africa tuned in last night to hear one thing only: “The job of the lockdown is done. It’s time to get our country back to work.”

But instead we got a long, rambling justification for an extended lockdown that has torn our economy to pieces, and a vague announcement that this might be eased, for some, in two weeks’ time.

Not good enough.

If the purpose of the lockdown was to ramp up our healthcare capacity and expand our testing programme – and we are told by the President that we have done this – then why keep the hard lockdown in place for another two weeks?

In the President’s own words: “There is clear evidence that the lockdown has allowed us to achieve our objective of delaying the spread of Covid-19 and avoiding a massive surge in infections that would have overwhelmed our healthcare system.”

So if this objective has been achieved – if even the President’s own experts agree that the hard lockdown must end – why are we still locked down?

Why are we deliberately destroying thousands of businesses and millions of jobs? Why are we causing all this suffering for our fellow citizens if it is no longer necessary?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because of a lack of courage.

Going into lockdown was the easy part. Everyone was doing it. The world was panicking and governments were spurred into swift action.

But coming out of lockdown is the hard bit. This is what requires smart strategy, analysis and skills. And it also requires a lot of bravery.

People are going to see infections spike and they are going to want to find someone to blame. It will take a courageous leader to know this and still do the right thing.

Hiding from the virus was the easy part. Dealing with the virus is the hard part.

But every sacrifice we’ve made these past seven weeks has been for this very goal – to prepare us to face the virus.

We cannot let fear paralyze us.

We cannot remain trapped by fear of the spread of infection. The lockdown was never going to stop infections. It was always only going to delay this.

We cannot remain trapped by fear of a rising curve. Because the curve will rise, and it will rise by a lot. We must know this and we must accept it. And we must trust that the curve will rise by less than if we’d had no lockdown at all.

We cannot remain trapped by fear of the duration of Covid-19, because this illness could be with us for the next two years. We must learn to live with it.

We have to end the national hard lockdown, and we have to do it now.

We have run out of any road we might have had. In fact, we reached that point a month ago, when the initial three weeks set aside for our hard lockdown came to an end.

Three weeks was just about all our crippled economy could bear.

When the President announced that the three weeks would become five weeks, the DA spoke out strongly against it. We warned that an extension to the lockdown would be an economic disaster, and we were right.

Those extra two weeks of Level 5 and then another two weeks of Level 4 have already baked into our economy a depression that will take a generation to recover from.

We called on the President to end the hard lockdown a month ago, and he has had every opportunity to act since then. Yet last night he told us to stay put for at least another two weeks.

We don’t have another two weeks.

That is why the DA has decided to take action. Because someone has to, and the President won’t.

One by one, we will fight and we will overturn every decision and every regulation that is either irrational or immoral until we have done what President Ramaphosa could not do: End the hard lockdown.

You’ll know that we have already instructed our lawyers to challenge the discriminatory use of the Covid emergency relief fund. It isn’t right for government to exclude citizens from this relief based on their, or their employer’s, race and other arbitrary criteria.

We also petitioned the IMF to make any funds obtained from them by the South African government conditional on non-racial use, or any other arbitrary criteria. And today I would like to set out our next rounds in this fight.

Today our lawyers will file papers in the High Court challenging the rationality of three separate lockdown-related issues: the night curfew, the ban on e-commerce and the restriction on exercise hours.

It is our opinion – and it is the view of many South Africans – that all three of these decisions should be immediately reversed, as there are no rational justifications for a military-enforced curfew, a restriction on e-commerce business and a limited 3-hour window for exercise.

But it also has to be said that all these irrational decisions are taken by the National Command Council because they are acting without any checks and balances.

The State of Disaster we are currently under, governed by the Disaster Management Act, has zero provision for Parliamentary oversight. Which means this secretive National Command Council answers to no one.

Now consider that not even a State of Emergency, which is a further step up from a State of Disaster, has such sweeping powers with no parliamentary oversight.

There is no logical reason for this, and it surely could not have been the intention of the authors of the Disaster Management Act.

And so tomorrow our lawyers will be filing court papers challenging the constitutionality of this aspect of the Disaster Management Act. Because unless the Act meets constitutional muster, the decisions taken by the National Command Council under this Act are not valid.

This is an extremely important case, because it speaks to one of the most crucial principles in our democracy – the separation of powers.

We have an Executive branch of government – Cabinet – and a separate Legislative branch – Parliament – for a very good reason.

But right now, because of this lack of oversight, the Executive is effectively doing the job of writing our laws and regulations as they please, bypassing all the debate and possible opposition that would’ve happened in Parliament.

We have to fight this, because from here our democracy finds itself on a very slippery slope.

What we will be asking the court is to apply the same oversight provisions to the State of Disaster as to the State of Emergency. Because without this oversight, petty authoritarians hopped up on power are allowed to run amok.

That’s when you see pensioners and toddlers harassed and arrested for walking on a beach.

That’s when you see e-commerce banned, not because it is a health threat, but because it is apparently “unfair” towards non-e-commerce businesses.

That’s when you see cigarettes, alcohol and hot food banned.

That’s when you see laughable regulations about which kind of T-shirt or shoes you can buy and how you should wear them.

None of these things make any difference in delaying the spread of the virus. They’re all just a massive over-reach by the kind of ministers who should be nowhere near such power.

If we want to prevent this kind of dictatorial madness, then we have to stop it at the source. And this means removing this authoritarian power through proper oversight.

Right now, these legal challenges of ours are what stand in the way of a slide towards a one-party fiefdom, where laws and regulations are simply issued by decree.

It is in every single South African’s interest that we succeed.

And so I ask that you help us fund this legal process through a small contribution. Please go to our website – da.org.za – or our Facebook page to see how you can donate.

There you can also co-sign my letter to the President asking for the hard lockdown to be lifted.

We cannot do this on our own. If you were perhaps feeling powerless until now and wondering what you could do to help fight this heavy-handed lockdown, this is it.

We need to fight this together, just as we need to face our fear of the virus together.

Yes, there is a threat – a very real and scary threat – right outside our door, but it’s not going to go away.

No matter how long we choose to stay on this side of the door, it will still be waiting for us on the other side.

So let us put on our masks, wash our hands and open the door so that we can face it with courage, determination and a whole lot of common sense.

Let us replace this hard lockdown that is destroying our country with a proper smart lockdown plan that allows the maximum number of South Africans to return to work.

Let us allow every business that can operate safely to do so.

Let us set out hygiene and distancing protocols for every type of business and every mode of transport.

Let us do the same for our schools.

Let us make the best possible use of the resources of the state. Instead of locking up soup kitchen workers and atchar sellers, let us rather pour the state’s attention into finding people who are at real risk and helping them to isolate.

Those with co-morbidities such as diabetes and hypertension are vulnerable and should remain locked down. Many of them cannot do so where they live, and the state can play a crucial role.

Let us put on our masks, wash our hands, keep some space around us, and then go out there and try and rescue what we can of our economy so that people can earn a living and feed their families.

The threat posed by this lockdown crisis is so much greater than the threat of the virus, that we simply have no choice but to end the hard lockdown now and start our economy up.

If the President is unable to make this decision, then help us make it for him.

Thank you.

Help the DA challenge the hard lockdown in court

We must end the ANC lockdown crisis now

This speech was delivered by John Steenhuisen on 8 May, as South Africa entered the seventh week of lockdown.

My fellow citizens,

I know you love this country as much as I do. There is a lot to love.

We all want South Africa and her people to succeed, and it is heart-breaking to see so many suffering in these difficult times.

We pay tribute to those who have lost their lives to the virus, and our deepest condolences go out to their friends and families.

But what makes this even more heart-breaking is the fact that much of the hardship we’re going through is unnecessary. In our efforts to fight off a very real threat, we have replaced it with an even bigger threat of our own making.

The real tragedy playing out here is no longer the Coronavirus, but the lockdown itself. Because this lockdown is going to cost many more lives than it can possibly save.

This is a hard truth to speak, and it is even harder to hear. But it must be spoken.

We have to end the lockdown crisis, and we have to do it now.

There is very little for us to gain and almost everything to lose by keeping people at home and keeping businesses shut any longer.

The only reason we entered into the lockdown was to buy some time.

We weren’t trying to stop all Covid infections. We weren’t trying to kill the virus.

We were simply giving our hospitals time to prepare. To give our healthcare workers the best possible chance of dealing with the inevitable wave of infections when it finally hit us.

We knew then, as we know now, that this wave is coming, lockdown or not. We also knew that our country’s economy could only withstand a very limited freeze.

This is why the lockdown had an end date. Three weeks is what it was going to take to source equipment, to get beds ready and to train the doctors and nursing staff in Covid protocols.

However, before those three weeks were up it was decided that a little more time was needed, and so the three weeks became five weeks.

These extra two weeks would come at a huge cost to our country, but at least there was an end date, and we could brace ourselves for the duration.

All of this had to be a very delicate trade-off: shut everything down at an enormous cost to the livelihoods of millions for a short period, and hopefully save many lives in the process.

But this is the thing about managing this pandemic – there’s not only one trade-off. You have to make them all the time.

Every day, the situation changes – the odds change – and you constantly have to reassess this trade-off.

Six weeks ago, that decision by President Ramaphosa to act quickly in shutting the country down to delay the spread was widely praised, and rightly so.

I was one of those who stood firmly behind him and supported his early call for a nationwide lockdown. The whole country did. At the time it was undoubtedly the right thing to do.

But although the President was called brave and bold at the time, that would turn out to be one of the easiest decisions he would make in this crisis.

We could all see what was happening around the world. We could do what they were doing, only faster and firmer.

It was the right thing for the President to do, but not the bravest.

Because the real bravery would be required later, when the time would come to open everything up again and face what we had been preparing for: the spike in infections.

That was the whole point of this hard lockdown: to prepare for the opening up.

I also supported the President when he announced that we would be moving into a phased approach to the lockdown. What he called a risk-adjusted model that would allow for a return to work, schools and, ultimately, normal life.

The DA had just proposed a very similar model to him, and we were grateful that some of this work had found fertile soil.

I said, at the time, that we would judge this model on the details that would follow, but in principle this was a good move.

But we were right to reserve our judgment. Level 4 of the lockdown, as it turns out, is hardly different from Level 5. In fact, in many respects it is more restrictive, not less.

We now have a curfew enforced by more than 75,000 armed soldiers, which we didn’t have under Level 4. And even shopping hours have been reduced instead of expanded.

This wasn’t progress towards a more open society and economy at all. It was simply an extension of the hard lockdown – this time with no final deadline in sight.

What the DA had proposed in its Smart Lockdown was a detailed plan, sector by sector, for how we could safely return to normality.

What the government gave us was simply a longer list of rules and a curfew.

And, as most of you have seen, or even personally experienced, the rules and restrictions under this supposed lighter level of lockdown are often petty, irrational and authoritarian.

It is little wonder then that these rules are increasingly met with resistance, and even outright civil disobedience.

If you want people on your side, you have to treat them with the respect they deserve. You have to treat them like adults.

Instead we have seen citizens treated like criminals.

We have seen people being abused and humiliated in the streets and in their properties by members of the police and the army.

And sadly we have even seen citizens die at the hands of these armed forces.

We have seen good Samaritans arrested for the crime of feeding the poor.

We have seen arbitrary rules on what may and may not be purchased drawn up with the stroke of a pen. There is no rational argument for the continued ban on cigarettes, or alcohol, for that matter.

We have seen announcements from ministers on keeping sectors of the economy shut that have nothing to do with halting the spread of the virus. Petty, irrational announcements, like the ban on all e-commerce.

We have seen the outrageous announcements from the Small Business Development Minister and the Tourism Minister that they intend to exclude some South Africans, on the basis of their race and other arbitrary criteria, from government’s emergency relief measures.

The DA has already written to the head of the IMF – where a large part of this relief funding will come from – to urge them to instruct our government not to use this money in a way that discriminates against some South Africans.

We have also instructed our lawyers to take this matter to the High Court, because it is unconscionable that government would play identity politics in a time of crisis.

We will continue to fight to overturn regulations that are either irrational or immoral, whether in court or through other means.

And we will fulfil our duty, as official opposition, of guarding against the abuse of power.

Because never before, in democratic South Africa, has the power of the state been spread wider, and yet concentrated in the hands of so few.

And all the while, South Africans have been asked to give up even more for even longer, without questioning any of it.

That has to end.

South Africans have more than done their bit.They have been asked to sacrifice, and they have done so. Many have lost all they had.

They have sat diligently in their homes as our country’s economy slowly crumbled around them, waiting for the news that the hospitals and the doctors were ready and we could resume our lives.

I don’t have to tell you how hard this wait has been.

Many of you know full well what it’s like to go week after week without any income, or to wait every day for that dreaded phone call: “I’m sorry, you no longer have a job.”

Thousands of businesses have either already closed down, or are about to. Each of these businesses was a precious lifeline for the employees and their families.

National Treasury says, best-case scenario, we stand to lose 3 million jobs. That’s if we do everything right and end the lockdown now.

Worst-case scenario it’s 7 million jobs. That’s on top of the 10 million who were already unemployed before Covid hit.

SARS says we will miss our revenue target by a massive R285 billion. That’s a fifth of our income gone. This is money meant for social grants, it’s meant to pay teachers, nurses, police officers. It’s meant to deliver water and housing.

We are not the USA. We are not the UK, or Germany or Japan. We simply don’t have the means to navigate around this kind of loss.

The effect on poor South Africans will be devastating.

This is a self-inflicted catastrophe far, far greater than anything the virus could throw at us.

Mr President, by creating this lockdown crisis, you have broken your sacred compact with the people of South Africa. You have weaponised our trust in you and turned it against us.

Instead of trusting us back, you have devastated lives and livelihoods through brutality and coercion.

And you have turned the free citizens of the Republic of South Africa into subjects of an authoritarian government.

We are no longer dealing with a Covid19 crisis. We are dealing with a lockdown crisis. An ANC lockdown crisis, to be precise.

Let me be very clear about this: There is no longer a justification to keep this hard lockdown in place. Government cannot produce this justification.

They cannot show us the modelling they use to decide when to ease and when to tighten restrictions. They cannot do this because they don’t seem to know for sure themselves.

And so every decision is shrouded in secrecy. We are told to blindly trust a body called the National Command Council – a small group of cabinet ministers who don’t answer to Parliament or anyone else.

When asked for their meeting minutes to clarify why they backtracked on lifting the cigarette ban, this National Command Council refused, claiming this was classified information.

I don’t buy that for a second, and neither should you.

The DA has filed a PAIA application to obtain not only the minutes of their cigarette discussion, but of all their other decisions relating to the lockdown.

It is crucial that we all know exactly why, according to government, we’re still in this destructive lockdown.

What we do know is that government’s very own epidemic expert, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, thinks this lockdown has already run its course and is of little more use.

In fact, this was his view already two weeks ago. Yet here we still are.

We know that the sole reason for locking the country down was to buy time to boost our healthcare response. We’ve done this. What hasn’t happened in the past six weeks will not happen now.

The only thing keeping us locked down now is fear.

And we have every right to fear the virus. We have every right to worry about the health of our loved ones, and particularly those who are at higher risk.

We have every right to feel unsure about the future, and what our world will look like three months, six months, a year from now.

But this is not a reason to remain locked down. We cannot afford to remain trapped by fear alone.

If there is a good reason for maintaining the lockdown, based on a scientific modelling of this pandemic, then we need to know what this reason is. We need to see government’s modelling.

If no reason and no modelling can be shared, then we have no choice but to suspect that government is acting irrationally, or deliberately instilling fear to further some other agenda.

Since the start of this crisis, the DA has called for all this data to be shared publicly. We have made extensive and multiple submissions to the president explaining exactly what kind of data is needed for such decisions to be made.

This must go way beyond just the number of infections, deaths and recoveries in the country and for each province.

The data has to be localised. It has to include a detailed breakdown of age, gender and co-morbidities. And, most importantly, it has to include the full, updated picture of the state of our healthcare preparations in each town and city.

It also has to include a very detailed picture of our screening, testing, tracing and tracking efforts.

Because if we don’t know this, we have no way of knowing whether the lockdown serves any purpose at all, and we have no way of knowing if and when we will ever come out of it.

We’re about to enter our seventh week of lockdown, which means we’re fast catching up with the longest Covid lockdowns in the world – Wuhan at 8 weeks and Italy at 9 weeks.

Every single day that we stay here comes at a massive cost. Because every day more businesses are closing down and families are left destitute.

But there is some good news too. As we see this virus spread through the world, we get a clearer picture of its effect. And one encouraging part of this picture is that mortality rates are not as high as we initially thought.

While still dangerous, the Coronavirus is not as deadly as we had feared.

Most people who contract it will get better, or perhaps not even know they had it. For younger, healthy people, the risks are not much higher than normal flu.

This means we have based our response on over-estimated risks. Our strategy is flawed, and we need to respond to this new information by phasing out this lockdown.

This is where the DA’s Smart Lockdown model comes in. A real phased approach that balances the flattening of the infection curve with the safe opening of the economy.

Under this approach, the three steps that we all must do – wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining physical distance – are still critical.

We then use extensive testing to identify where the virus is spreading out of control, so that we can use localised lockdowns to contain the spread.

At the same time, we protect the elderly and others who are at risk as far as possible through isolation.

And then the rest of us get back to work, where every business in every sector will have comprehensive safety regulations in place which they will have to comply with.

Every single business that can safely open, must be allowed to open immediately.

That is how we can effectively spread infections out so that our hospitals can cope, while still allowing businesses to operate safely and allow people to earn a living.

We need to do this right away, because every day we delay comes at a price we cannot afford.

We also need to end the lockdown in an orderly way before the people end it with chaos.

Millions of people are already breaking the law, not because they are criminals, but because they are hungry.

Not because they want to, but because they have to.

Not because they are bad, but because the laws are bad.

When a rule is met by mass non-compliance, it is usually because the rule is irrational. If you need an example of this, just look at e-tolls.

There is no bravery or compassion to be found in this lockdown.

The true bravery and compassion is in the mothers and fathers, the grandmothers and grandfathers, who risk arrest or death to break this lockdown, so that they can feed and clothe their families.

The true bravery and compassion, President Ramaphosa, will be in ending this lockdown.

And be warned Mr, President: Unless you come to your senses and end this lockdown crisis, millions more will start breaking the law in the coming days and weeks.

If you don’t end it, the people of South Africa will take charge and end if for you.

As it now stands, the lockdown is a tragic mistake that has already caused damage that risks dooming an entire generation of South Africans to a lifetime of destitution and suffering.

We can’t undo any of this. We can’t turn back the clock.

What we can do is act now to end this lockdown crisis and get as many of us back to work as safely as possible.

That is the only way we will ensure that, once we have defeated this virus, we have a country left to rebuild.

Support our petition calling on the International Monetary Fund to direct the South African government to NOT use its relief aid financing in a way that discriminates: http://stopcoronaaiddiscrimination.co.za/

DA proposes a Smart Lockdown Level 4 based on trust, transparency and freedom

South Africa needs a much wider opening of the economy than suggested by government’s Level 4 lockdown proposals. The DA has submitted our Level 4 proposals for how to open more of the economy without compromising public safety.

Government’s approach to specifying who can and cannot work in Level 4 is unnecessarily blunt and restrictive. Many businesses which could be operating without significantly increasing the spread of the virus will be forced to remain closed.

This will do unnecessary damage to jobs and tax revenue – and to public compliance and confidence in the system – and soon render government’s approach unsustainable.

The only condition for a business to operate should be that it has, or can achieve, an acceptably low potential for spreading the virus.

Obviously, Level 4 sets a higher bar for “acceptable” than would a lower level. Recall that the lockdown levels indicate the level of threat posed by the virus. The DA’s Smart Lockdown proposes that for each lockdown level, government should specify the requirements for a business to be able to operate. Businesses can then decide if they are willing or able to meet those. They may choose to invest in the required mitigation measures, for example arranging private transport for staff, buying protective equipment, temperature screening staff/customers on entrance.

This way, government is putting decision-making power in the hands of those people who know and care most about each individual business: its employers, employees and customers. This approach harnesses the creativity, incentives and goodwill of everyone, within a reasonable set of rules.

Instead, government seems intent on centralising draconian powers in the hands of incapable ministers. The result is arbitrary rules enforced by military deployment.

Military deployment and military-backed curfews to ensure compliance are a tacit admission by government that the rules are not reasonable and that people and businesses cannot be trusted to act in their own best interest.

Under government’s Level 4, for example, no hairdresser may legally operate and no one can get a haircut, no matter how many precautions they take to reduce the risk of transmission. Under the DA Smart Lockdown Level 4, a hairdresser could operate as soon as a reasonable set of safety measures is in place. These safety measures would be quite demanding, given that Level 4 indicates a high level of risk. But they would not be insurmountable.

If people and businesses are empowered with information about the risk that the virus poses to themselves and their community, and how that can be mitigated, most will play by a reasonable set of rules. Indeed, an HSRC survey indicated 99% compliance in the first weeks of lockdown.

An authoritarian approach made sense initially, but as time goes on decision-making power needs to become more dispersed, within a given set of justified rules. If rules are reasonable, people tend to follow them. And those who don’t will be kept in line through peer pressure and whistle-blowing.

Compliance requires a good reason for the rule. The fact is, government is imposing harsh rules backed by military force and requiring a massive sacrifice from people without having given us a comprehensive enough justification.

Right now 25% of South Africans do not have money for food. If Level 4 is much the same as Level 5, ultimately more people may suffer and die from lockdown than from Covid-19. Remember, we’re going into the marathon phase of our covid-response – our strategy for controlling the virus has to be sustainable over an 18-24 month timeframe.

Government is demanding enormous economic and civil liberty sacrifices but has yet to share with us the epidemiological assumptions and calculations underpinning SA’s response to this virus, let alone any district-specific detail on the case, testing, hospital capacity and other data that feed into a determination of lockdown levels.

The DA has submitted a request for transparency, supplying specific information that we think should be shared with people by way of published dashboards. Compliance will be much higher in a transparent environment where the rules are reasonable, justified, and aligned to people’s natural incentives.

An 8pm to 5am military curfew is none of these things. It demonstrates a lack of trust in the people of South Africa to take individual responsibility for their own safety. The DA has submitted our position on a military curfew.

Ultimately, more social freedom and a wider opening of the economy using a Smart Lockdown approach based on trust, transparency and individual empowerment is in South Africa’s best interest.

THE SPRINT AND THE MARATHON – WINNING THE BATTLE AGAINST COVID19

This battle requires a sprint and then a marathon. How we fare in the sprint determines how we fare in the marathon.

The sprint is to get our strategy, systems and infrastructure in place for the marathon. Most importantly, it is to ramp up the scale and speed of our testing capability so that we know exactly when and where the virus is flaring up in communities, so we can control it, rather than have it control us.

It has required a hard lockdown. No point in letting covid19 spread out of control until we’re ready to fight.

The marathon is to control the spread of Covid19 so that as many infected people as possible survive.

It will require a smart lockdown. Covid19 may be with us right up until a vaccination is widely administered in 18-24 months’ time. Treatment will hopefully come sooner. South Africa’s borders are porous, so there is no option for an “elimination” strategy such as New Zealand is pursuing. We are not an island.

The sprint must be as fast as possible because a hard lockdown is very expensive and we need to save some of our resources for the marathon. Hard lockdown costs SA an estimated R13 billion per day. An effective testing programme (testing to the scale and speed required to produce the same amount of control over the virus as the hard lockdown) will cost SA an estimated R5 billion per year. Even if that estimate is out by a factor of 3 so that testing costs SA R15 billion per year, it still equates to the cost of a single day of hard lockdown.

The marathon must be as smart as possible so that our resources don’t run out before we get to the finish line.

Smart lockdown

A “smart lockdown” means we keep control over the virus while still being able to allow as many people as possible to get back to work, so that we don’t run out of money before we get to the finish line.

We keep control over the virus by knowing exactly where it is springing up and how many new people are getting infected each day, and by knowing how many new daily infections our hospitals can cope with.

If we know this, then we know what level of lockdown we can operate at, and at what location. Localised lockdowns are obviously preferable, as they keep as few people out of work while still suppressing outbreaks.

“Smart lockdown” makes use of clear levels of lockdown and we move between them, depending on what the data is telling us about covid19. Perhaps:

Level 4 – Hard lockdown

Level 3 – Soft lockdown

Level 2 – Soft open

Level 1 – Open

Rather like how we move between stages of load-shedding or water restrictions according to how much electricity/water is available.

No point locking down too hard if the virus is spreading slowly and our hospitals are coping fine. More of us should then be back at work to earn the money (taxes) we need to get to the finish line.

No point locking down too soft and letting the virus spread out of control. If we lose control of the virus, it means we lose control of knowing what level of lockdown we should be operating on. In which case, we need to revert to hard lockdown to get the virus back under control again.

That’s why hard lockdown is an important level of smart lockdown.

Of course, staying at home isn’t the only way of controlling the spread of the virus. There are other ways of doing this. We can call these other ways “smart interventions” because they allow us to control the virus AND get more of us back to work. They are more of a targeted and less of a blanket approach than a hard lockdown. They are a key component of the smart lockdown strategy.

Smart Interventions

If we agree to all wear masks whenever we leave home, the virus will find it harder to spread.

If we agree that all public facilities – shops, taxis, busses, trains, banks, municipal offices – have spray-on hand sanitizer on entrance and exit, the virus will find it harder to spread.

If we agree on physical distancing protocols for when we aren’t at home, the virus will find it harder to spread. If we assist high-risk people – those over 65 and/or immune-compromised – to continue self-isolating, the virus will find it harder to spread. That way more of the rest of us can get back to work to support them. Remember, the younger we are and the stronger our immune systems are, the quicker our bodies kill the virus before it can spread any further. The older we are and the weaker our immune systems are, the more chance the virus can build up in our body and the more infectious we become.

If we boost our immune systems our bodies can fight the virus quicker and harder. So if we keep our stress levels low and get enough food and sleep, the virus will find it hard to spread. Right now, people are starting to stress more about their jobs and income than about this virus itself.

That’s why getting back to work is in a sense a Smart Intervention in itself. If we keep tight control over our border and test and isolate all those coming in, the virus will find it harder to spread.

If we test a large number of people every day for the virus, so that we identify and isolate the “explosions” of infection in our communities – through local lockdown – before they get properly under way, the virus will find it harder to spread. Professor Karim, chief advisor to SA Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, uses the analogy of small fires starting up in a forest. If we can locate them early on, we can target our fire-fighting resources at them and put them out before the fire rages out of control.

Of the “smart interventions”, testing has the greatest leverage. It’s the thing we absolutely have to get right. If we can get it right, it will justify this current hard lockdown.

Test, trace, track

Our ability to test effectively is pivotal to the success of a smart lockdown.

Other countries – South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Kerala in India – that have best managed to control the spread of the virus attribute their success to an effective testing programme. Germany is testing at a level of 60 000 tests per day and still driving that number higher. The UK is aiming for 100 000 tests per day.

Once someone tests positive three things have to happen.

  1. They must be immediately isolated for at least 14 days so they don’t spread it further.
  2. Their contacts must be immediately traced to know who else they may already have infected, so we can test them too.
  3. We need to anonymously track their movements so we know where we need to focus our testing, in case they are not self-isolating.

This is a targeted testing approach. We only have so much testing capacity, so we test those people most likely to be positive.

But we also need to do randomised testing in communities, to make sure that there are no new “explosions” (hotspots) that we don’t yet know about. People can spread the virus without knowing about it, because they become infectious 4-7 days before symptoms appear.

The most important communities to do randomised testing in are those that find it very hard to lockdown. It is simply not possible for households to stay at home when they share facilities such as water points and toilets with other households. And when large families are crammed into small houses which themselves are crammed closely together.

A successful testing programme has a double benefit:

  1. It saves lives. Fewer people get the virus and our hospitals aren’t over-run.
  2. It saves lives. Enables data-driven decisions about what level of lockdown we can be on. So as many as possible of us can work while still having the virus under control. So we get as much tax revenue as possible to fund our health response – doctors, nurses, PPE (personal protective equipment), field hospitals, testing programme – right up until we get over the marathon’s finish line, which may still be 18-24 months away.

Treat

The greater the capacity of our hospitals, the more infected people will be able to get the treatment they need and the fewer will die from the virus.

South Africa must direct additional resources to strengthening our healthcare system over the coming months, to ensure optimal treatment for as many patients as possible – both those with Covid-19 and those with other serious illnesses.

But there’s a second reason that building health capacity is such a powerful intervention. The greater our health capacity, the higher the average number of new daily infections can be before we need to move to a higher lockdown level.

Virtuous circle

It should be clear now that the greater our testing and hospital capacity, the more of us can work, the more money (taxes) we have to fight the virus – including by growing our hospital capacity still further – and the less chance we run out of money before we get to the finish line.

It’s a virtuous circle, which is why it is a false choice to choose between saving lives and saving livelihoods.

The more lives we save, the more livelihoods we’ll be able to save.

The more livelihoods we save, the more lives we’ll be able to save.

A smart lockdown approach enables maximum coordination between our health and economic response. It is a highly data-driven approach.

Data

This is why it is so important that we have transparent, reliable, up-to-date information about the capacity of our hospitals – including any temporary field hospitals we set up. The government should ideally be publishing a daily dashboard for the public, showing test results and hospital capacity by area.

Sprint

So we are in a race against time to build testing capacity. At this point, no amount of money we throw at our testing programme would be too much.

We must be ready for mass virus testing before the end of April 2020. SA cannot extend the current hard lockdown on the same terms any further.

If the pressure is not released, there will be an explosion of non-compliance anyway. And we are fast running out of money. Our economy is underwater and running out of oxygen.

The bridge

We need to provide a “bridge” to assist poor people, struggling businesses and hospitals to survive this crisis and bounce back afterwards.

The sprint is to get them onto the bridge. The marathon is to get them over it.

The sprint – getting onto the bridge

Government needs to take a “helicopter drop” approach to giving relief to poor people and struggling businesses to help them survive this lockdown. This means rapid, generalised, direct cash transfers, to “bridge” poor people and struggling businesses to the other side.

The DA suggests R50 billion of cash transfers to poor people over the next three months by increasing every type of social grant by R1000 per month. If this is done in conjunction with a phased opening up of the economy wherever possible, this expense will ultimately be budget neutral, due to the multiplier effect. In other words, if government directs cash as quickly as possible to as many poor people as possible, they will get that R50 billion back as tax revenue once it has worked its way through the economy.

The DA suggests R50 billion in direct business support in the form of low-interest loans to any business, repayment of which need only commence after 12 months.

We suggest that the TERS (temporary employment relief scheme which assists businesses with their wage bills) should be administered by SARS rather than the UIF. SARS is best-placed and has the capacity to make more rapid, generalised cash transfers to business than does the UIF.

Government also needs to ramp up the health budget, to get hospitals onto the bridge. The DA suggests allocating an additional R50 billion to healthcare-related costs.

This sprint part of “bridging” requires a fiscal response – we need to reprioritise our budget to get this right.

The marathon part of “bridging” requires a policy response. We need to reform our economy to get this right.

The marathon – getting over the bridge

We make electricity more affordable and more reliable for people and businesses. We do that by opening our energy market. All independent producers should be able to produce and sell electricity.

We make data more affordable for people and businesses by auctioning spectrum.

We make investing in SA more attractive by walking away from investment-killing policies like EWC, BEE, NHI, asset prescription, and SARB nationalization.

Smart lockdown

All these interventions are part of what the DA has called a “Smart Lockdown” strategy. This strategy is completely within South Africa’s capacity to implement. It gives us the best chance of winning the battle against Covid-19.

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.

STRAIGHT TALK: Economic reform is now urgent to save lives and livelihoods

South Africa is in an extremely vulnerable situation. A “heavy and devastating storm” – to quote Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on the pandemic – is approaching and, simultaneously, our economy is collapsing.

It has been dealt a triple blow recently, with the massive run on our bonds, our country going into lockdown, and our credit rating being junked.

The immediate result of these will be a sudden drop in tax revenue coupled with a steep rise in the cost of borrowing. Having managed our economy extraordinarily badly over the past twelve years, dithering over the reforms we know we need to implement, we now find our cupboard bare at precisely the time when we need to ramp up spending considerably to save lives and livelihoods during and after this pandemic.

This is not just a problem in the short-term. The risk of long-term economic decline – a shrinking economy and runaway debt – and massive social instability has also intensified strongly. That puts lives at risk from threats other than the Coronavirus – threats such as falling healthcare and social grant budgets, malnutrition, starvation, growing unemployment and increased violent crime.

Minister Mkhize this week prevailed on provincial health departments to use this short grace period – the calm before the storm – to “move with speed” to prepare for the coming onslaught of cases of infection.

Similarly, there can be no dithering on the economic side. We need swift action to assist households and businesses in distress. This should be through existing mechanisms such as the social grant, VAT repayment and banking systems. SARB, the Treasury, and banks need to play a leading role. The government must put ideology aside and seek as much financial assistance as possible from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

This must be coupled with swift, bold reform focused on implementation – both to mitigate the damage during this pandemic, and to enable our society and economy to recover as fast as possible once it has passed.

Economic reform has always been a matter of life and death. But this Coronavirus has amplified the trade-offs involved. Trade union bosses will find it much harder to justify putting their vested interests ahead of the common good. Statists will find it harder to justify propping up failing state-owned entities.

The cost of above-inflation pay increases to non-frontline public servants is the lives and livelihoods that will be lost by not directing the billions saved to the healthcare, social welfare and small business sectors instead.

Not only that, but it could also cost us a loan from the IMF, since that institution will be reluctant to assist a country so drunk on patronage, especially when the queue for loans is so long and clamouring.

For exactly the same reasons, SAA should be closed immediately and the assets sold off when possible. There is no justification for spending the budgeted R16 billion to keep it going (subsidising public transport for the wealthy) when this money could rather be spent on saving lives and livelihoods. Unbelievably, this budget decision was coupled with a reduction of R3.9 billion in the healthcare budget. This is simply untenable.

The rank unfairness and irrationality of this trade-off decision is now clear for all to see. In fact, we must put an immediate stop to all further bailouts of failing state-owned enterprises. To protect unproductive jobs at the expense of people’s lives and the productive, value-creating economy at a time like this is unconscionable.

Nor can we justify delaying opening our energy market to full competition from independent producers. This will make electricity cheaper and more reliable, taking considerable pressure off households and businesses in the coming months and years.

Likewise, reforms to our rigid labour legislation are now urgent. Small businesses need maximum flexibility and freedom to adapt and survive in rapidly changing circumstances. Otherwise they are left with a straight choice between breaking the law and going bankrupt. It is in no-one’s interest that successful small businesses die during or because of this sudden-stop economic period.

President Ramaphosa has acknowledged the urgency of reform, saying to Finance Minister Mboweni on Monday: “We now need to move boldly on the structural reforms programme.”

If he does not follow words with action, history will judge him harshly. He may not have the full support of this own party, but he has strong cross-party support to push reforms through parliament. Never has the need for a political realignment been more urgent.

Nor the need for a capable state move evident. Perhaps the most important reform of all is to start appointing people to positions of leadership based on their ability to get the job done in the best interest of the general public. It beggars belief that someone as incompetent as Fikile Mbalula is our Minister of Transport.

If this moment of heightened risk and danger gets us to appoint better leaders, fix the fundamentals, and make better trade-off decisions, some good may yet come from this terrible, deadly pandemic.

The most immediate and looming trade-off decision the President will have to make is between an extended lockdown and economic activity. This will require great political courage, since the easier political choice will be to err on the side of avoiding deaths due directly to Covid-19, even at the expense of many more deaths due indirectly to the measures taken to suppress it.

South Africa would have had more room for manoeuvre had we made better decisions in the past. But this is no time for looking backwards. Now is the time to accept current realities and act swiftly to save lives and livelihoods.

STRAIGHT TALK: Coronavirus: Stick to the plan.

At midnight tonight, we go into lockdown. This is a first in our nation’s history. We’re in uncharted territory.

Our situation is surreal. In a matter of weeks, the ordinary and predictable has given way to the extraordinary and unprecedented. Never in the history of our nation have we had to take such massive decisions in so short a time with so many unknowns against such invisible yet deadly a threat.

And yet we have a plan. And it is a good one if we all, or at least the vast majority of us, get on board.

There are still so many unanswered questions, but we know the most important thing about this virus: it cannot survive if it cannot spread.

And that is the essence of our plan: to act now, together in unison, to stay physically apart from other households to break the chains of infection.

In this moment of great need, President Ramaphosa has produced a bold, credible plan. This 21-day lockdown may appear to some to be “overkill”, but it is based on the premise that the sooner we act to suppress this virus the better, and that strong measures today for a limited, doable amount of time will save millions of lives and possibly even millions of rands down the line.

The strategy is to fight it hard now while it is still in its infancy, and get the better of it before it gets the better of us. Even if we don’t manage to stamp out this virus completely with this lockdown, we buy ourselves precious time. The world has never learned as fast about any other disease, ever. Humanity will know a lot more about this virus in three weeks’ time than it does now.

You may disagree with it, but the time for debate about our overall strategy is over. We have a plan and now it’s down to the implementation.

Make no mistake. This plan comes at a massive, immediate socioeconomic cost. Which is all the more reason that we cannot afford to fail on implementation.

Every single one of us has a role to play. While many of us may feel powerless in the face of this emerging threat, in fact every one of us has the power to break possible chains of infection. And not only the power but the civic duty and legal imperative to do so.

This virus will not survive if we deny it new hosts.

No one could have guessed we’d be called to go into battle barefoot and in dressing gowns, and yet that is what is being asked of most of us now. Stay at home. Our most powerful weapons in this fight are patience, cooperation, self-discipline – and soap. We all need to rise to the challenge of deploying these liberally.

This is a temporary break in our freedoms, not a permanent one.

For the millions of South Africans living in cramped conditions, giving up those freedoms will be an extraordinary challenge and sacrifice. Others are lucky to have more spacious homes. We should all try to find the opportunity in this. This can be a chance to read the books we’ve been meaning to read, watch the films we’ve been meaning to watch, clear out the unused stuff in our cupboards, get our affairs in order, sleep, start a programme of morning push-ups or stretching.

For parents, this is a chance to spend time with our children, to take the time to play games with them, read to them, really listen to them.

This is an extraordinary time calling for extraordinary kindness, compassion, forbearance, patience. For slowing down. For thinking of all those we know and helping them to the other side in any way we can.

Our economic activity does not have to come to a complete stop. Much work can be done and some services can be delivered remotely. This is an opportunity to learn new ways of doing things. Ways that may turn out to be much easier on ourselves and the living world on which our lives ultimately depend. Hopefully we will emerge from this crisis more resilient and more united than before. Never has it been more apparent that we need to cooperate and work together, even as we stay physically apart.

Now more than ever we need clear, unambiguous communication from government. I have written to President Ramaphosa suggesting he convenes a daily press conference where he addresses the nation and answers questions, as we have seen in other countries. This will go a long way to providing clarity and stability in a time of great distress and confusion.

Everyone will have their opinions. But our democratically elected head of state has delivered us a plan that can work if we stick to it. This is the most important message to take away as we go into lockdown: stick to the plan.

STRAIGHT TALK: Mitigating the economic fallout from Coronavirus

Covid-19 will deliver a massive, sudden and potentially deadly blow to many businesses in our economy – indeed, this has already begun. This has introduced an unprecedented challenge at a time when our economy was already in recession. The damage can and must be mitigated.

Government now needs to do everything it can to assist as many businesses as possible to survive this “sudden stop” situation so that they are still operating and can recover fully when the Coronavirus threat blows over in four to six months’ time, as it is generally expected to do.

On Sunday, President Ramaphosa showed decisive leadership in announcing a virus containment plan. He now needs to match that with a comprehensive economic support package that takes as much financial pressure as possible off businesses and households in the coming months.

Otherwise our national effort to limit the damage from Covid-19 will come at a terrible, perhaps even unjustifiable, economic cost. Small businesses will not survive and the households that rely on them will suffer enormously without support from government. The stringent curbs on restaurants for example, introduced on Wednesday, will be crippling to those in that sector.

Even in our stressed economic environment, there is much the government can do. The DA has made several suggestions.

Funds for disaster management and economic support can be freed up by cancelling the planned R16,4 billion bailout of SAA. It is surely unthinkable at a time like this to bail out failed SOEs while thousands of successful small businesses face ruin.

We need a nationwide loan forbearance programme giving a four-month payment “holiday” on loans for small and medium business, in particularly property, business and vehicle loans. Extending the term of loans by four months will allow borrowers to pause their payments over the next four months.

This will help small businesses maintain the cash flow necessary to stay open and keep paying their employees without the need for each business to negotiate with their banks individually. Many other countries, including China, France, the UK and Canada have taken a similar approach.

A loan payment “holiday” will enable rental payments to be paused for four months to help businesses survive. Those property owners who rely on the income from non-bonded properties should give rental reductions or extensions wherever possible, and government should encourage them to do so.

Small businesses would get immediate relief if the VAT threshold is raised from R1 million to R2 million. And any VAT refunds owed to small businesses should be repaid immediately.

Government has already adopted one of our proposals, which is to allow businesses to skip Unemployment Insurance Fund payments for the coming months and expand UIF coverage to better protect affected workers.

This should be extended to pause payments to the Worker’s Compensation Fund too, without affecting worker’s cover under the fund. Payments could be recovered when the economy bounces back.

Local governments that can must be encouraged to offer rate payment holidays over the next few months. Employers of domestic workers must be encouraged to continue paying their staff through these months if possible, even if they prefer staff to stay at home or if staff require more sick leave than is due to them.

Had government saved for a rainy day, this would have been the time to undertake massive government spending of the sort being undertaken now in the US and UK, where 12% and 15% of GDP respectively has been allocated for relief.

But as our economy is already in a debt trap, government has very little room for fiscal manoeuvre. Furthermore, we can expect tax revenues and growth to decline still further in the coming months. This makes a comprehensive economic support package of the sort outlined above all the more urgent.

As a country, we need to pull together to assist all households to weather this storm. Unrecoverable economic collapse is in no one’s best interest.

STRAIGHT TALK: Key to managing Coronavirus is to slow its spread

Coronavirus has become a pandemic. Although it is still developing rapidly, there is already a lot South Africa can learn from other country experience – China, Italy, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and others – to reduce its impact here in South Africa.

It is now clear that countries that anticipate the virus and act swiftly have both a lower infection rate (infections per 1000 people) and a lower fatality rate (deaths per infections).

The coronavirus (Covid-19 virus) hits a country gradually and then suddenly because it grows exponentially unless checked. The number of actual cases of infection will be much higher than the number of officially reported cases because of the lag in time it takes for symptoms to appear.

The key to limiting damage is to slow the spread of the disease as much as possible. Even if the same number of people are ultimately infected, it is vastly preferable for the virus to spread slower. This reduces pressure on our healthcare system, enabling it to handle cases much better, which in turn drives down the fatality rate.

The more we postpone cases, the better healthcare those infected will get, the lower the mortality rate, and the higher the share of the population that will be vaccinated before it gets infected.

The most simple and effective measure we can take now is social distancing: keeping people home as much as possible for as long as possible until the virus recedes. The less social interaction there is, the slower the virus will spread.

This virus can be spread within two metres if someone coughs. It survives for hours or days on surfaces, so frequently touched things such as doorknobs can spread the infection to our hands, which then gets into our systems when we touch our nose, eyes or mouth.

The only two options for South Africa are containment and mitigation. Containment is making sure all cases are identified, controlled and isolated. Singapore and Taiwan have done this very well. They quickly limited people coming in, identified the sick and isolated them.

Once there are hundreds or thousands of cases, containment isn’t enough, and the next level is mitigation requiring heavy social distancing. Italy left it too late and now the entire country is in lockdown. The country has moved to close all non-crucial commercial activity, with only transportation, pharmacies and groceries to remain open.

At first glance there appears to be a trade-off to acting now, while there are so few confirmed cases in SA. People will be asking themselves if the socio-economic cost of social distancing now (working from home, cancelling large events) is worth the reduced health risks.

But both the health and socio-economic costs of waiting until the infection has spread more widely will be far higher, as supply chains are disrupted and vulnerable businesses are pushed closer to bankruptcy during a major lockdown.

So, the time to take social distancing and other preventative measures (covering your mouth when you cough, staying at home if you have a fever, washing hands frequently, avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands) is now, even as government does what it can to contain the spread of the virus.

Those countries which have acted early and swiftly to contain and mitigate have reduced the number of deaths by ten times.

In SA, there is a fairness issue to consider. Coronavirus will hit wealthier people first, as they’re the ones who can travel to places like Italy, UK, China and bring it back here. But it will hit poorer people hardest, as they have less access to quality healthcare, and less financial buffer if this virus results in job losses, which is highly likely.

The urban poor will find it harder to slow the spread, living in densely populated townships and using public transport. So, there is a moral obligation on wealthier people to take precautions, particularly social distancing, now to slow the spread of the virus.

In addition, our healthcare system needs manpower and money, so that it is best able to treat those who do become infected.

This virus highlights the importance of building a capable state. A capable state is a resilient state, with the ability to manage disasters and recover quickly. South Africa is vulnerable now, because of our largely dysfunctional public healthcare system and our growing debt problem. Living prudently and saving for a rainy day applies as much to a country as it does to a family.

The DA is committed to building a capable state. Our universal healthcare plan, Sizani, would be faster and more effective than NHI at extending healthcare to all in SA. This week, our Fiscal Responsibility Bill was published in the Government Gazette for public comment. It will be tabled next week. If passed, it will help reduce our national debt and the associated debt service costs.

As a country, we need to be sure that we have enough money ongoing to spend on essential services such as health. And we need to build buffer into our system, so that we can cope with unexpected challenges. More than anything, building a capable state means employing people who are qualified to get the job done. As with tackling Coronavirus, the sooner, the better.