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  • Writer's picturegraeme


UPDATED AFTER A FEW COMMENTS CLEARLY INDICATE PEOPLE DIDN’T ACTUALLY READ THIS BEFORE THEIR REFLEXIVE RESPONSE: Neither Steven nor I are arguing to keep Lockdown in place. We are both saying that as Lockdown eases we need to all be much more vigilant and focused on stopping Covid-19.


I’ve been saying that a key aspect of Lockdown in South Africa is to give the country time to prepare the medical system to deal with a rise in infections. This is the “flattening the curve” model. Other countries (New Zealand, S Korea, Canada, Austria and Germany spring immediately to mind) have aimed to “crush the curve” instead.

Today’s reflection is a sharing of a piece by Steven Friedman that I found very thought provoking. We need to not just accept that Covid will sweep through our community and hope for the best. We need to work hard to be safe and vigilant and ensure it doesn’t.

And history tells us (and I concur with his findings on this entirely) that those cities in the past that locked down first and more rigorously also rebounded economically fastest.

That is our potential future in South Africa. But it requires us to take the disease seriously now as we move to Covid response Level 3.


Economies don’t work when many people are ill. This should be obvious, but isn’t to many people here and elsewhere.

There is now a sustained attempt to portray government measures to fight Covid-19 as irrational bullying. We are bombarded daily with tails of economic woe and demands that the government “see the light” by allowing the economy to operate as it pleases.

The pressure seems to be working.

The tales of economic pain are true, but hardly startling: it would be news if businesses were doing well now. The reports do not aim to give us news we don’t know — they are meant to make a case for resuming all economic activity as soon as possible.

Some of this pressure could risk the health of many. Opening up interprovincial travel, which is now in the pipeline after organised business demanded a shift to lockdown level 2 under which it is allowed, can transport Western Cape’s high levels of infection to much of the rest of the country. It is also based on flawed economics.

In the 1918 flu pandemic some US cities restricted their citizens earlier and longer than others. Whose economies recovered quicker? Research by three mainstream US economists finds that cities that did more to restrict activity in the main returned more quickly to economic health. They find that pandemics depress economies — measures to fight them do not.

So, the supposed choice between the economy or health is a myth. The economy is threatened by Covid-19, not by measures to fight it. This is why markets are moved by the prospect of a vaccine or cure. The economy will return to health only when the disease is under control. So, the key to economic health is the speed with which it is brought under control.

Does that mean we should all get behind the government’s current strategy? No. But we should challenge it not because it is restricting us to fight Covid-19 but because its approach means it is doing this in a way that is allowing the virus to win.

A key reason for the pressure to ease protections is that our lockdown came early, so we have been spared daily reports of mounting deaths and hospitals unable to cope. Ironically, these health measures are a victim of their early success. But the government has also made pressure more likely, and the fight against Covid-19 harder, by justifying the early lockdown not as a way of beating the virus but of “buying time” until hospitals are ready.

Other countries that locked down early did not do this to “buy time” — they did it to control the virus. Their aim was to “smash the curve”, not just flatten it. A few have succeeded. We could too if we tried.

The government’s defeatist message fuels eagerness to end restrictions — if many will get ill and die whatever we do, why suffer just to delay this? Its own modellers are telling it that the hospitals can’t cope with a severe epidemic anyway; even if they were ready, many people may die if the virus is out of control, as they have in countries whose hospitals are better equipped than ours.

It also justifies measures that scare people. Why not open schools, even if the government’s top scientific adviser says this will increase infections, if all we are trying to do is delay the disaster?

There is only one way to ensure that hospitals — and citizens — can cope: to follow the lead of countries that locked down early and to control the virus, not simply ensure that it wreaks havoc at a convenient time.

That will only happen if the voices demanding that the government beat the virus are as loud as those who want it to stop trying.

• Friedman is research professor with the humanities faculty of the University of Johannesburg.

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