Few years will turn out to be as filled with challenges and upheaval as 2020 has been. COVID-19 has claimed thousands of lives. The government’s chosen course to tackle the pandemic followed the path of most around the world: lockdown. The country has been in lockdown since 27 March.
As we entered 2020, the South Africa’s economic state was already perilous. The lockdown restrictions and regulations have served to expose years of misguided and immoral policies. Now, South Africa heads into 2021 with more than 11 million people unemployed, an ever-increasing debt-to-GDP ratio, and thousands of small businesses closed down.
Believing in the false dichotomy of ‘health versus economy’ lead bureaucrats and politicians to consign millions of people to grinding hunger and poverty. Further, populism and countries turning inward (blaming the pandemic on globalisation itself) are very real threats that could undermine years of increased trade and liberalisation, causing ever-higher levels of poverty in coming years.
Once a government assumes more power and control, the chances of rollback are small to non-existent. A threat – in this case COVID-19 – can serve as a pretext for government to take away freedoms for the ‘good of the people.’ While COVID-19 should be taken seriously – and it is within people’s power to take steps to protect themselves and those around them – it was simply accepted that lockdowns were the best approach to take. Debate and dissent from the accepted line has been discouraged and ridiculed. Ironically, inane regulations undermined the very goal of trying to limit the spread of the virus. Now, in December, ‘lockdown fatigue’ is high.
The South African government engaged in such measures as prohibiting the sale of certain items of clothing, banning the sale of tobacco and alcohol, and even putting a stop to e-commerce activity. Instead of isolating those who are most vulnerable to the virus and allowing most others to live their lives with the precautions they could handle best, the government decided on a blanket approach. People who live in township areas and who have to use various of public transport to get to work were forced to stay in smaller, more crowded informal settlements.
The disastrous effects of restricting economic freedom are, always and everywhere, felt most by poorer people. For those in the suburbs, the lockdown was somewhat easier to weather, with internet access and home delivery of groceries. Across the various classes, though, people suffered from job losses and the psychological harm of their daily routines being ripped away from them.
Most (if not all) governments have been selective in the amount of information they shared with citizens. At first, the Chinese government suppressed the severity of COVID-19. The US government hobbled scientists and healthcare professionals from tackling the problem. In South Africa, the government has reacted with impunity and anger when citizens questioned the regulations – the composition of the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) itself was recently rejigged, and no longer includes scientists who have criticised the government’s approach in the past.
One lesson we can take from 2020 is just how important transparency, accountability, and access to information are. Where more information flows, problems can be handled faster and more efficiently. Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 within weeks and shared it with the world. That the development of vaccines has taken so long, indicates just how restricted by government requirements and regulations, are scientists, innovators, and businesses.
Lockdowns have also exposed the hubris and folly of the central planners – of people both within and outside government who think that if the state just has enough power, it can even control and manage the workings of a virus. The most crucial lesson of this year should be that people act in wildly different and unexpected ways, and respond to interventions in ways that officials could never even imagine. To presume that the state should intervene in people’s lives (never mind ignoring that interventions often have unexpected negative effects) has been incredibly destructive. Indeed, usually when politicians try to improve things, they inevitably make people’s lives more difficult.
By virtually every metric, people’s lives have improved exponentially over the last 100 years, around the world. Progress – the result of adopting the rule of law, of protecting property rights, of embracing economic freedom – is now taken for granted. 2020 has shown us that, if the threat is perceived to be dire enough, economic freedoms and civil liberties will be thrown out the window – to truly devastating effect. Earlier this year the World Bank predicted that the number of people in extreme poverty could increase by up to 150 million by 2021, while the United Nations placed the figure between 240 million to 490 million this year. The real improvement of people’s lives should never be assumed as a given. Only with the right conditions will we continue to make progress.
Perhaps the most concerning lesson from this year was just how many people supported the increase of wide-ranging government powers. Fear is one of most corrosive anti-freedom forces; and people will look for ‘strong,’ ‘action-focused’ leaders to keep them safe from threats both real and imagined. It is almost unbelievably easy to undermine hard-won freedoms; and it takes a long time to get them back (if at all this can happen).
Without voluntary trade, and mutual respect between people – underpinned by free markets and property rights – our modern standard of living would not be possible. There where reason is applied and respected, where freer markets are encouraged and the reach of the state is pared back, people flourish. Taking the wider context of millennia of human existence, freedom should be considered both very simple, and simply magical. Liberty is moral, and liberty works. There will always be countless justifications given by the state for restricting liberty – but the default burden of proof must always be on the shoulders of those who seek to restrict. The importance and knowledge of freedom should be protected and advanced at every opportunity.