Opinionista

The politics of the pandemic and the pandemic of politics

The Covid-19 pandemic does not change the fundamental democratic requirement for citizens to closely scrutinise the quality of public decision-making. We can appreciate President Ramaphosa’s steady, comforting and empathetic addresses, be generally cooperative as citizens interested in limiting Covid-19 infections, while also critically evaluating the decisions of his (our) government.

Despite how weary we are of the lockdown, with a vaccine estimated to be a year or more away, we are only in the early stages of the pandemic. Social and economic restrictions are the new normal.

At least two major political fault lines are emerging which may define our politics during the pandemic. The first is on how to balance restrictions aimed at suppressing infection growth with enabling the economic activity on which our individual and collective livelihoods depend. The second fault line is on the political legitimacy of specific regulations versus the rights and liberties they restrict.

Like many public policy challenges, Covid-19 requires policymakers to manage trade-offs. We need to limit infections to protect lives. Limiting people’s movement reduces opportunities for growth in infections.

However, Covid-19 is not the only factor which affects people’s lives. The government’s own statistics say that half of our population is chronically poor, and another quarter of our population is threatened by poverty. Many of these people face starvation if they are not allowed to earn a living.

The government did not put in place adequate measures in the initial three-week lockdown to address food security, but responded eventually by increasing social grants among other measures to address the social impact of the lockdown. Whether these measures can be effectively implemented – by a state that struggles with service delivery under ordinary conditions – and whether they are sufficient remains to be seen. News pictures of long lines for food parcels are deeply concerning.

While food security is among the most acute socio-economic issues the government must balance, it is not the only one. The economy matters. It is not a frivolous concern only relevant to elites. Our economy – our collective prosperity and the sum total of our productive capacity – also matters. Healthy people need incomes too. Our economy was already stagnant before the pandemic, our government finances unsustainable. We urgently need to limit the economic damage caused by the pandemic or the hardship caused to individuals, businesses and society as a whole will be felt for years to come.

How our country manages economic activity during the pandemic is thus hugely important. The government has adopted a risk-adjusted strategy. While almost everyone agrees with the principle of considering infection risk as the guiding principle in allowing economic activity, it is the application that is contentious.

The government has chosen an approach based on five risk levels, with different levels of economic activity. In my view, the state has chosen an unnecessarily complex approach. One example is on manufacturing capacity, where the government says plants must operate at 25% capacity, rising to 50%. This is bureaucratic thinking which doesn’t make sense in the real world. Why does it matter what level of capacity a plant operates at? What should matter is, can the plant operate with high hygiene levels and distancing between personnel? Under the state’s logic, a heavily automated plant with employees in full PPE operating more than 2m away from each other should produce no more than half the widgets it could at full throttle.

One can also question regulations limiting online commerce, reportedly because Minister Ebrahim Patel doesn’t want e-commerce outfits to enjoy an unfair advantage over physical retailers. This is exactly the kind of ideological nonsense which is holding us back as a country. Technology is the global megatrend of the last decade and clearly an important source of economic competitiveness in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We should be encouraging new and existing technology-based businesses, but instead our minister of trade and industry wants to limit how much business they do during lockdown to avoid being “unfair”. Note the justification has little to do with limiting infections, but because of an ideological position (that the state should manage economic outcomes).

 

To be clear, the government will not win this battle. We will smoke, we will drink and in doing so we will be defiant at a time when we need to be compliant for all of our sakes.

 

These rules – and the thinking and choices that underlie them – matter. Remember, this could be the new “normal” for as long as two years. Our economy hasn’t grown for a decade because we are less productive than other developing countries. We can’t spend this time, however long it lasts, limiting economic activity unnecessarily.

The second fault line is on the limitation of rights. Let’s start with first principles. We are a liberal democracy. Our constitutional framework is based in large part on the idea that human beings have fundamental rights – to say what we want, move about, associate with whom we want – that the state must honour and protect, and certainly not limit unless it has a very good reason.

Currently, the state has a very good reason to limit our movement and association (our ability to gather with whomever we want for any lawful reason): limiting an increase of Covid-19 infections which could kill many of us and overwhelm our health system.

It is not clear that the state has a good reason for limiting certain other individual freedoms: the freedom to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol in the comfort of one’s own home, and to walk or jog outside of 6am-9am. To be clear, I don’t smoke, don’t understand smoking and hate when people smoke around me. But unless the banning of cigarettes clearly limits growth in Covid-19 infections – little evidence has been presented that it does – then the government shouldn’t be banning cigarettes, because it is an arbitrary exercise of power and I don’t want the state arbitrarily limiting my freedoms. This time it is a freedom I don’t need – the freedom to smoke cigarettes – but next time it might be a freedom I do need.

I do responsibly drink alcohol. I am alarmed by the lack of nuance our government is displaying on this issue. I get that limiting alcohol consumption reduces a range of alcohol-fuelled traumas – such as car accidents, bar fights and other violence – which fill up scarce hospital capacity now needed for Covid-19 cases. It would seem to me you get most of that through movement restrictions and the restrictions on bars and restaurants, without needing to limit people’s ability to drink in their own homes.

Like with cigarettes, alcohol also brings in the issue of prohibition, which an objective historical study of attempts by states to limit the sale of alcohol, drugs and sex will tell you doesn’t work. Like in the Prohibition-era United States, most South Africans who currently want to smoke and drink in the comfort of their homes will do so. They will buy cigarettes and alcohol illegally, depriving the government of much-needed tax revenue, with the additional negative consequences of boosting illegal enterprises and eroding the adherence to the rule of law which is core to the fabric of a strong democracy.

To be clear, the government will not win this battle. We will smoke, we will drink and in doing so we will be defiant at a time when we need to be compliant for all of our sakes.

The pandemic does not change the fundamental democratic requirement for citizens to closely scrutinise the quality of public decision-making. We can appreciate President Ramaphosa’s steady, comforting and empathetic addresses, be generally cooperative as citizens interested in limiting Covid-19 infections, while also critically evaluating the decisions of his (our) government. We need to make sure our public representatives exercise the power we have delegated to them responsibly and rationally, all the more so with emergency powers.

Politicians and bureaucrats would be wise not to let their emergency powers go their heads. It may be tempting to abuse the power to tell us what to do. If their exercise of power is not widely seen to be legitimate – a reasonable balance of public health imperatives, socioeconomic imperatives and respect for our freedoms – it will erode public compliance with pandemic management measures and the rule of law more broadly and have unintended consequences such as the growth of illicit trade. DM

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