The Growing Pettiness of South Africa’s Covid-19 Lockdown

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South Africans can’t ride bicycles, go for jogs or buy cosmetics, magazines, clothing or cooked food at supermarkets. Alcohol and cigarettes are banned, and a diabetic man was recently fined for going to the local pharmacy to collect life-saving medication. Is South Africa’s lockdown departing from its original intention as a crucial defense against Covid-19 towards a show of bureaucratic clout by civil servants on power trips?

On 27 March 2020, South Africa began its 21-day lockdown in the wake of Covid-19. The initial end date, 16 April, came and went after the government extended the lockdown by a further two weeks. By that time, the nation had begun to get antsy.

The first Covid-19 case in South Africa was reported on March 5th. By March 24th, when President Cyril Ramaphosa made the lockdown announcement, there were over 500 confirmed cases countrywide. The announcement, widely praised as a display of exemplary crisis-time leadership, was a swift and steadfast response to the growing threat of Covid-19 in the world’s most unequal society. But now, over a month into the lockdown, the particulars of Ramaphosa’s appropriately stringent response to an impending public health crisis are now being called into question.

As the public deplore the blanket ban on vices and outdoor exercise and trade associations clash with the state over its nebulous communications, some question the dogmatism of Ramaphosa’s government in enforcing the restrictions in recent weeks. In short, there’s simply not enough clarity around many of the rules South Africans are expected to follow.

South Africa’s lockdown was a justified and appropriate response to the Covid-19 threat. South Africa has a large immuno-compromised population as a result of HIV/AIDS, with 7.7 million people living with the virus countrywide. Respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis are also prevalent and South Africa’s severely overburdened and under-resourced healthcare system can scarcely cope with the existing burden of disease extraneous to Covid-19. These major public health risk factors present the ideal conditions for a novel pathogen to proliferate in a country where millions do not have the immunological resources to fight it and whose hospitals do not have the resources to treat it. The virus is both indiscriminate and unwavering, and South Africa has responded accordingly. Authoritarian leadership may be effective in times of emergency or disaster, yet it seems that some of South Africa’s Covid-19 measures haven’t been well-thought-out. Let’s take the contentious alcohol ban, for starters (incidentally, this has sparked a maverick home-brewing movement — but that’s for another article).

Once the initial furor died down, the rationale behind the ban soon emerged: by restricting access to booze, there’d be fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions such as assault, alcohol poisoning and road accidents related to drink-driving. With hospitals already under severe pressure, staving off non-Covid-19 cases would free up desperately needed health resources when the virus began to gain traction.

As a health professional who has worked in many of South Africa’s overburdened public hospitals, I completely support the rationale behind the alcohol ban (for a very honest, first-hand perspective on this, read this Facebook post from a South African medical intern). And so did the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance in South Africa (SAAPA SA), a major stakeholder in alcohol-related policy-making. In an article for The Daily Maverick, the Alliance’s director expressed his initial support for the ban while simultaneously noting that government officials were not doing enough to i) communicate specific public health justifications for the alcohol ban, and ii) address health-related consequences of the ban, such as gender-based violence(there has been a surge in GBV-related complaints since start of lockdown compared to previous weeks), and alcohol dependency.

The prohibition has also spurred political action. The Gauteng Liquor Forum — an organisation representing 20 000 taverns and shebeens (informal liquor establishments in townships) in South Africa’s most populous province, Gauteng — requested Ramaphosa relax the alcohol ban. When the President wouldn’t budge on the matter, the Forum threatened to approach the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, if he did not respond in due course. The same is happening on the cigarette front. Tobacco sales were banned along with booze at the start, prompting contemplated legal action from another group.

For alcohol and cigarette interest groups alike, the grievance is clear: the government has not provided clear or satisfactory explanations for the prohibition of the sale and transportation of these goods. While I personally don’t contend the alcohol ban, the cigarette equivalent seems arbitrary at best. The Disaster Management Act, the piece of legislation under which South Africa’s prohibition-style lockdown was enforced, entitles the state to limit booze sales, but says nothing of tobacco. There’s simply no official justification for it.

A prime example of the economic consequences of a waffling Covid-19 government is the issue of wine exports. Wine is South Africa’s second-largest agricultural crop, while the wine-making industry employs nearly 300 000 people. For the first nine days of lockdown, wine exports were allowed under a special exemption. Then officials changed their tune. Their reason: criminality in the form of “burglaries and theft of alcohol from closed outlets”. There was no further explanation, and certainly none related to public health concerns.

Reading around the statement, it seems that, in light of several liquor store looting incidents during the lockdown, there are fears about criminals targeting wine-in-transit. Still, does the fear of relatively isolated incidents of criminality justify the R200-million that wine exporters are now losing weekly as a result of an amendment that’s been described as having come “bolt out of the blue”?

Alcohol and cigarettes aren’t the only consumables on South Africa’s list of lockdown contraband. Three weeks in, the Trade and Industry Minister stated that supermarkets were prohibited from selling cooked foods from deli counters. On an ordinary day, thousands of workers rely on cooked foods sold at South Africa’s supermarkets. This includes essential workers who now can’t get a quick pie or plate of fries from the local hot food counter during their lunch hours. Because takeaway outlets and restaurants were forced to close at the start of the lockdown, supermarkets as well as home-based food delivery services were required to follow suit by not selling prepared food in the interest of fairness. There is no public health-related explanation for this.

My initial reaction was to give the authorities the benefit of the doubt: that serving cooked food is a transmission risk and had to be curbed in the interest of public health. But, as with many of the other measures, the only explanation officials could muster up was that cooked food is non-essential. They are totally stuck on this terminology, the proverbial essential versus non-essential binary. In fact, it seems that the government did not consider that banning restaurants from operating but still allowing supermarkets to sell cooked food was unfair until after the fact and scrambled to correct this discrepancy last minute. In order not to have to admit the blunder, the knee-jerk ‘non-essential’ argument prevailed.

Clothing is another commodity classified as ‘non-essential’. South Africans cannot buy so much as underwear or socks during the lockdown, even at supermarkets, whose clothing sections are now cordoned off. By making panoramic bans without due consideration of exceptions, law-makers failed to accommodate expectant mothers who did not have the means to buy infant clothing ahead of the lockdown to dress newborns due in the coming weeks. After complaints to the Constitutional Court began to mount, the government clarified that baby apparel could be sold.

On a graver note, brutality against civilians seen to be flouting lockdown law is a far more sinister side-effect than equivocating minsters who can’t decide what to do about rotisserie chickens. In the Alexandra township in Johannesburg, Defense Force soldiers assaulted and killed a man who was found drinking alcohol in his own backyard on Good Friday. An earlier incident in March saw police ambushing civilians wandering the streets of Hillbrow, firing rubber bullets and beating them with sjamboks (a heavy leather whip). The officers in question claimed they were acting on orders from “the top”.

As police and politicians fixate on minutiae, growing food insecurity, increased gender-based and intimate partner violence, and deepening economic hardship threaten the already-fragile social fabric of the world’s most unequal country. The examples I’ve given demonstrate evidence of the inconsistent and fair-weather policy-making that underlies South Africa’s Covid-19 response. The lockdown, while appropriately heavy-handed in combating the viral threat, provides an opportunistic window for the rogue few who think they can exploit the present public health emergency as a way to be petty, hyper-bureaucratic or, in more sinister cases, outright cruel.

There is a long road ahead of social and economic recovery for South Africa. If the state wants cooperation from its citizens during what is left of the lockdown and beyond into an uncertain future, it needs to earn their trust. That means, at the very least, a more consistent, balanced point-of-view that supports a united front against the virus and its far-reaching consequences, rather than a police state governed by semantics and petty bureaucracy.

Summary of Covid-19 restrictions in South Africa

writing person | occupational therapist | never seen a ghost. I write about food, weird histories, human behavior, and our lives under late capitalism

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