The rumour mill is speculating over a possible extension of
the lockdown beyond 21 days – and it’s just that, speculation, of course. But no
one can deny there is merit in having the discussion.

More so, following almost two weeks of an imperfect
lockdown, during which many have been arrested or abused by members of the
security forces for venturing out of their homes for reasons that did not
comply with government’s approved list of reasons to leave home.

There are strong arguments to justify a continued lockdown,
just as there is a growing list of arguments to lift it, but those are two
extremes.

A more practical solution might be somewhere along the
continuum between the two – a staggered restart of SA’s economic engines, with
terms and conditions.

A recent predictive modelling research study released by the
Boston Consulting Group, which leveraged John Hopkins University data, attempts
to study the patterns and predict Covid-19’s growth curves in different
countries around the world.

For South Africa, it predicts a growth curve that will peak
around the first week of June. On the basis of this, the study recommends a
possible lifting of the lockdown between the last week of June and end of
August.

Lessons learned

We would be foolish to take no lessons from the first week
of the ongoing lockdown. We have seen attitudinal challenges to the lockdown on
one hand and, on the other hand, structural and systemic ones.

The first group of challenges is has been dealt with swiftly
and sharply thus far, for instance, by taking punitive steps when the law is
broken.

The second group, however, cannot be wished away by
unleashing the wrath of our security forces onto poor South Africans whose very
existence gets threatened by the harsh conditions of the lockdown.

We have an opportunity – but very little time – to take structural
and systemic challenges into account and to propose a more humane lockdown
without placing people’s lives in danger.

South Africa may not be Malawi or the DRC, but it is also
not France, the UK, Hong Kong, Italy, or any number of other places around the
world where a blanket lockdown with the same conditions for all can be imposed
throughout and adhered to by most citizens.

Furthermore, we must be mindful of the ravages that a
continued lockdown would have on our already weak and fast weakening economy –
because of the lasting effects of state capture and other forms of corruption;
the recent relegation of our sovereign credit rating to junk status; a fast
plummeting/deteriorating value of the Rand; and the downward revision by the SA
Reserve Bank of our economic growth projections.

The route we must chart, going forward, must aim at
preventing the further spread of Covid-19 and flattening its growth path sooner
than predicted by the Boston Consulting Group study on one hand; and, on the
other hand, restarting the engines of our economy. It must be a fine balancing
act, no doubt, but one that we may just pull off if we come up with a plan that
will get all South Africans to play their part, with no group given any reason
to suspect injustice.

A staggered restart, a customised lockdown

Given our hugely diverse communities and human settlement
types across the country, there is an opportunity for authorities to consider
the structural and systemic reasons that have made it harder for South Africans
living in poorer communities to adhere to the existing lockdown conditions than
those who live in middle-class suburbia and other areas where shared living
spaces are abundant.

A one-size-fits-all lockdown is not practical for people
living in shacks, with many sharing their living spaces with family members
spanning, in some cases, up to three generations. Many have expressed a desire
to adhere to the lockdown conditions because they understand the reasons for
doing so, but they simply can’t. The conditions for lockdown – and its execution
by security forces – must take this into account.

In addition to all of this, government should continue doing
what it has done well since the start of this journey we’re on, i.e. give
regular updates of the steps being taken by authorities to combat the pandemic;
ongoing, multilingual, advice on what people should do to remain safe by
protecting themselves and others from preventable exposure to Covid-19, as well
as steps that must be taken by people who have been exposed to Covid-19 and are
showing symptoms of the virus.

To limit economic damage as well as social impact, there is the
opportunity for a staggered return to business activity, which must take into
account the circumstances of those whose need is urgent. In addition to the
already “essential” services of public transport, medical services,
security and food retailing businesses, properly registered traders of other
required goods and services – particularly food, in areas of easy access by
people living in rural areas, townships and informal settlements – could be
considered.

Some of these suggestions may seem hard to implement. But
there must be a compromise between continuing with the battle to defeat the
spread of the coronavirus, while also allowing the South African economic
machinery to restart in a controlled, staggered manner.

If lockdown is extended as is, we risk social unrest and the
chance of emerging on the other end of this dark tunnel with the economy lying
flat – and a government lacking the resources to support increasing numbers of poor
and middle-class South Africans whose livelihoods have been battered by the
battle against Covid-19. South Africa needs all the resources it can muster.

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.

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