It’s time for a ‘Smart’ Lockdown

NEWS Phillip Dexter 12 May 2020

A smart lockdown must be targeted to protect the elderly and those with health conditions that put them at higher risk. It should also be focused on geographical areas or hotspots where the virus is uncontained.

There can be no doubt that South Africa, led by President Ramaphosa and his government, has made a decisive, timely and effective intervention with respect to the Covid-19 challenge. Whatever the dissatisfaction we may feel individually about the banned consumption of our favourite food, alcohol and cigarettes, none of us can honestly take issue with the comprehensive strategy the government has deployed up until now.  It has created an essential social awareness of the grave nature of the crisis we face. It has begun to change our behaviour and, hopefully, bought the time the health system needed to prepare to deal with the effects of the pandemic.

But there is also no contradicting the fact that the lockdown levels of 5 and 4 are hurting the economy and small businesses in particular, and even more severely, workers and the poor. There is no doubt that social distancing and sanitising must be a priority going forward (it should always have been that way, in any case) but the restrictions on enterprises and work must be lifted as a matter of urgency.

However, this should not be for the reasons given by DA leader, John Steenhuisen – that of responding to the anger of the mob, or the fear-mongering about alleged threats to our democracy. Or out of concern for the poor, which the rich and privileged have suddenly acquired. Restrictions must be lifted because we as a nation are ready to face this challenge.

Having said that, some of the regulations don’t make sense. Others seem arbitrary, capricious and just plain silly. The government may well know better, but if it does not explain itself, it runs the risk of alienating its citizens. Some examples include:

  • Banning the sale of cigarettes and alcohol. Prohibition never works. These are freely available, tax-free, on the illegal market. Lift the ban but impose heavy sentences for things like public drunkenness.
  • Allowing some shops to open, but limiting what they can sell, for example, summer clothes.
  • Allowing the sale but not the collection of takeaway food. This adds to the number of people handling the food.
  • Allowing as much trade as possible but ensuring heavy penalties for those who ignore physical distancing regulations.
  • Limiting exercise time, thus leading to crowding. There should be separate categories such as individuals, parents with children and pensioners getting different time slots to exercise outside.
  • Allowing cycling but not activities like golf and surfing where participants are naturally distanced.

Unless the government explains the logic behind such regulations, people will lose patience and challenge these.

The fact that so many of the rules are arbitrary, for example, allowing people to buy shoes but not flip-flops, or allowing pet grooming but not people grooming, means that they are being questioned on the grounds of fairness.

Why should some economic activities be regarded as essential and not others? The cigarette and alcohol ban is also questionable. No other country has implemented it. The arguments in favour – a reduction in violence or road accidents – cannot be proven scientifically. The fact remains that people are buying cigarettes and alcohol regardless of the ban. All that happens now is that the government loses out on tax revenue.

A more serious challenge is to stop the police and soldiers from abusing, assaulting and even killing citizens who break the lockdown laws. It is striking to see their new-found enthusiasm for checking vehicles and stopping people from shopping or working – an enthusiasm that lacked when it came to serious criminal offences prior to the lockdown.


The lockdown is a blunt instrument. We cannot continue to operate in a manner that does not more accurately assess and mitigate the risks of the pandemic.


Prior to the pandemic, our economy was weak, unstable and in perpetual crisis. This state of affairs, left to us by colonialism and apartheid, is reproduced by the skewed political economy of our post-colonial society. The debate about the reasons for this can and must continue. But there can be no disagreement that we had dire levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment, as well as crime and violence, prior to Covid-19. Also, our skills levels remain woefully inadequate.

The conditions for enterprises to be established and succeed are, frankly put, virtually insurmountable. Our services – health, education, housing, water, transport, electricity, – are shockingly poor. Covid-19 has provided a lens through which all can view this, regardless of their ideology.

The lockdown is a blunt instrument. We cannot continue to operate in a manner that does not more accurately assess and mitigate the risks of the pandemic.

Globally and increasingly locally, we have seen that Covid-19 does not affect everyone in the same way. The elderly, those with existing illnesses and those who live in congested areas are more vulnerable than the young, healthy and wealthy. The poor, as usual, are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. This is not to suggest that those more fortunate can be reckless, but clearly, the ‘one size fits all’ response to the virus we have had until now cannot be the way forward.

In any case, the future is and has always been uncertain. Covid-19 and other as yet undetected or future viruses are going to be a continued feature of our existence, just as they always have been.

We cannot deal with all of these viruses by locking down the economy. By the same token, while we fight Covid-19, we must agree that other communicable diseases and social crises must also be addressed. All conditions – Covid-19, tuberculosis, malnutrition, malaria, ebola – must be fought against in equal measure.

But the answer to these challenges is not to shut down the economy. It is to create the social conditions in which we can best ensure safe, peaceful, content people, families and communities. We must do this not as a response to those complaining that denying us cigarettes, golf or alcohol is a violation of our rights. In a society where the majority are denied the right to be able to afford food, shelter, clothing, education and many other essential goods and services, such calls are selfish and vulgar.

If some cannot see that the small sacrifices we have been asked to make in recent times are but a drop in the ocean compared to those that black people, workers, women, the poor, the disabled and the unemployed have been forced to make, for the duration of their lives, because of the effects of slavery, colonialism, apartheid and capitalism, then such elements arguably do not themselves deserve the rights we have been given in our hallowed Constitution.

Alexander the Great is said to have stated: “Upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.”

There are crucial choices we must now make as a society and globally as a community. But we must do that while ensuring that we each take responsibility for the future. Solidarity is the bedrock of any coherent society.

Our up till now ‘new’ South Africa has been premised on a fake solidarity. It is one that relies on the reverence of a great leader in the form of Nelson Mandela, adherence to a flag, two national anthems taped together and a few good sports teams. This solidarity ignores, makes little of or claims as insurmountable, the plight of the majority of our people. We cannot continue this way. It is this myth that allows the continued racism, super-exploitation, wastefulness and callousness that re-creates the modern hell that most South Africans live in. We have a chance to build a real new South Africa, but that starts with the social compact on the new economy. That is, the new deal on the sharing of the wealth of that economy.

The new economy must ensure that, among other things, we ensure a safe and healthy environment for all people regardless of age, gender, skin colour, religion, sexuality or any other difference. Our individual safety is a function of our collective well-being. For that to be a reality, we need to ensure that everybody has the basics for their own survival and well-being, including habitat, nutrition, mobility, development and opportunity.

We must consolidate the positive effects of the lockdown – greater social awareness and real solidarity, as well as a cleaner and greener environment. We must ensure that we have the industrial, technological and commercial capacity to compete in the global economy and provide for all our people. That new economy must allow a permanent ‘smart’ lockdown, or there may well be no economy at all. A ‘smart’ lockdown is one where we allow this new economic activity, but we ensure a safe environment by ensuring physical distancing, protecting the vulnerable and developing immunity or a vaccine.

Crucially, a ‘smart’ lockdown means ensuring that going forward, we transform our environment at home, at work and at play. A ‘smart’ lockdown must be targeted to protect the elderly, those with health conditions that put them at higher risk and on geographical areas or hotspots where the virus has reached proportions that mean it cannot be contained.

The new normal is the ‘smart’ lockdown. Whether in our homes, schools, workplaces, restaurants, bars, sports facilities, movie theatres – we must observe physical distancing. We must also, always and everywhere, screen and test people and track and trace those infected. In short, in place of levels 4, 3 and 2, we need a Level 1 that ensures safety, not stupidity; physical distance, not social indifference; and sustainability, not suffering. To this end, the government must create the environment for business, labour and our communities by:

  • Establishing places of safety and care for the most vulnerable – the elderly and those with underlying conditions that make them more susceptible to illness or death – to isolate them in a comfortable manner and provide the care and support they need while the virus remains uncontained.
  • We need people to go back to school and work safely and we need a basic income for all who are not working. All places of education and all workplaces must be required to provide a plan to ensure a safe environment for students, workers, residents and customers. Masks and sanitiser must be distributed for free at all such places. The capacity for the government at a local, provincial and national level to inspect and, where necessary, close institutions down, must be put in place.
  • We need better communication, education and social mobilisation around the virus. To this end, we must introduce technology that enables this, and government must improve its communication strategy.
  • We need mass screening and testing programmes and we need laboratories, clinics and hospitals that will help and treat those affected. Field versions of all of these are available.
  • We need a social compact that will transform our society and end the poverty, inequality, unemployment and under-development that makes us so vulnerable as a society to Covid-19 and similar challenges.

How do we pay for all of this? A special Covid-19 tax for the duration of the crisis must be levied. The funds we need should be raised through increasing VAT, PAYE and company tax until the pandemic is contained and defeated.

Most people would agree that if the choice is to stay locked down and lose your income or go to work but pay higher taxes to defeat the pandemic, the only choice is the latter. Going forward, the social compact will require a material contribution from all to effect the transformation our society must undergo.

Most importantly, we need the government to trust us, its citizens, to do the right thing. We cannot continue to live under a regime of petty regulations that have no material benefit in terms of defeating the pandemic.

The government must enforce physical distancing and good hygiene practices by winning the support of its citizens – not through the use of force by the police and army. DM

Dr Phillip Dexter is the Chief Operating Officer of NIH. He writes in his personal capacity.