The cost of disconnection and the price of fear

14 April 2020


Dear Mr President,

This is my third letter to you. I will just think aloud in this letter. Because chances that you, or any person in authority, will read it is probably close to zero. This is ironically also in a sense what this letter encapsulates. You have lost touch with what is happening on the ground. Even though this letter, like the previous two, is emailed to you and all your lieutenants,  the letter probably won’t reach you, just as the feeling of millions of empty stomachs won’t reach you either, nor will you feel the desperation of millions who voted for you. But I have to write this letter to you.

I have always respected you as an honourable person and leader who has the interest of the country largely at heart. I have certainly not always agreed with your decisions, but that is normal and I also knew and appreciated that there were lots of factors, issues and influences that I had no proper knowledge of. Problem is, your declaration of this archaic and inhumane lock down and especially your extension, has changed everything for me, and probably also for your voters who are not sitting pretty in secure government jobs with fat pay cheques every month. 

Last night I watched the presentation of mainly your health minister and prof Karim on TV. It certainly promoted respect for these two persons. Prof Karim certainly came forth as a very knowledgeable professional who is very much on top of this Covid-19 crisis, interpreting the figures with intelligence and also wisdom. But his recommendation that should the figures be above 90 new cases per day for the next few days, which it is now, then the lock down should be extended, speaks of a disconnection with what is happening on the ground. Yes sure, that may technically be the thing to do to flatten the so called curve. 

Problem is Mr President, we have only deferred the curve by shutting this country down when we should have advised people to live on the bare minimum and try to keep some money back for a possible worst case scenario. From government’s side we could do all we have done now ito preparing health services etc for a surge in sick people. Just as perspective I add here that according to the latest SA statistics on average 54 people die per day of influenza and pneumonia. Today, 14 April 27 people in total have died with Covid-19. How many of them might have died from flu anyway? But we have shut down the whole economy for this! Yes of course the numbers will increase, but that will happen anyway. We should have kept our recourses in reserve to flatten the curve, not to defer it. 

(Note for perspective: those people dying actually say for example from flu as they would likely have done before, but now being Covid-19 positive, are now all recorded as dying from Covid-19, not with it. On the other hand, not one person dying with/from AIDS, are recorded as such, but from flu or whatever the condition might have been. This is an interesting inconsistency and food for thought as the policies applied are totally opposite. It is as if the policy is to dramatise the effect and numbers of Covid-19 to the maximum and downplay HIV/AIDS to the minimum.)

Prof Karim has said himself that we will not be able to escape this virus, that when we lift the lock down, the numbers will increase again. We can thus lock ourselves down, but we cannot lock ourselves out. We will some time or another have to face this virus with a practical, livable and sustainable strategy. As I predicted (and we are not even at the end of the first three week period), we are seeing the first demonstrations of hungry and desperate people. 

Locking down the economy has been a very very expensive mistake, extending it was a fatal one. We desperately needed wages to be earned while our numbers were down. The “luxury” of a lock down was to be kept as an absolute emergency measure. 

Townships, where most of our people reside, cannot be locked down in practical or effective terms anyway. People living in townships are generally of a younger age looking for jobs in the cities and are thus at lower risk of showing serious symptoms than the older generation who tend to live more in their traditional rural areas.

It is my opinion that we could get around 80 or 90% of the efficiency of the current lock down ito slowing down the transfer rate of infection by imposing carefully considered laws ito economic and social cost vs benefits.

Africa and also South Africa’s population is much younger than that of Europe. Our children and working people under 60 comprise 90% of our population. Applying current available statistics regarding death rates for the different age groups with (from leaves a lot open to guesswork, though all reports are reported from) Covid-19, the likely deaths from this group amounts to a quarter of the total probable deaths. Why on earth then are we shutting down the whole economy, which is an unsustainable strategy anyway if we could focus our protection efforts on the elderly rather and keep those supporting them earning an income?

This brings me to another matter. Those in power and making the decisions are generally of an age group who are most at risk. I say no more as I do not like the implications of this and thus do not wish to speculate on this. I am not of a cynical or even skeptical mind and inclined to always see the best in others. It is  worth mentioning though as their decisions are plainly incomprehensible in the light of the obvious consequences.

Which brings me to the cost of disconnection and the price of fear. Fear causes one to act irrationally.  An initial knee jerk reaction instituting a lock down with the kind of archaic irrational laws could possibly be understood and excused as an initial measure to limit a possible and unknown catastrophe, but then maintaining it and even extending it! This does not only point to fear but also to disconnection, disconnection to ordinary people, especially to the people who make up the largest portion of the population. Indications and estimates point to about three million jobs lost as a direct consequence of the lock down and particularly its extension. Mr president, do you have any idea what this spells for this country? How can one ever justify making a decision that have this type of implication. How many deaths of elderly people does one need to defer in order to justify and balance the unspeakable hardship that your decision is bringing to so many people? I cannot even imagine that anyone sitting on millions, having a secure income each month (taking note of your one third sacrifice in salary, thank you) can be so removed from his people as to make a decision with these ramifications. No one except you and your high ranking government officials protected by security guards  will be safe anymore, as good citizens turn to criminal behaviour and criminals having a field day as law and order breaks down totally.

Do not for a minute tell me that you thought the UIF would put food on the table for the jobless masses. Government departments are notorious for their inefficiency and slow service. Applications made in January have met with no response, irrespective of the amount of follow ups. It will take a very long time for all the applications to be processed. And what about the massive informal sector? What is your response to a foodless person because of your shut down Mr President? Just be patient for a few weeks, or months, or years?

I once read: “If an honest man realises he is being taken, he will either cease being taken, or he will cease being honest”.

Because the hardship and hunger cannot be readily measured, it disappears on the political score board. It simply does not count, or it is a vague factor that may be considered.  Currently, it is like you have agreed to a deal to torture 90% of the population unnecessarily in order to buy a bit of time for some of the sick and elderly. I beg of you, for the sake of the lesser privileged, to let compassion for the masses and the overall good of everyone, start directing your decisions. Yes Mr President, every life is sacred for me too, but so is the gift and quality of living also. If we take the lid off the economy and focus our energy on the sick and elderly I think we can protect them much better than currently. 

Death is part of life and of course inevitable for each and everyone of us. We should not allow fear of death to make life unbearable and even unlivable for the rest. Over the last years the emphasis on global safety and security has increased more and more. “Safety first” has become a global slogan. I want to put a plea out there, a plea for “LIFE FIRST”. We have become so conscious of risks that we have compromised and throttled the quality of our lives more and more. We cannot allow ourselves to sacrifice the gift and wonder of life at the altar of deferring death at all cost. Death holds the power of being a recordable statistic. This gives it a supreme status above a compromised life quality, because the latter is much harder or not possible to quantify. Additionally, statistics about people dying from hunger or living under the breadline has lost its impact as it has become part of the “normal”. Death statistics are used by and against politicians, so this is what their focus is on. Government should realise that this is only one piece of a very much bigger puzzle. Last year 5000 kids died in SA of malnutrition, 5 million globally.  So I ask, is the death of a person with (not necessarily from) Covid-19 a more special death, worth many other “normal” deaths, like from hunger of malnutrition, deaths we have become used to? Does it score more points on the political scoreboard because the Covid-19 is where all the focus and media coverage is currently? Do you have any idea what these figures of people dying from malnutrition will become under the current scenario? And let us not also fall here in the trap referred to above of only talking about deaths instead of lives. The slogan has already started in the townships; “Covid will not kill us, hunger will.” 

I urge you once again to show strong leadership by not following the herd and just doing what most other countries did, by acknowledging that this action is inhumane and not cost effective for South Africa.  Other countries with stronger economies have generally a much lighter form of a lock down with the emphasis on maintaining as much economic activity as possible and making it as least unpleasant for its citizens. SA, who can afford it the least, has the hardest lock down with many malicious rules having no positive purpose at all.

Again my suggested action in broad terms:

– Lift this irrational, draconian and inhumane lock down immediately, while you still have the time. The choice is yours, either you lift them or the people will do it for you. No army or police force will be able to prevent it. The price will be total and irreversible chaos.

– You have had many submissions and inputs regarding selective and cost effective measures to balance restraining the spread of the virus and the economic and socio-economic measures. Implement them. Again I say we can have 90% effect with 10% cost.

– Emphasize social distancing, good personal hygiene etc. Ironically the poverty, malnutrition and stress your indiscriminate lock down is causing makes for compromised immune systems and poor health which of course is a fertile ground for the virus. 

– Abolish BEE, restrictive labour legislation and other draconian bureaucracy and red tape in order to help the economy get going. Our situation is critical and cannot afford these cumbersome and outdated ideologies anymore.

One cannot negotiate one’s way out of the consequences of bad choices one makes. The current strategy of lock down could only be justified if we could contain and eradicate this virus within a few weeks. It is commonly accepted that this is not possible. Thus, the longer we keep the spread of this virus at an unrealistic low level, the longer it will be with us before we reach “herd immunity”.  Some or other time we will have to face the bull and take it by the horns. The complete and archaic lock down was a bad choice for South Africa Mr president.

Please Mr President, do not let ego of maintaining the course of an earlier decision stand in your way of saving our country. We are on a knife edge and our time is very very little. We do not have 14 days, we do not have a week, we have NO time. Act now!

I thank you.

Simon van Deventer

3 Replies to “The cost of disconnection and the price of fear”

  1. Very eloquently put Simon. I am in the UK at the moment (hoping to be able to get back to SA soon) and can allready see the effect that lockdown has here, in a country with vastly superior resources at their disposal. With what SA has got, and the fact that a lock down is simply impossible to achieve in SA with the number and density of residents in townships, I fear greatly for the impact and aftermath on SA.

  2. Sadly he is a weak man our President! And the mainstream South African flock follow like sheep!! It’s easier than to think for themselves!

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