After seven weeks of lockdown living, South Africans expected President Cyril Ramaphosa to provide more clarity when he addressed the nation for the first time in 20 days on Wednesday.
The purpose of the lockdown was to “flatten the curve”, meaning to delay the spread of the coronavirus to allow time for the government to upgrade its health infrastructure, import and manufacture more ventilators, construct field hospitals and increase our supply of personal protective equipment.
According to Ramaphosa, we have done well on this score.
The lockdown comes at a great cost to our country. According to National Treasury, between three and seven million South Africans could lose their jobs due to business shutting down. The South African Revenue Service projects a R285bn loss in revenue.
But South Africans complied when Ramaphosa announced the lockdown in mid-March, to ensure our health capacity is in place when Covid-19 peaks here.
We cannot avoid the onslaught of the virus. We cannot lock ourselves up for 18 to 24 months until a vaccine may be available at clinics and pharmacies. Ramaphosa didn’t provide enough clarity what a further continuation of the lockdown would achieve.
All he said on Wednesday was that some areas in the country would probably be “downgraded” to Level 3 at the end of the month, and that Level 4 regulations on retail, e-commerce and exercising would be relaxed, without providing detail.
The test for moving down levels is the rate of infections in an area against the readiness and capacity of hospitals in the city or town. Our hospitals are relatively empty at this point in time; the president should have explained why the country needed to remain on Level 4 for more than two weeks before a downgrade is considered.
It is clear that Ramaphosa is still “consulting” (read: debating or arguing) with his colleagues in the Cabinet about who would move to Level 3 when, and what the relaxations will entail.
Ramaphosa apologised to the nation for the government’s inconsistent and contradictory actions during the lockdown. This should be welcomed, but Ramaphosa should have used the opportunity to be bolder in his announcements about what happens next.
Ramaphosa’s leadership during the crisis has been exemplary. He needs to step up now, not allow the weak leaders around him to undermine our approach and address the very real, fact-based criticism of a continued lockdown after we had flattened the curve.