Swathes of regulations are currently in force in South Africa, ranging from enforcing quarantines to stifle the spread of COVID-19, to trying the age-old practice of attempting to prohibit alcohol, all in the name of a national lockdown. Welcome to 2020. It is not so different from 1920.
This article is not going to make any claims about the epidemic or virus itself: I’m not so brave that I want to be jailed for spreading “fake news” about the virus. This article will only respond to two things: the government’s response to this pandemic, and the people’s response to these measures.
But first, some context. Not for the pandemic. Unless you’re an archaeologist unveiling this piece a thousand years from now, you should know what’s happening to the world. The context needed is about my intellectual journey with the pandemic.
I had been following the coronavirus before the majority of average joes. It wasn’t new to me. My friend group and I were criticising the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) manipulation of its stats long before anyone in the West was freaking out about it. Back then, I considered it the same as swine flu and Ebola. Concerning, but I’ve lived through so many scary pandemics, I’ll live through this one.
Then things got a little more serious. The death toll started rising. It started spreading outside of China. And people were panic-buying toilet paper. I went from viewing these hoarders scathingly, to wondering if they had a point, to freaking out myself about this pandemic.
Then the South African government started responding to the pandemic. At first, I got caught in with the need for stringent regulations. To enforce social isolation. My libertarian ethic was put to the test. Because if individuals don’t do what’s right, then perhaps we need to force them?
Then the lockdown came. And I reasoned through what it entailed. And I peered through the halls of history, and I saw the road that we had travelled down before. A road that may very well be worse than a pandemic.
The need for a lockdown
Quarantine is needed to stifle the spread of this disease. That much has been proven by not only experts, but study into previous pandemics. Going as far back as the Black Death, the societies that performed well were either naturally isolated or enforced forms of quarantine (sometimes followed by burning the quarantined alive). The Cape Town bubonic plague outbreak of 1901 was solved through quarantine (called “segregation” by morons).
Quarantine is important. And perhaps there is room to encourage it through a lockdown.
But the form of said lockdown matters. It matters a lot. Because more than COVID-19 can kill us. Starvation kills. Domestic abuse kills. Poverty kills. And more than that, it crushes. It crushes the soul of societies. I can already see the crushing of the spirit of this country, as too many people can’t see where their next pay cheque will come from. Or even if there will be an economy left to spend that pay cheque.
Business rescue and economic relief is all well and good. The promise of it has fooled some people. But while I hate to be the bearer of bad news – actually, I don’t; it’s my job – this government has failed at rescuing this economy and country at every turn. Why will it start now?
The truth of the matter is that it doesn’t matter if we need lockdown, or if it is the most effective tool to halt this epidemic. The fact of the matter is that this government has proven itself, through decades of corruption and bad governance, topped by the ludicrous decisions made in the current crisis, that it is incapable of enforcing an effective lockdown.
With our current government, the cure will be worse than the disease.
Lockdown: A road to serfdom
There is nothing as permanent as a temporary government program. And one thing is clear, the state has learned how easy it is to control the population when it uses fear. This isn’t conspiracy talk. Governments have been governing with fear for time immemorial. And often they don’t even do it consciously. A fearful man does stupid things, and a fearful mob, even more so.
We are ruled by a fearful mob that at the best of times was unable to implement anything truly effective. Ramaphosa, the apparent saviour of this country, oversaw decades of our country being looted, his comrades ruining our institutions, and economic policies that strangle our society. To top it all off, his leadership in practice has been ineffectual. His claim to fame is that he jogged in Sea Point and all the middle-class white women love him for it.
But what has Ramaphosa done to solve this pandemic?
He has restricted us to our homes but drawn up an arbitrary list of “essential” services to stay open – completely ignoring that the essentiality of a business is decided by the market, not by central planners.
He has prohibited alcohol sales, continuing the trend that we’re living in the 1920s, and ignoring that not only does alcohol not actually advance the virus, the denial of society’s favourite pastime will cause unrest.
He has flip-flopped on allowing dogs to be walked and then restricted them to be trapped in their homes, ignoring that dog walking is solitary and probably one of the safest things to do to avoid contagion.
He has undermined the rule of law, effectively instituting a state of emergency without declaring it.
And the scariest thing of all: he has brought a murderous and incompetent police force, backed up by an armed forces that is notorious for its high percentage of HIV-positive servicemen (a high-risk category for COVID-19).
I do not feel safe with the streets being dominated by law enforcement who don’t know how to load their guns, at best, and at worst are in bed with organised crime. I feel even less safe with the streets being patrolled by trigger-happy soldiers who lose their guns to knife-wielding muggers.
And now they are going to be arresting dog walkers, when they’ve failed to curb real crime in this country for decades.
But most of all: I don’t feel safe giving the state the power to arbitrarily decide how it should control its population. From the unnecessary and puritanical prohibition of alcohol, to the hostile and indecent tone that police minister Bheki Cele communicates with the populace he is meant to protect…
Yet, people welcome this…
It seems all we had to do to resurrect the Soviet Union and make it acceptable, was to cough. Many people are lauding the response by Ramaphosa and his cabinet. They look on like zombies, thoughtlessly welcoming any response to this super-scary pandemic.
People are too concerned with finding someone to put hope in that they picked a thoughtless yes-man who is leader of a party of criminals.
And I won’t comment on the severity of this pandemic. That isn’t my expertise or my place. But I can comment on the role of government. And history, recent and otherwise, has told me that we are making a mistake.
This government has failed substantively in easier times. It will fail again. And with its harsh, arbitrary and downright stupid response to this pandemic, people will die. From poverty wrought from the shutting down of the economy, from trigger-happy soldiers and cops, and from the inevitable mismanagement of the system as a whole.
I wouldn’t trust this government to store sand in a desert. Much less to handle something as complex and as important as a pandemic.
So, what should we have done?
I don’t know! I’m not a prophet. And I’m not an expert on infectious diseases. But I do know government. And I know this government. And I know that it won’t save us. Far from it.
We shouldn’t be accepting the arbitrary whims of a party that loves to toy with puritanical ideas like prohibition, and archaic ideas like central planning. We should be looking at the countries that have done well through methods that our government can actually implement without slipping down the road to serfdom.
Rather than blanket suffocating the economy and treating citizens like convicts, we should be emulating South Korea, which through a data-driven approach has been outpacing the rest of the world in its handling of this pandemic, without sacrificing freedom.
And don’t tell me that “we’re not South Korea”. Yeah, we aren’t. Because we keep saying we can’t be. We should be emulating success stories, not decrying them because we are incompetent. Fake it till you make it.
But alas, our government would rather implement its dream of a totalitarian society than learn from the best.
What happens next?
This lockdown won’t last the 21 days initially planned. Either the state will flip-flop to avoid unrest, or it will come crumbling down.
The economy will be irreparably damaged by mismanagement and central planning.
And we will be coming out of this pandemic way worse than we were coming into it. And with fewer freedoms.
After that? That’s up to us. Freedom is easy to take away and hard to win back. But we have to win it back. And I hope that the obsession with weak strongmen and idiotic planners is done by then, so we as a country can take our freedom back and hold those who bungled this entire thing up responsible.