This is not the new normal

We are in the eye of the COVID-19 storm – when will we turn the corner?

Aug 12, 2020

6 minutes

We are in the eye of the COVID-19 storm – when will we turn the corner?

The fast view:

  • South Africa’s high COVID-19 infection rate seems to be a function of high density, low income living, and secondly, high tourist and local traveller numbers.
  • The combination of denying people their freedoms, and on an unprecedented scale, their livelihoods, means people are angry – and understandably so.
  • It’s not just South Africans who are cross with their government. Across the world, people are angry with their leaders.
  • What is important to remember, however, is that this is not the new normal. This is the “eye of the storm”. It was never going to be easy.
  • As winter starts to lift and summer returns to our shores, our numbers should start improving. Hopefully then we can lift more of the restrictions and start on our long road to recovery.

We surrendered our freedoms willingly, and waited.

No one ever said it would be easy when our turn came. Remember how we looked on in horror as first China, then Italy were locked down, followed by most of Europe? How we pitied Britain, a country with a population more or less the same as ours, but with rocketing infection numbers and similarly exorbitant deaths? For once, just once, could we possibly come off better? Yes, the experts suggested – emerging markets (and by definition SA as well) are younger, warmer and fortuitously vaccinated against TB.

Then we too were locked down. It made sense and seemed to be “global best practice”, although our rules did appear to be stricter than everyone else. But never mind, we told ourselves, we’ve got a government “following science”, so we all behaved…more or less. We were told we’d peak in August/September, but back in March, that was way too far away to worry about. So, we surrendered our freedoms willingly, and waited.

But that was then and this is now. Five months later and we’re still locked down. How did this last so long, and how on earth did we wind up with the fifth highest numbers on the planet? Apparently, it’s a function of two things: firstly, high density, low income living, which makes it impossible to social distance, and secondly, high tourist and local traveller numbers. Brazil and India have the same problem, but it also explains why our infection rate is so much higher than other African countries – we are more of a tourist hotspot.

With numbers rocketing, tighter restrictions were inevitable, and to an extent understandable. I’m not going to join the chorus against the ban on alcohol and cigarettes, except to say that anecdotally I’m told that most people, like with electricity, have simply gone off the grid. The problem is, the purchasing of contraband is very efficient, and often apparently delivered directly to your house. Therefore, the chances of getting them back on the grid (and paying “sin taxes”) one day is going to be hard.

The combination of denying people their freedoms, their addictions and on an unprecedented scale, their livelihoods, means people are angry – and understandably so.

How on earth did we wind up with the fifth highest numbers on the planet?

President Cyril Ramaphosa is shouldering most of the blame. Not a day goes by, I’m sure, that he doesn’t regret having not stayed in business. This virus must be every politician’s worst nightmare, because nobody knows where on earth it’s going. “Crossing the river by feeling the stones,” is how he puts it. But it’s not just South Africans who are cross with their government. Boris Johnson is being held responsible for the UK’s exaggerated death numbers by not locking down earlier, and Donald Trump is probably going to lose the US presidency over it. Across the world, people are angry with their leaders.  Remarkably, Ramaphosa’s popularity remains relatively high.

Of course, mistakes have been made. Many. We, like the rest of the world, are feeling our way. We really should just follow the science, and global best practice. We’re not in this alone – it’s clear what works and what doesn’t. Every time we deviate from the science and global best practice, things tend to get messy.

What is important to remember, however, is that this is not the new normal. This is the “eye of the storm”. It was never going to be easy. In fact, we are lucky in that it looks like our numbers are turning out to be better than even the most optimistic models were predicting. Some provinces, like the Western Cape, appear to have peaked already, and the numbers are starting to decline.

What is important to remember is that this is not the new normal.

As angry as people are with the president, Peter Bruce put it beautifully in “Business Day” last month when he said that South Africans should pray the president remains safe from COVID-19. And he’s right. Who for instance would take over as interim president until the party congress in 2022? His replacement – think DD Mabuza, Nkosazana Zuma or Ace Magashule – might make us dream of a Ramaphosa presidency.

So, hang in there. This too will pass. By the end of September, according to the scientists, we are predicted to be through the worst. As winter starts to lift and summer returns to our shores, our numbers should start improving. Hopefully then we can lift more of the restrictions and start on our long road to recovery.

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Authored by

Jeremy Gardiner

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