Ron Derby | Are we ready to lift restrictions?

How many beds
and how many ventilators has the country managed to secure during the more than
six weeks that we’ve been under lockdown, and are they enough to match the
projected peak in Covid-19 cases in September? That’s the only question that
must be answered before any of us can move confidently into a period of reduced
restrictions in the SA economy.

The primary
purpose of the lockdown period was ultimately to buy the state and its partners
time to prepare our public health sector for the inevitable rise in coronavirus
cases. Keeping us indoors was always a temporary measure; the disease has not
vanished in the time we’ve been kept home, as is evident in the depressing rise
in case numbers daily.

Until we get
that answer, one can take no comfort in the weeks to come when the state,
forced by the reality of a weakening economy, is forced to open up more
sectors. If our health sector is not geared up for the next four months, we
have to fear the worst for the most vulnerable sectors of society not lucky
enough to have the choice of working from home. Only 30{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2}, by some estimates of
our workforce, can afford to continue working from their homes.

Faced by the
stark choice of poverty or going back to work, the majority faces the most
difficult of decisions. It’s reminiscent of tales of migrant workers of
yesteryear, who’d have to brave long distances in trains from as far afield as
Malawi, Zimbabwe and Lesotho and the hinterlands of our country for work in
gold mines in Johannesburg. They had not much of choice, face starvation in
their homelands, or wages and possible death in the deepest, most dangerous
mines in the world.

It’s a journey
most beautifully and tragically told by Hugh Masekela’s Stimela, which got me thinking
about the choices for workers then and now. Today, the majority of our households
face the same stark choices because of the ever-increasing financial pressures
to get back to work as soon as possible. Blue collar workers are justifiably
afraid of what world awaits them as they return to their stations, and we
should be most sensitive to the risks they face.

What’s been
often put out there by the most vocal proponents of a swift return is that
poverty kills, much like the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps these drums are being
banged by people surprised and now being lulled into a sense of complacency
that the country has so far managed to escape the worst ravages of the

Now I hear the
concerns, but I fret over the workers that, unlike me, can’t afford to work
from home and have to return to the real nuts and bolts of the economy in our
upcoming winter. Their choice is to either work, knowing very well there’s a
prospect of illness or death, or not to work and face certain poverty and
possible death.

That’s not
much of a free choice, now is it?

But it’s just
how our society is structured, with the vast majority having no other
alternative but to take the risk of exposure to the deadliest pandemic since
the Spanish flu through their daily travels to work in the dead of our winter
in a taxi, or if they are lucky enough, a bus. Both forms of transportation
negating the greatest defense to infection, social distancing.

It’s a sad
indictment on us as a society, perhaps, with our lack of savings and an unsecured
lending splurge that has been the cornerstone of the consumption-driven economy
that we’ve become, that serves to limit any capacity to really save. But before
I get into a long bout of navel gazing, it’s also a much bigger question about
the shape and form of global capitalism.

The US, UK and
European governments are coming under pressure to get their citizens back to
work as quickly as possible as these much richer states quite simply can’t
afford to keep their citizenry at home for much longer. Capitalism, it seems,
doesn’t come with a very warm blanket for all spheres of society.

As the
chattering classes and the biggest proponents of a swift re-opening of the
economy, we need to be sensitive to the fact that it’s the most vulnerable in
society that will be at the coalface of this disease over the coming four
months. As pressure is placed on the state to open up commerce, we must
understand what we ask of our fellow man and woman for the “greater good”.

Not all of us,
and here I include myself writing this piece in the comfort of my home, will be
asked to take that sort of gamble with my life or that of my family. What skin
in the game do any of us have with the ability to work from home when compared
with a mother or a father, who’ll have to leave their home in dead of winter in
the middle of Soweto to take an hours long trip to get to work on time in

It’s a
question that has been eating away at me as I bear witness to the economic
devastation of this virus with an economy expected to shrink as much as 17{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2},
unemployment rises by as many as seven million people and a budget deficit
rocket of an already struggling state.

These are
numbers quite simply impossible to ignore, and enough to raise anxiety levels
even among the most sanguine of us. What am I to make of an argument made by a
practicing nurse in Durban, that was recently shared with me that “… one
can always get another job, but one can’t reclaim a lost life.”

Sickness and
death are very real prospects in the coming months, but because of the economic
devastation that may follow especially if the state and its partners do not
focus their minds, jobs will not be in plentiful supply for many years to come.

The question
of the future of SA economy, and more broadly the global one in this time of
alien virus, is the most vexing question of our times. I started this piece
most uncomfortable with the rowdy calls to just open up the economy, but at the
same time understanding that our current position sends us into a much deeper
hole by the day.

At the same
time, here’s another conundrum. As the state continues to raise the curtain on
our economy, we allow workers back to work in a global economy bereft of
demand. A question for another day, perhaps.

now, my question is do we have enough beds and ventilators for winter? I’ll
hyperventilate or not thereafter.

Ron Derby is the editor of Fin24.

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