South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown: cigarettes and outdoor exercise could ease the tension

There is no documented health benefit that warrants banning cigarette sales for 21 days.
Getty Images

Benjamin T H Smart, University of Johannesburg and Alex Broadbent, University of Johannesburg

What do South Africa, China, Germany, the UK and the US have in common? That each differs from the other. Ample empirical evidence shows that economic and health measures that work sometimes, in some places, don’t always work everywhere.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has been praised for being decisive in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak. We agree with this positive view. Ramaphosa has demonstrated a quality of leadership matched by disappointingly few leaders globally. But we fear that some of the recently implemented policies are not best for the South African context. South Africa could be charting its own course, for the benefit of the nation and continent.

As matters stand, the South African lockdown emulates and, in some respects, surpasses restrictions elsewhere. Some of the restrictions are gratuitous, impractical or harmful.

What is the lockdown in South Africa?

South African lockdown restrictions are among the most extreme globally. South Africans may not leave their homes except to procure essential goods and services. This excludes the purchase of cigarettes and alcohol. It also excludes outdoor exercise.

For those living in freestanding properties in the suburbs, and enjoying an uninterrupted salary from a large company or institution, the lockdown is a little like a spiritual retreat. They can stay at home and drink coffee in their pyjamas on the deck without even a passing car to disturb them.

But most South Africans do not live like this. Even wealthy South Africans often live in complexes or estates without access to non-communal outside space. And many more live in crowded accommodation, whether in poor urban areas, formerly wealthy suburbs, central business districts, or well-spaced rural dwellings that are nonetheless occupied by many people.

It is one thing to stay in a suburban house, with a nice garden for fresh air and sunshine. It is another to spend the day in a small shack with 10 other people, especially when only “an estimated 46.3% of households had access to piped water in their dwellings in 2018”.

Domestic violence, rape and child abuse are serious problems in South Africa. Most of these crimes are committed by people close to the victim. The lockdown measures are likely to place stress on abusers and make it hard for the abused to escape.

It is no surprise that the lockdown restrictions are already being widely violated. This is not about disobedience: it is about the difficulty of complying. If you have to leave your dwelling merely to answer a call of nature, then you are not in a meaningful lockdown.

And even with army support, policing will be extraordinarily difficult. Communities would need to fall into line of their own volition, and their circumstances make it hard for them to do so.

Cigarettes as essential goods

Nicotine withdrawal causes bad temper, frustration, agitation, anxiety and mood swings. The damaging health effects of smoking are well established, but although early stages of lung-recovery are visible a full month after one stops smoking, there is no evidence suggesting that COVID-19 symptoms are alleviated by 21 days of abstinence.

There is no documented COVID-19 health benefit within a 21-day window to warrant prohibiting the sale of cigarettes. But there is a considerable short-term risk to the mental wellbeing of those who use tobacco as a coping mechanism.

This restriction on civil liberties causes misery for no public health benefit and may increase the risk of domestic violence as people suffer withdrawal in confined and stressful circumstances.

The prohibition of alcohol makes more sense. But behavioural factors must be considered, including the incentive to stockpile and the criminal opportunity for bootlegging. Restricting alcohol purchase prior to the lockdown might have made sense. That window has closed.

At this stage the case for putting alcohol on the list of essential goods is weak. The case for including cigarettes, however, is strong.

Outdoor exercise is essential

“No jogging. No dog walking. Stay inside.” That is the message from the government. This is a public health problem of note: exercise, even a small amount of it, is essential to stay healthy, especially for the elderly, and thus many of those most at risk from COVID-19.

Exercise, including mild exercise such as going for a walk, appears to alleviate or prevent depression.

It is easy to write off the value of mental wellbeing at a time when serious physical disease threatens. But this is a mistake.

Mental illness has physical consequences for the sufferer and those around them and can make life seem not worth living.

When defining “essential goods and services”, we must ask “essential for what?” There is much that is not strictly essential to our survival that nonetheless, we value greatly. We may even value some of these things above survival, such as the wellbeing of our children.

The current usage of the word “essential” imposes a value judgement. It makes the avoidance of COVID-19 infection the paramount goal. It implicitly places less value on mental health and even physical health where that is independent of COVID-19.

Is a lockdown right in South Africa?

Context matters. Whether the lockdown works depends on the context in which it is done. The lockdown is worthwhile if it prolongs life for a significant number of people. But some of the measures in South Africa have no health benefit.

South African leaders should consider the full range of responses available to them, and assess the costs and benefits within their context. Regional quarantine arguably failed in Italy but was apparently more successful in China. South Africa was designed by the apartheid government to keep people apart.

What is to be done?

We are not advocating inaction or negligence. Reducing the rate of infection is a laudable goal. We would suggest, in particular, the addition of cigarettes to the list of basic goods, and the insertion of a right to exercise out of doors provided physical distance is maintained (along the lines of guidelines elsewhere).

More generally we suggest that, given very different conditions in relatively wealthy suburbs, inner cities, crowded low-income areas and rural areas, restrictions be considered on a provincial or local rather than a national basis.

This is in line with the successful practice in China.The Conversation

Benjamin T H Smart, Associate Professor, University of Johannesburg and Alex Broadbent, Director of the Institute for the Future of Knowledge and Professor of Philosophy, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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76 economists say the government can do more to mitigate the economic harm of COVID-19

Photo of money
Leading South African economists have written to President Ramaphosa with proposals to alleviate the economic burden of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

GroundUp:  Open letter to President Ramaphosa and the Cabinet from South African economists, economic and business analysts

Dear President Cyril Ramaphosa,

We commend you and your government for the bold and decisive public health measures that you have taken in response to the crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We welcome measures to stem the spread of the virus.

We are writing to you to suggest other measures that are urgently required to support and stabilise the economy and assist those hardest hit by the crisis. As you have noted, these public-health interventions will have significant adverse economic effects, compounding the persistence of inequalities in living conditions, wealth, income, and access to health and other services.

It is widely predicted that the virus will trigger a global recession, due to collapsing demand and the supply shocks this crisis will entail. It is estimated that South Africa’s GDP could contract by between 1.8 and 7%, with devastating impacts on jobs and livelihoods. This looming crisis requires large-scale economic interventions. For example, the United Kingdom, France and the United States have injected resources totalling 18.9%, 13.6% and 10.7% of GDP into their economies respectively. To date, the measures announced by the South African government, although welcome, do not match the scale of the challenge.

In the face of this looming crisis, we believe more significant action is required. These interventions must protect the most vulnerable.

This response is different from previous attempts to resuscitate ailing economies. We must both acknowledge that physical distancing and a lockdown will slow economic activity and that extraordinary measures are needed to cushion the resultant hardship and avoid long-term social and economic harm.

There is a significant risk that millions in poverty will fall into destitution; millions more, currently in work, will be driven into poverty and become unable to meet their basic needs; and thousands of businesses will be forced to close due to falling demand as a result of the lockdown, falling incomes and a contraction of economic activity.

The self-employed, atypically employed, informal workers, and small businesses are particularly vulnerable, but none will be exempt from its effects. Traditional social support networks will be disrupted.

The long-term impact on business capacity, and physical, financial, and human capital, could be devastating to our already ailing economy. In any already deeply unequal society, we know that the hardship will fall hardest on black people, and especially black women and children.

Economic interventions must, therefore, aim to: 1. support households and communities, 2. protect workers, 3. sustain businesses, 4. strengthen public health interventions, and 5. strengthen the economy.

While we appreciate efforts already undertaken in each of these areas, we are concerned that they are not comprehensive enough, and are not being implemented sufficiently rapidly or on a large enough scale to prevent real hardship for millions of South Africans.

While we recognise that the stringent social isolation measures are unavoidable, we need to commit as a society to ensure they do not cause unnecessary hardship to our people, and especially to the working poor and other vulnerable groups.

The following measures indicate the kinds of opportunities that are available.

Support households and communities:

  1. Income transfers to lower-income and affected households, in the form of a special COVID-19 grant, a top-up to existing grants, and/or a universal basic income grant. Creativity is needed to speed up delivery, including income transfers via digital payment mechanisms. We appreciate the practical difficulties involved.
  2. Targeted, temporary and compulsory payment holidays from municipal taxes, rent and mortgages, and other debts owed, and a ban on evictions from houses, including on farms.
  3. Undertake measures to relieve women of the burden of care, in and outside the home, for example, by the provision of childcare for essential workers and additional income support.
  4. Ensure food security and food sovereignty through a coordinated and safe roll-out of food packages in food-stressed neighbourhoods, working with community groups to build collective action and solidarity. Children require special attention.

Protect workers:

  1. Guarantee wage payments so that monthly wages of all workers are secured for the full duration of the lockdown; the expansion in UIF payments is both welcome and critical in this regard.
  2. Rigorous implementation of leave requirements so that workers are not forced to use annual leave during the furlough period, and ensuring temporary workers as sufficiently accommodated.
  3. Extend unemployment benefits to casual and informal-economy workers, including the provision of temporary unemployment payouts for lost income during periods of lockdown.
  4. Ensure additional health and safety provisions are in place for essential workers and for when workers return to work.

Sustain businesses:

  1. Significantly expand access to low-rate emergency loans, including through low-cost liquidity provision by the South African Reserve Bank. The current amount of funds available, and the voluntary nature of the “solidarity fund”, fall well short of the expected need. Moreover, there is some evidence that the solidarity fund has diverted donors from other charities that play a vital role in supporting the most vulnerable.
  2. Targeted, temporary and compulsory payment holidays from municipal taxes, rent and mortgages, and other debts owed.
  3. Other forms of targeted and temporary tax relief if low-cost loans and payment holidays are insufficient.

Strengthen public health interventions:

  1. Increase the additional resources that are being directed to the health system, including for testing, treatment, medicines, community health care, and COVID-19 scientific research.
  2. Strengthen the requirement for resources to be pooled between private and public healthcare providers, particularly for free testing and treatment of COVID affected patients.
  3. Rapidly scale up government’s attempts at the local production of critically needed health products, medicine and equipment.
  4. Scale-up efforts to ensure greater access to water and sanitation, through the provision of water access points, safe ablution facilities, and removing restrictions on homes with water meters. The provision of soap and/or sanitiser is important.
  5. Ensure free mobile data and public internet access, to keep the public informed and curb the spread of fake news.

Strengthen the economy:

  1. Monetary policy measures to guard against capital flight and manage the exchange rate, ensure access to affordable credit, and ensure sustainable government bond rates. A “helicopter drop” of funds to households – for example, R1000 for each individual for a period of four months – could complement the grants discussed above.
  2. Reviewing the current Medium-Term Expenditure Framework which requires considerable budget cuts, including in wages and healthcare.

We appreciate the Temporary Employment Relief Scheme, which aims to prevent retrenchments while maintaining standards. In the past, however, ensuring rapid and effective scaling up of the scheme has proven difficult. It is crucial that implementation is prioritised in the current crisis.

These measures will require additional government financing. We appreciate the effort to mobilise funds outside the fiscus – such as the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), Public Investment Corporation (PIC), Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF).

However, the scale of interventions required will necessitate additional fiscal and monetary expansion by the Treasury and SARB respectively, as has been the case worldwide. A concrete plan for responsibly managing this must be tabled, a number of signatories are working on proposals in this regard. In addition, we support your call for global transfers and action on the international level.

Commitment, implementation and responsiveness remain a major challenge. While swift action has been taken on health responses, economic interventions have been subject to delay, confusion and incoherence. We need to accept that as with health policy, some risks will need to be taken in this unprecedented situation.

While the Presidency must direct interventions, as far as possible the economic interventions should seek to empower communities, promote their mobilisation, and build social solidarity, as has been noted by a wide number of civil society organisations.

The Presidency must reassure the most vulnerable people and businesses that they will be protected.

This moment calls for all South Africans to contribute. We are willing to support in advancing these shared objectives. We would welcome the opportunity to put these proposals before yourself and the appropriate forums and provide additional technical support as needed.

Yours sincerely,

  1. Professor Vishnu Padayachee – Distinguished Professor and Derek Schrier and Cecily Cameron Chair in Development Economics, School of Economics and Finance, University of the Witwatersrand
  2. Dr Gilad Isaacs – Co-Director, Institute for Economic Justice and School of Economics and Finance, University of the Witwatersrand
  3. Dr Basani Baloyi – Economist, Oxfam South Africa
  4. Lumkile Mondi – Senior Lecturer, School of Economics and Finance, University of the Witwatersrand
  5. Professor Imraan Valodia – Dean of Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management, University of the Witwatersrand
  6. Professor David Everatt – Head of School, Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand
  7. Dr Pali Lehohla – Pan African Institute for Evidence and the former Statistician-General
  8. Professor Uma Kollamparambil – Head of School, School of Economics and Finance, University of the Witwatersrand
  9. Dr Grové Steyn – Director, Meridian Economics
  10. Professor Matthew Ocran – Professor and Deputy Dean, Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, University of the Western Cape
  11. Professor Pundy Pillay – Professor of Economics, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand
  12. Professor Mark Swilling – Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Development, School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch University
  13. Dr Vimal Ranchhod – Chief Research Officer, School of Economics, University of Cape Town
  14. Dr Katherine Eyal – Senior Lecturer, School of Economics, University of Cape Town
  15. Ayabonga Cawe – Managing Director, Xesibe Holdings
  16. Siviwe Mhlana – Researcher, Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit, Rhodes University
  17. Lebohang Liepollo Pheko – Managing Director, Four Rivers
  18. Dr Laura Rossouw – Senior Lecturer, School of Economics and Finance, University of the Witwatersrand
  19. Nicole Vellios – Researcher, School of Economics, University of Cape Town
  20. Lerato Nkosi – Junior Lecturer, School of Economic and Financial Sciences, University of South Africa
  21. Professor Justine Burns – Director and Associate Professor, School of Economics, University of Cape Town
  22. Dr Seeraj Mohamed – Macroeconomist
  23. Sonia Phalatse – Researcher, Institute for Economic Justice
  24. Dr Asghar Adelzadeh – Director and Chief Economic Modeler, Applied Development Research Solutions (ADRS)
  25. David Fryer – Senior Lecturer, Department of Economics and Economic History, Rhodes University, Rhodes University.
  26. Professor Samantha Ashman – Associate Professor, School of Economics, University of Johannesburg
  27. Professor Bill Freund – Visiting Professor in the School of Advanced Human Research, University of Kwazulu-Natal
  28. Phelisa Nkomo – South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID) and Black Women’s Caucus
  29. Professor Mills Soko – Professor of International Business and Strategy, Wits Business School, University of the Witwatersrand
  30. Professor Rasigan Maharajh – Chief Director, Institute for Economic Research on Innovation, Tshwane University of Technology
  31. Professor Anthony Black – School of Economics, University of Cape Town
  32. Funzani Mtembu – Investment analyst
  33. Saliem Fakir – Independent Economist
  34. Kirsten Pearson – Independent Economist
  35. Bradley Bordiss – Economist, Bordiss Properties Close Corporation
  36. Busi Sibeko – Researcher, Institute for Economic Justice
  37. Professor Jeremy Seekings – Director, Centre for Social Science Research, University of Cape Town
  38. Professor Nicoli Nattrass – Professor of Economics and Director of AIDS and Society Research Unit, Center for Social Science Research, University of Cape Town
  39. Redge Nkosi – First Source Money
  40. Michael Smith – Economist, York University
  41. Dr John Reynolds – Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit, Rhodes University
  42. Professor Ben Fine – Visiting Professor of Economics, University of the Witwatersrand, and Emeritus SOAS
  43. Carilee Osborne – Researcher, Institute for Economic Justice
  44. Neil Coleman – Co-Director, Institute for Economic Justice
  45. Lindokuhle Njozela – Lecturer, School of Economics, University of Cape Town
  46. Bandile Ngidi – Researcher, Institute for Economic Justice
  47. Dr Jeff Rudin – Political Economist, Alternative Information and Development Centre
  48. Ilan Strauss – Lecturer, Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University
  49. Dr Dick Forslund – Senior Economist, Alternative Information and Development Centre
  50. Mthokozisi Mlilo – Lecturer, School of Economics and Finance, University of Witwatersrand
  51. Dr John Khumalo – Senior Lecturer, Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand
  52. Halfdan Lynge-Mangueira – Senior Lecturer, Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand
  53. Dr Nicolas Pons-Vignon – Senior Lecturer, School of Economics and Finance, University of the Witwatersrand
  54. Professor Michael Rogan – Associate Professor in the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU), Rhodes University
  55. Cheryl-Lyn Selman – School of Economics and Finance, University of the Witwatersrand
  56. Niki Cattaneo – Senior Lecturer, Department of Economics and Economic History, Rhodes University
  57. Sibulele Nkunzi – Lecturer, School of Economics and Finance, University of the Witwatersrand
  58. David Francis – Deputy Director, Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, University of the Witwatersrand
  59. Thabo Dikobe – Lecturer, Wits Business School
  60. Ayanda Magida – Researcher, Wits Business School
  61. Gaylor Montmasson-Clair – Senior Economist, Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies
  62. Stephanie Craig – Economic Analyst
  63. Marius Oosthuizen – Programme Coordinator, Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria
  64. Professor Rod Crompton – Adjunct Professor, Wits Business School, University of the Witwatersrand
  65. Michelle Groenewald – Lecturer, School of Economic Sciences, North West University
  66. Dominic Brown – Head of Economic Justice Programme, Alternative Information Development Centre
  67. John Matisonn – Economic Analyst, Executive Director, Ideas for Africa
  68. Rubina Jogee – Lecturer, School of Economics and Finance, University of the Witwatersrand
  69. Mark Everett – Executive Manager CLEAR-AA, University of the Witwatersrand
  70. Professor Nick Binedell – Professor, Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria
  71. Dr Zavareh Rustomjee – Independent Economist
  72. Dr. Mulatu F. Zerihun – Acting Head of Department & Senior Lecturer of Economics, Department of Economics, Tshwane University of Technology
  73. Aroop Chatterjee – Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, University of Witwatersrand
  74. Kamal Ramburuth-Hurt – Rethinking Economics for Africa
  75. Munacinga Simatele – University of Fort Hare
  76. Professor Lucien van der Walt – Director, Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU), Rhodes University

This letter reached beyond the borders of those in the field of economics and support was offered by the following:

  1. Professor Stephanie Allais – Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Researching Education and Labour, School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand
  2. Professor Tshepo Madlingozi – Director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), University of the Witwatersrand
  3. Professor Jackie Dugard – Associate Professor, School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand
  4. Professor Firoz Cachalia – Adjunct Professor, School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand
  5. Professor Tracy-Lynn Humby – Professor, School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand
  6. Sonia Newton – Senior Programme Manager, Wits Business School, University of the Witwatersrand
  7. Professor Daniel Bradlow – SARChI Professor of International Development Law and African Economic Relations, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria
  8. Kemantha Govender – Communications Manager, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand
  9. Professor Jonathan Klaaren – Professor, Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), University of the Witwatersrand
  10. Professor Ruth Hall – Professor, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape
  11. Professor Salim Vally – Director, Centre for Education Rights and Transformation (CERT), University of Johannesburg
  12. Emma Hosking – Umthunzi Farming Community
  13. Professor Ben Cousins – Emeritus Professor, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape
  14. Ryan Brunette – Researcher, Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI)
  15. Professor Vishwas Satgar – Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand
  16. Sibusisiwe Ndlovu – Exams Marking Officer, Wits School of Business, University of the Witwatersrand
  17. Professor Ian Goldman – Professor, Centre for Learning on Evaluation and Results, University of the Witwatersrand
  18. Professor Emeritus Edward Webster – Professor Emeritus, Department of Sociology, University of Witwatersrand
  19. Mary Crewe – Director, Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, University of Pretoria
  20. Professor Frans Viljoen – Professor of International Human Rights Law, University of Pretoria
  21. Professor Maxi Schoeman – Head of Department, Political Sciences, University of Pretoria
  22. Professor Mashupye H Maserumule – Chair of Public Management Department, Tshwane University of Technology
  23. Caroline Skinner – Senior Researcher, the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town and Urban Policies Research Director, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
  24. Zubeida Bagus – Business Manager, Faculty of Commerce Law and Management, University of the Witwatersrand
  25. Sky Konrad, Finance Officer – CLEAR-AA, FCLM, University of the Witwatersrand
  26. Tumelo Rasebopye – Project Manager, Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, University of Pretoria.
  27. Dr Sian Butcher – Lecturer, Geography Department, University of the Witwatersrand
  28. Professor Anthoni van Nieuwkerk – Peace and Security Studies, Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand
  29. Professor Gilton Klerck – Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Rhodes University

An updated list of signatories can be found here:

To sign:

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Antisocial distancing will kill you, South Africa

People attending a Pretoria media briefing on the coronavirus flouting social distancing appeals

By John Fraser

I try not to leave the house too often, but I needed some stuff, so headed to a local mall in Pretoria East, thinking it should not be too risky now people know it is imperative to keep their distance from one another.

More fool me.

I had been shocked and scared at a media briefing last week at the SA Government’s Communications HQ in Pretoria to see journalists, cameramen and officials failing to observe basic common-sense advice to stay well apart from one another.

The tables had been laid out to keep the journalists safely apart, and the microphones (which worked some of the time, but not all of the time) were sanitised after every question, but the room became over-full.  No observance of the government’s own rules on restricting the numbers at a gathering.   At one stage, officials were asked to leave the room, and most did.   Then they slowly trickled in again.

From now on, I will follow such briefings on TV.   

Back to today’s shopping expedition.  My first brief stop was at a Spar store, which looked pretty deserted.  Even so, I was asked to wait until one customer had left before I could go in.  No bread flour on the shelves, so I bought very little, and left, having been sanitised on entry and exit.  Bloody well done, Spar – you will save lives.

Not so the Dischem pharmacy.    We were sanitised when entering and leaving, but pharmacists – yes, pharmacists – were not respecting social distancing; other staff were not, either. People thought I was somehow strange when I asked them to stop blocking the aisles so I could pass them safely.     A cesspit of infection?   Not that bad, maybe,  but disturbing nonetheless.

I called the manager, who told me he was in a meeting to work out how to tackle this.  In the meantime, though, I am terrified that the chances of infection are unacceptably high.   I left.  Shocked and surprised.

You don’t visit a chemist shop to catch a deadly disease.

On to the Checkers supermarket.  Same problem.  Staff in huddles in the store and at the checkout.   Hostile stares when I asked people to step aside so I could keep a safe distance.  It struck me that there were too many people in the store and I hope they were keeping a check on overall numbers.

Yet again, the store manager was hailed.  Less responsive this time.  He looked tired and I seemed to be an intrusion.   I won’t suggest he shrugged off my concerns.  But there was no apparent sense of urgency.   His feeling seemed to be that people had been told how to behave and that this was going to be a constant challenge.

On the plus side, there was sanitation for those entering and leaving the place and people wanting social-grant assistance were kept in a separate queue outside the store (a bit close together for my liking).

It is, of course, a massive worry that people in poorer areas of our country are not properly observing the social distancing directions, often through no fault of their own, and because these are impractical in such over-crowded communities.  The huddling which seems to be prevalent in unpoliced queues is very dangerous.

I had expected better in the leafy middle-class suburbs, though, where it is possible and relatively easy to do more to help contain the spread of the virus.

When I see affluent shoppers of all races, and store workers who are in the front line, failing to protect themselves and those around them, I am driven to despair.

Wake up, South Africa.  We are all at risk and we must all take care to protect ourselves…and others!  

This is going to get far, far worse unless and until the message can be better and more forcefully conveyed.  And followed.  Everywhere.  By everyone.

Now, more than ever, it is very wise to just stay at home.

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All world leaders face mega COVID-19 crises: how Ramaphosa is stacking up

Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, taking part at a video conference in extraordinary virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit at the Chigi Palace in Rome.
EPA/A handout photo from the Chigi Palace Press Office

Richard Calland, University of Cape Town

The COVID-19 pandemic is an extreme crisis that puts the government under severe pressure. It puts the political judgement of the president or prime minister under the most intense spotlight. Not since the height of the Cold War have the stakes been higher.

The constitutional and governance dilemmas are acute, with especially thorny dilemmas that concern the limitation of civil liberties. The judgement of political leaders will be crucial in determining how well society will cope with the pandemic and how quickly it will recover – with myriad profound social, economic, cultural and constitutional implications, and life and death consequences.

Here are six decision-making challenges that will tax the mettle of every political leader while testing constitutional and other legal boundaries in unprecedented ways.

Timing I: the initial response

The first question of timing is of a “first responder” type. Composure and clear-headedness are required in the initial diagnosis. How serious a threat is it? How imminent? How quickly will it escalate? What is the first priority action?

And even more fundamentally, at what point should the government curb freedom in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus and mitigate its impact? Already, we have seen a range of responses globally – from countries that apparently reacted too late, to those who acted relatively early.

At this stage, trust is the primary commodity. Citizens need to be convinced that their government is providing the right guidance and that the correct precautions are being put in place, proportional to the threat.

At this point, therefore, the optics can matter as much as the underlying policy substance.

It would seem that, for example, neither US President Donald Trump nor British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was sufficiently trusted nor sufficiently clear in the early phase of their responses. Their attempts to encourage self-regulation and voluntary compliance with public health measures failed. Both have had to backtrack quickly towards enforced lockdowns.

In contrast, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has succeeded in conveying a calm and measured leadership persona.

In some quarters he’s even been described hyperbolically as having become a “wartime president”. He’s also been ably supported by his health minister, Zweli Mkhize, who is rising to the occasion.

Timing II: When to enforce a “lockdown”?

This is a tricky question, particularly in constitutional democracies where interesting legal considerations come into play. At the very least, a change in the law may be required or special powers invoked.

Again, Ramaphosa was decisive in declaring a national disaster on Sunday 15 March, as a part of his initial response package.

At the time, with only 51 known cases of coronavirus infection in South Africa, it might have been regarded by some as an over-reaction.

Yet, by invoking the provisions of the Disaster Management Act the government extended its authority so that it can by regulation impose restrictions on, for example, the number of people who may gather in any one place.

Importantly, the regulations issued in terms of the declaration must comply with the provisions of the Bill of Rights. A court can declare specific regulations unconstitutional if they impose limitations on rights in a way not justified by the limitation clause.

If the initial set of rules and the call for self-restraint fails to prompt a substantial change in social behaviour sufficient to slow down the rate of increase in infections and serious illness so as to ensure that healthcare systems are not overwhelmed – the so-called “flatten the curve” strategy – the government can ramp up the restrictions and impose a “lockdown”.

Again there is a crucial judgement to be exercised: how long to wait between the two? Since Ramaphosa’s Sunday 15 March address to the nation, the number of known cases of infection has increased to over 700. The country has entered the exponential growth phase, with a sharply rising curve that falls somewhere close to the middle of the pack.

The biggest judgement of all: weighing up competing needs

Clearly, it is not too soon to be imposing more drastic restrictions on movement.

In South Africa’s case, the greatest concern is that the virus will be transmitted to densely populated working-class communities mainly through congested trains and taxis.

Hence, the need to close down the economy for all but “essential” operations and business.

And herein lies the most difficult dilemma of all: how to weigh up competing needs for public health and human security in the face of the coronavirus threat on the one hand, with the harm that will be done to the economy and to people’s livelihoods by locking down?

In the past days, the contours of a fascinating but delicate new public discourse have begun to emerge. This is the libertarian concern for freedom of the market, which has found resonance in other quarters.

Read more:
COVID-19: the cure could be worse than the disease for South Africa

Political leaders stand between the horns of this dilemma. How much weight should they attach to longer-term but potentially more devastating consequences caused by an economic depression in the face of an immediate short-term threat to public health? Are they even willing to entertain this delicate intra-generational debate, which contains deep ethical as well as complex policy considerations?

Read more:
Why a one-size-fits-all approach to COVID-19 could have lethal consequences

Which leader would be willing to adopt a policy prescription that increased risk and the number of deaths from COVID-19 in the short term in exchange for a less severe economic downturn in the longer-term?

Who should political leaders listen to?

The emerging debate about short term public health versus longer-term economic welfare raises the further question of who political leaders should listen to. Given the heavy political judgements required, can they afford to listen only to the medical experts? Or can they afford not to do so?

This, too, is a question of political judgement. Who else to bring into the decision-making war-room to help prevent groupthink? As the iconic work of Yale psychologist Irving Janis revealed when comparing the decision-making of President John F Kennedy during two crises –- the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis -– shows, tempting though it might be for a political leader to tighten the circle to his or her most trusted advisers this may well lead to “groupthink” and not carefully tested and rigorous decision-making.

Ramaphosa’s inclination has always been to “show me the evidence”. He has not departed from this approach during the current crisis, making it clear that his decision-making is based on the available science and the guidance of public health experts.

As South Africa’s creaking public health system is put under enormous pressure in the coming weeks, and the socio-economic and public order consequences of the economic shutdown bite, so his crisis management skills will be sorely tested.

Which civil liberties to limit and why?

As the pandemic crisis worsens, it is clear that the constraints on “normal” freedom will need to be increased. But which civil liberties should be constrained, and in which way and on what basis, and for how long, are all difficult questions?

For example, is it justified to suspend data protection rights to enable the government to track infected individuals or high-risk citizens via their cellphones?

Read more:
‘Track and trace’ is key to containing COVID-19: how privacy can be protected

Travel restrictions and other freedom of movement constraints raise their own problems – when, where and on whom should government imposes such restrictions? As to curbs on freedom of expression, it is clear that fake news can wreak havoc. But should it be criminalised at a time when it is also in the public interest to encourage whistleblowers to speak out from inside government, as well as a free flow of information across society?

Tempting though it may be for governments to close down information flows to contain public reaction and potential panic, transparency is key to good communication and maintaining trust.

This requires political leadership that is open and candid about the challenge and about what it is not able to do as much as what it is doing to tackle the crisis.

When is it necessary to declare a state of emergency?

A worst-case scenario includes widespread social unrest and a breakdown in public order as a result of shortages in basic necessities and a sharp increase in poverty and unemployment as a consequence of the economic shutdown.

So, lastly, it may be necessary to take the most drastic and potentially draconian legal decision: the imposition of a state of emergency.

For South Africans, this has a particularly painful resonance. Older citizens will recall the mid-1980s when the apartheid government was trying to suppress the liberation movement.

A state of emergency will have the effect of suspending much of the Bill of Rights. The decision-making vortex, already complex and fraught, will have entered a whole new terrain of crisis management which will test every sinew of Ramaphosa’s leadership skills and that will either make him or break him.

South Africa will have become another country.The Conversation

Richard Calland, Associate Professor in Public Law, University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Coronavirus: what makes some people act selfishly while others are more responsible?

SOCIAl isolation
Social isolation can be lonely

Domen Bajde, University of Southern Denmark

Many were horrified to see huge numbers of people ignoring government advice in the UK recently, enjoying a weekend in the sunshine swarming markets, city parks, national parks and beaches.

The advance of COVID-19 has triggered a broad-scale mission of “responsibilisation”. This means that political leaders, health experts and even celebrities, neighbours and loved ones have called upon us all to act responsibly in order to slow the spread of the virus, and to minimise the damaging effects of the pandemic. And while many people did follow advice and stay at home, those who did not were enough to cause alarm, and now prime minister Boris Johnson has put Britain in lockdown.

The reckless and selfish behaviour witnessed around the world from Florida to Hong Kong has drawn much ire. Why do some people dodge their responsibility in these difficult times? And should we rely on individuals making responsible choices to begin with?

I am a researcher of consumer responsibilisation, which means I study how consumers come to accept – or reject – personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions. For example, my work looks at how culturally prevalent views on, and emotional reactions to, social problems affect consumer responsibilisation – as well as how consumers can be motivated to accept responsibility. This work has inspired me to consider current developments in COVID-19 from this particular vantage point.

In Denmark, where I live, the queen delivered a heartfelt appeal to the nation, stressing that breaking the chain of infection requires that “we all behave sensibly”, and lamenting those who continue to behave irresponsibly. It was the first such crisis address since the end of the second world war. Like many others, Queen Margarethe is troubled by the reckless and inconsiderate actions of some.

Irresponsible behaviour

Partying, stock-piling essentials, panic buying and “escaping” to rural areas have all been criticised in news outlets and social media. These examples reveal some of the challenges the government has faced in making the public take responsibility. As consumers we have been told that there is no need to panic. The flow of life and the goods required to sustain it will continue pretty much undisturbed.

As responsible citizens, we have been told that our lives must change radically. To continue our old ways is to endanger ourselves and those who are vulnerable. In the wise and somewhat paradoxical words of the singer and self-styled “responsibiliser” Billie Eilish: “Don’t panic, but also don’t be stupid”.

The young people partying for spring break on the streets and beaches of Miami excelled in the “don’t panic” part, but unfortunately failed to appreciate the social distancing side of things.

The young and healthy have not appeared to be fazed by the dangers of COVID-19, which is commonly believed to threaten only the old and the frail.

To make matters worse, the likelihood that we are not so much stopping the virus, but merely slowing down its spread has acted as a disincentive, aggravated by the absence of compelling communication – until now – about the critical value of slowing the virus.

Although commonly thought of in terms of public “awareness” and dissemination of expert knowledge, responsibilisation is as much a matter of emotion, as it is a matter of reason. Emotions such as hope, shame and pride play a decisive role. Do we feel responsible? Do we feel that our actions can make a real difference? Are we ashamed when we fail to act responsibly?

It is one thing to be indifferent to statistics and expert warnings, and another to experience shaming for contributing to the suffering and death of others, as hospitals run out of beds and respirators? Personal responsibility is often based on the ability to relate emotionally to other human beings – their hopes and fears, their pain and suffering.

Collective and individual responsibility

Besides issues of empathy, when it comes to COVID-19 responsibilisation goes against the grain to a certain extent. In contrast to recent crises caused by terrorist attacks, weather events and political division, this time we are asked to stand together by standing apart. Instead being called to occupy the streets in protest, and frequent shops and pubs to support the local economy, we have been asked to stay in and to keep our distance. Acknowledging this difference might help us move forward.

Yet this sense of responsibility has not materialised in some people. In our haste to find better ways to make the public embrace its responsibilities – especially the reckless and the inconsiderate – the focus on personal responsibility and individual choice should never prevent society from taking necessary collective action. The UK government has now taken that action.

As New York Times commentator Charlie Warzel observed recently, one reason COVID-19 advice has been framed as a matter of personal choice and responsibility was to avoid the costs and duties of political and collective intervention. Political-economic research has taught us that responsibilisation entails a shifting of burden from the state and corporations to individual citizens and consumers – a shift that does not always serve the public interest.

Governments, corporations and other institutions must accept their share of responsibility too, even when this requires taking unpopular and costly measures. Clearly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has decided that decisive collective rules and interventions will be a faster and more reliable solution than the soft “nudging” of individuals to make the right choice.

Yet, as with other countries that have taken this action, further dilemmas arise as to how to ensure compliance with the new measures.

More than ever, the delicate balance between collective and individual responsibility should be at the forefront of public and academic debate.The Conversation

Domen Bajde, Professor of Consumption, Culture and Commerce, Department of Marketing & Management, University of Southern Denmark

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Beware the constitutional void during the lockdown

Our President in combat uniform

By Martin van Staden

The lockdown has begun. Only movement deemed “essential” is now allowed – a significant limitation if not a suspension of our right to freedom of movement guaranteed in section 21 of the Constitution.

This opens a can of worms that our constitutional democracy might be ill-equipped to deal with.

Imagine the following: You have been beaten senseless by people in uniforms. They did not believe you when you said you were on your way to the pharmacy to purchase medicine. Your insistence that you were acting well within the confines of the coronavirus lockdown regulations angered them. This lead to an unequivocal infringement of your right to freedom, security and bodily integrity under section 12 of the Constitution. The uniforms instruct you to go home immediately or they will arrest you.

Bloodied, you want to immediately see your family attorney, but you know that is not an essential business. This means that the attorney’s office is closed, and you are not allowed to drive there. You go home and call your attorney who is at home. Your attorney sympathises with your case but reveals that for the duration of the 21-day lockdown, attorneys can do preciously little to assist you:

The courts have significantly scaled down their operations, the attorney cannot access their offices, interns or associates, and therefore cannot print and collate all the necessary documentation in line with the requirements in the Uniform Rules of Court.

You are left without a remedy, at least until the lockdown is lifted. And this might be longer than the anticipated 21 days. If you are arrested instead, the stakes in this constitutional void increase tenfold.

None of this is to imply that law enforcers or soldiers will engage in this conduct. But the protection of our rights in the Bill of Rights exist precisely for such eventualities, no matter how unlikely or rare.

Access to justice is an entitlement that may not be extinguished in a crisis. The courts must always be open and available to South Africans to challenge violations of their liberty and of the law, particularly if the government is the accused party.

Attorneys are the first port of call in this situation. They bring access to justice and judicial oversight to life. But without being allowed to access their equipment – videoconferencing facilities, printers, and so on – or their support staff – their job has been rendered next to impossible for the duration of the lockdown.

Civil liberty groups cannot even challenge the legality of the lockdown itself. To do so, they will need to brief attorneys, who must comply with a host of formalities. They need to submit signed and commissioned affidavits, which cannot be done remotely. Clients will thus need to go to a police station to have their affidavits commissioned, after which they will need to take it to the attorney’s home where it will be scanned in terms of the CaseLines system. But many, perhaps most, attorneys do not have scanners or printers at home, particularly in rural areas.

Assuming all this can – but it cannot happen, as visiting an attorney’s home will not be considered essential in terms of the regulations – there will need to be a hearing.

The lawyers on both sides, their clients and the judge will need to tele- or videoconference one another. This requires sophisticated facilities. Those of us who use Skype regularly know that it is nowhere near reliable enough for a judicial matter. Imagine if the advocate for the applicant loses their connection to the internet; or extended load-shedding sets in?

What about indigent clients who cannot even begin to jump through all the additional hoops that might be required to access justice during this period? Legal services are already out of reach for millions.

Those who might, in theory, have access to an attorney will spend their money on food and hand sanitisers – not on copious amounts of data and airtime to maintain constant contact with their attorney. It is an untenable situation.

To their credit, the courts have issued guidelines and directives hoping to ease this process. Provision is made for digital hearings and somewhat lowered formality requirements. Exceptions for urgent applications, domestic violence and maintenance disputes have also been issued. But other, no less important cases, such as challenges to evictions (particularly during a lockdown), cannot be heard during the 21 days.

This has created a constitutional void. In effect, the prized Constitution that South Africa adopted in 1996 after years of repression, including two states of emergency in the 1980s when life, liberty, and property were routinely infringed by the government, does not apply.

Officially and on paper, the supremacy of the Constitution has gone unaffected, but if in practice we cannot set the process in motion to realise and operationalise the provisions of the Constitution, then constitutional supremacy offers cold comfort to those whose rights have been infringed.

Many of the measures that the government has instituted to curb the spread of the coronavirus and the surrounding panic are justifiable. In some ways, the South African government has outperformed its counterparts around the world.

But sections 1(c) and 2 of the Constitution declare unequivocally that the Constitution and the Rule of Law are supreme – overriding all other considerations – and that any laws or conduct that are inconsistent with it are void and unconstitutional. This constitutional supremacy requires the continued operation of the legal community: The superior and magistrates’ courts, law firms, advocates, the State Attorney’s Office, and law clinics for the disadvantaged must remain available.

It might be too late to bring about wide-ranging changes to the present lockdown. But once the lockdown ends, and when similar crises hit South Africa in the future, we need to be ready to ensure that the Constitution’s blanket of protection is not ripped from any South Africans who want to vindicate their rights.

Martin van Staden is Head of Legal (Policy and Research) at the Free Market Foundation. He is pursuing a Master of Laws degree at the University of Pretoria and is author of ‘The Constitution and the Rule of Law: An Introduction’ (2019). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Free Market Foundation.

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Our constitutional democracy should not be placed at risk by the Covid-19 lockdown

Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

26 March 2020   By GroundUp Editors

Police and soldiers will be deployed to enforce the Covid-19 lockdown. If they do so with a light touch, the lockdown is more likely to be respected.

For South Africans old enough to remember apartheid, the states of emergency of the 1980s and the pass laws, the possibility of being stopped on the streets by police officers or soldiers is a frightening prospect. This time, of course, our movements are being restricted for our own good, to fight off the Covid-19 epidemic, and we must all comply.

But, especially in a country with a history like ours, it is essential that police officers and soldiers enforce the lockdown with a gentle hand.

Remarks like those attributed to Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula on Wednesday are not reassuring. Mapisa-Nqakula reportedly said soldiers would only resort to “skop, skiet and donner when circumstances determine that”, then added: “For now, we’re a constitutional democracy…”.

Let’s hope that the “for now” was a slip of the tongue or a misquote. We are indeed a constitutional democracy and the minister, who was part of one of the teams negotiating the democratic constitution, knows this very well.

But right now we are a constitutional democracy in a state of national disaster, and all of us, except essential workers, have been instructed not to leave our homes (except to do essential things like buying food and medicine or going to the hospital).

The police and the army have been mobilised to enforce that, for the good of us all. But it is essential that Mapisa-Nqakula and police minister Bheki Cele make it very clear throughout the army and police hierarchy, that police and soldiers must show restraint. They will be dealing with many frightened and confused South Africans and they must apply the law gently and with care.

There is no need, for example, to be draconian with a spaza shop-owner selling food without the required documents, a shepherd guiding his cattle, or a person doubling up a visit to the shop with walking their dog or jogging.

In informal settlements and rural areas, people will often have to go outside to meet their basic needs, even if it is just to escape cramped quarters for a few minutes. The police and army should help, not hinder, the efforts of people to get food and water, and to use toilets and taps; and they should help government and civil society efforts to get food, water and medicines to townships. They should work with, and not against, communities.

As the Civil Society VC-19 Coalition has said, “lockdown as a public health strategy cannot work unless it is led by the provision of a good safety net of services and resources which can allow people to remain safely at home”.

As for us, we should be mindful of what the police and soldiers are tasked with doing. They are likely to be tired, anxious about their own health and that of their families, and perhaps angry that they must be exposed to risk while others are safer at home. We owe them our thanks.

More about Covid-19

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Panic buying in the wake of COVID-19 underscores inequalities in South Africa

South Africa’s Alexandra township in the foreground, where the majority live in squalor, and Sandton in the background, representing the most privileged Shutterstock

James Lappeman, University of Cape Town

Pictures of empty shelves and long queues have pervaded all forms of media in South Africa over the past few days. These scenes are not unlike those in other parts of the world as many consumers succumb to panic buying, in fear of running out of toilet paper – among other essential items.

Many authors have covered the reasons for panic buying and all behaviourists would agree that this is not a new or unexpected phenomenon. But the way it plays out in a country as economically unequal as South Africa accentuates the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Who wins and who loses from panic buying?

Of course, there is a first-mover advantage in getting to the front of the line. This behaviour is what often triggers a rush on the stores in the first place. But in a country that is not actually experiencing a famine or toilet paper shortage, the losers are those who cannot afford to stock up should the need arise.

While inequality exists everywhere, wealthier economies have a population base that is generally more capable of stocking up their homes when needed. This is also true of South African households in the upper-middle class and at the top end.

The majority of consumers in South Africa are, however, unable to fill up a trolley in the best of times, let alone to finance a serious stockpile.

South Africa by numbers

While there are different ways to segment a population of 58 million people, the UCT Liberty Institute of Strategic Marketing has used the National Income Dynamics Survey to paint a picture of the South African consumer landscape. The scope of this article does not allow a full explanation of how this segmentation was derived, but a few phenomena are notable from the graphic.

UCT Liberty Institute of Strategic Marketing

South Africa has roughly 58 million people living in 17 million households. About 1000 households are added to this number every day. South Africa has a very high number of young people – almost half of its population is under 24.

If we divide the country by household income (that is, all the earners in the household combined) as shown in the graphic, then 7 million would fall into the category of the middle class and above. That means 50 million people are living in households below the level needed to support a middle-class lifestyle. These 50 million people are likely to be using public transport and public health care and living with very little financial margin.

As one goes into the ultra-poor and survivor category, households regularly run out of food before the end of the month. A hallmark of living in this kind of household is a dependence on social grant income and a food shortage by the third week of the month. In addition, most poorer households live at least one taxi ride away from the closest supermarket and pay for extra seats on the taxi if purchasing more than a few bags of groceries. The one time of the year when stockpiling is more frequent is during the festive season (December) when carefully negotiated expenditure is made using savings from group schemes called stokvels.

When panic breaks out

Behavioural economists use many cognitive biases to explain why panic shopping occurs. Most commonly cited are phenomena like loss aversion, the bandwagon effect and probability neglect. These reactions to the initial run on essential groceries create a panic contagion that ignores logic. There is no food or toilet paper shortage and shopping is allowed to continue during this kind of state of emergency. Nonetheless, the week of 16-20 March 2020, saw a massive panic shopping spree marked by daily shortages in many categories.

Times of crisis accentuates the gap between the privileged and the rest. When the stock market dips, the wealthy have reserves to buy more shares and multiply their wealth in the long run. When a health crisis hits, the wealthy have access to medicine and private health care and can often navigate around work restrictions.

The poor, however, are not as fortunate. Even in the UK, the vulnerable are the losers as panic buying surged in early March. Workers on short term contract and freelancers globally are experiencing financial setbacks as this kind of work dries up. Germany has pledged 40 billion euros in aid to freelancers.

South Africa has freelancers in multiple industries but also the informal economy (and millions of households) hinging on micro-enterprises like street vendors, spaza shops and taverns. These enterprises (many based on commuter populations and school children as their markets) are not registered businesses and unlikely to get any financial relief from the government. This form of enterprise does not have a “work from home” option as proposed by employment experts. These features of the informal sector are the same globally.

The social media posts comparing wealthy consumers lining up outside wholesalers and the poor lining up to catch a taxi home are anecdotal, but also somewhat symbolic of the realities in South Africa. The pictures of panic buying don’t reflect the average South African. They depict the average wealthy South African.

Many in the middle class may say they too are under financial pressure. This is true. But they are still in the privileged minority.

What does this mean?

The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually pass, as have other flu pandemics in centuries gone by. The fact that we were able to monitor this one globally in real-time is a possible turning point for the way such events are handled in the future.

The exact outcome of the pandemic in terms of its duration, fatalities and impact on the South African economy will eventually unfold.

In the meantime, the country is once again faced with the reality that it has a long way to go before the edges of inequality soften and the ‘average’ household may also participate in the next spree of panic buying – whenever that may be.

Head of Projects, UCT Liberty Institute of Strategic Marketing, University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Laughter in the time of a pandemic: why South Africans are joking about coronavirus

Humour is sometimes used as a coping mechanism in tragic situations.
Getty Images

Herman Wasserman, University of Cape Town

Almost immediately after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in South Africa, the jokes started. From memes featuring prominent politicians to bad puns, from TikTok video clips to pictures of people posing with silly home-made protective gear, South Africans took to Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook to make fun of the virus.

It is not unusual for South Africans to make jokes about their many problems, from former President Jacob Zuma’s legacy of alleged grand corruption, known as state capture, to the regular power blackouts caused by ongoing crises at the national power utility Eskom. Cartoonists never seem to have a shortage of material.

Online jokes, memes and video clips are of course not peculiar to South Africa. The increased accessibility of a growing range of social media platforms and editing tools have made it possible for media users around the world to create and interact with news topics in ever more creative ways. Yet it is remarkable how, in a country like South Africa with its multitude of serious challenges, media users often take to jokes rather than despair when presented with a new problem.

Why is humour so often the first port of call when South African media users find themselves in stormy seas? There may be various socio-cultural, political and psychological reasons for this.

Socio-cultural reasons

There is an established body of academic literature about the important role of gossip, jokes, rumour and satire in African politics and societies.

In his landmark article, the historian and human rights activist Stephen Ellis described the phenomenon of “pavement radio”, or radio trottoir, that can be found across Africa. This phenomenon is underpinned by the widespread oral tradition characteristic of these societies.

Ellis defines this form of communication as

the popular and unofficial discussion of current affairs.

Unlike the press, television or radio, this

is not controlled by any identifiable individual, institution or group of people.

Pavement radio is not to be mistaken for ordinary, unverified rumours or gossip but performs a social and political function. Its subject matter is issues of public interest about which there has not been an official announcement, or where official information cannot be trusted.

Humour also helps build community. For example, popular South African tabloids have established a fiercely loyal readership with their stories of the supernatural, the silly or the absurd alongside a strong commitment to the community interest. Tabloid readers integrate their newspaper reading practices with storytelling, sharing and communal interpretation of newspaper content.

These practices illustrate how the conviviality of African societies also influences their media use. Similarly, joking about the coronavirus may be a way for people to say ‘it is all very absurd, but we’re in this together’.

Political reasons

Pavement radio thrives when the mainstream media are tightly controlled by the authorities, or where there is widespread distrust in official narratives.

South Africans enjoy a much higher degree of media freedom than they used to. But during apartheid, alternative media and underground information networks often provided more trusted channels of communication than the compliant mainstream media, or propaganda issued on the state broadcaster.

Widespread corruption in post-apartheid South Africa has not done much to improve citizens’ respect for official narratives. They know what it feels like to be lied to.

Research has shown that young South Africans, in particular, are distrustful of politicians and political institutions. And political disillusionment with the current government and feelings of frustration have also proven to be fertile ground for rumours and conspiracy theories that provide more plausible explanations of people’s current circumstances than political, economic or scientific authorities.

The “sceptical laughter” evoked by popular culture is a way of poking fun at authority, undermining the power of politicians or big corporates.

In some of the jokes about the coronavirus, it’s clear that South Africans are laughing – perhaps nervously – at the government’s promises that it has everything under control. The news that the first confirmed patient returned to South Africa from a ski holiday unleashed jokes about the racial profile of the disease. Joking about rich jetsetters becoming infected or making fun of African remedies and responses, may be a way to take the sting out of racial inequality and economic hierarchies.

Psychological reasons

Laughter and humour could be used as a coping mechanism. Media coverage of COVID-19 can stoke fear and panic through their choice of words (“killer virus”) or images (scary microscopic virus pictures, empty shelves in supermarkets). The sheer stream of reporting and the daily tally of the infected and the dead can also be overwhelming and confusing.

Given the various other risks that South Africans have to contend with on a daily basis, making jokes about this added thing to worry about may help to take the sting out of the new, unknown threat.

Several jokes on Twitter named these other threats, as a reminder that while COVID-19 is serious, the other concerns should not be lost from sight. For instance, a jibe about the coronavirus having to show its proof of residence at the port of entry hinted at the high levels of violent xenophobia in South Africa.

Humour in this context is a way of showing resilience and agency. Although some Twitter users remarked that the humorous tone might still change when the seriousness of the disease hits home, the jokes largely had an optimistic tone. As one person posted on Twitter:

We did it with Ebola, we did it with Listeriosis, we did it with Boko Haram, we definitely will did (sic) it with #CoronavirusinSA can I get an Amen!

Another was more fatalistic:

The Ronas is here to wipe us out but at least we will die laughing.

The downside

Unfortunately, the prevalence of jokes and satire can also spread misinformation, as audiences don’t always know what information to trust and what to just laugh about. Research in Africa shows very high levels of exposure to misinformation.

This is a cause for concern in the current COVID-19 epidemic.

And this is why it’s important to take popular culture seriously. If we understand how people use media in their everyday life, or how they use humour to allay their fears, it is easier to find appropriate responses to those concerns. The fight against the “infodemic” of misinformation cannot be won by only insisting on fact-checking and rational debate.

In Africa, the role of humour and jokes in everyday popular culture is deadly serious.The Conversation

Herman Wasserman, Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Some hopeful stats on endangered rhinos

Conservation efforts bring cautious hope for African rhinos – IUCN Red List

South-western Black Rhino


Gland, Switzerland, 19 March 2020 (IUCN) – The African Black Rhino remains Critically Endangered, but its population is slowly increasing as conservation efforts counter the persistent threat of poaching, according to today’s update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM.

Between 2012 and 2018, the Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis) population across Africa has grown at a modest annual rate of 2.5% from an estimated 4,845 to 5,630 animals in the wild, respectively. Population models predict a further slow increase over the next five years, according to today’s update.

The IUCN Red List now includes 116,177 species of which 31,030 are threatened with extinction.

“While Africa’s rhinos are by no means safe from extinction, the continued slow recovery of Black Rhino populations is a testament to the immense efforts made in the countries the species occurs in, and a powerful reminder to the global community that conservation works. At the same time, it is evident that there is no room for complacency as poaching and illegal trade remain acute threats,” said Dr Grethel Aguilar, Acting Director-General of IUCN. “It is essential that the ongoing anti-poaching measures and intensive, proactive population management continue, with support from national and international actors.”

“These developments for African rhinos show the changes that can be achieved through committed conservation action,” said Dr Jane Smart, Global Director of the IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group. “It is crucial that local people are increasingly involved in and benefit from conservation efforts. International, national and local actors need to work together to tackle the biodiversity crisis. It will be critical for the voices of those working in the field to protect threatened species such as African Rhinos to be amplified in the coming years as we set the conservation agenda for the next decade.”

The increase in Black Rhino numbers is mainly due to continuing law enforcement efforts and successful population management measures, including moving selected rhinos from established populations to new locations to keep populations productive and increase the species’ range. One subspecies of the Black Rhino, the South-western Black Rhino (D. b. bicornis) – previously assessed as Vulnerable – has seen sufficient population growth over the last three generations to be newly categorised as Near Threatened. The other two surviving subspecies, the South-eastern (D. b. minor) and Eastern (D. b. michaeli), both remain Critically Endangered following heavy declines between the 1970s and mid-1990s. While all three surviving subspecies are on a slow path of recovery, they remain dependent on continued conservation efforts.

Africa’s other rhino species, the more numerous White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum) continues to be categorised as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. Numbers of the Southern White Rhino (C. s. simum) subspecies declined by 15% between 2012 and 2017 from an estimated 21,300 to 18,000 animals, which largely cancelled out most of the growth in White Rhino numbers from 2007 to 2012.

This recent decline was largely due to the high levels of poaching in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, home to the world’s largest White Rhino population.

The other White Rhino subspecies, the Northern White Rhino (C. s. cottoni), remains Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct in the Wild). The White Rhino is more vulnerable to poaching as it has larger horns, and favours more open habitats so is easier to find than the black rhino.

The poaching of African rhinos to supply the illegal international rhino horn trade remains the main threat to the two species. However, the strong counter-measures taken by range states, private landowners and communities in recent years are having a positive effect: recorded poaching of African rhinos has been declining at a continental level in recent years. After a peak in 2015, when a minimum of 1,349 rhinos was found to have been poached – an average of 3.7 rhinos poached per day – poaching numbers have decreased every year since. In 2018, there was a minimum of 892 rhinos poached – approximately 2.4 African rhinos poached every day, or one every ten hours. Preliminary data for 2019 indicates poaching levels have further declined.

“With the involvement of transnational organised crime in poaching, rhino crimes are not just wildlife crimes. A number of range States are to be commended for their efforts, elevating rhino crimes to a higher level and taking a more ‘whole of government’ approach to combat the organised crime behind the poaching. If the encouraging declines in poaching can continue, this should positively impact rhino numbers. Continued expenditure and efforts will be necessary to maintain this trend,” said Dr Richard Emslie, Red List Authority Coordinator for the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group.

While conservation efforts have led to slightly lower levels of rhino poaching in recent years, the costs of keeping rhinos safe have risen greatly and live sale prices have significantly decreased over the last decade, reducing incentives for private landowners and communities to keep rhinos. With around half of White Rhinos and close to 40% of Black Rhinos now conserved on privately or community-managed land, the trend towards rhinos being increasingly viewed as costly liabilities could threaten to limit or reverse the future expansion of the species’ range and numbers.

Download photos and summary statistics here.

Supporting quotes: 

“We are pleased to have supported 65% of the species assessments in this IUCN Red List update,” said Masako Yamato, General Manager, Environmental Affairs Division of Toyota Motor Corporation. “This up-to-date information will be highly valuable to all of society for informing conservation commitments made this year as part of the Post 2020 Biodiversity Framework.”

Quotes from Red List Partners

“Even though black rhinos remain at high risk, it’s encouraging to see that their population has started to regrow,” said Dr M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International. “Now, we must double down on the critical conservation work that governments and local communities have undertaken in recent years. Together, we can stop the tragedy of wildlife poaching and bring black rhinos back from the brink of extinction.”

“Protecting the planet’s precious biodiversity has never been more important. Every day, the obstacles to saving native species from extinction and preserving ecosystems are growing,” said Sean T. O’Brien, President and CEO of Nature Serve. O’Brien continued, “We must seek out opportunities to bring together data, science, and technology to help solve one of the scariest environmental challenges of our time, the mass extinction of untold numbers of species.”

“The Missouri Botanical Garden is delighted to join the IUCN Red List Partnership, which provides an unparalleled opportunity to link our diverse conservation activities to this globally important initiative and to collaborate with other partners by conducting conservation assessments and participating in coordinated conservation actions focused specifically on endangered plants,” said Pete Lowry, Director, Africa & Madagascar Program, Missouri Botanical Garden.

“The recent Red List assessment of the status of rhinos reveals the degree to which we have had to isolate them in order to conserve them. Movement is restricted to increasingly smaller enclaves, often under near militarized conditions. We intensively manage all aspects of their biology. In our efforts to recover populations, we are still far from restoring rhinos and other species without social fragmentation. Ranging free and wide on restored entire landscapes must be our goal,” said Dr Thomas E. Lacher, Jr., Professor, Ecology and Conservation Biology, Texas A&M University.

“A key lesson of the gradually improving status of African rhinos is that conservation works. We know what needs to be done, and must expand conservation action worldwide to continue to reverse the decline to these and other threatened species,” said Dr Jon Paul Rodríguez, Chair, IUCN Species Survival Commission.

“Thanks to the immense efforts and investment made into the protection of black rhino we are now witnessing populations recover. This is a great achievement, given the scale of the challenge. However, populations remain at a fraction of their historical level. We need to continue to promote wholesale recovery across their range. This is going to require innovative approaches to growing numbers, managing habitat and engaging stakeholders. Tools such as the Rhino Impact Bond were designed to facilitate just this sort of growth,” said Dr Andrew Terry, Director of Conservation & Policy, ZSL.

For more information or interviews please contact:

Harriet Brooker, IUCN Media Relations, +44 7960 241862,
Matthias Fiechter, IUCN Media Relations, +41 79 536 0117,

Notes to editors

The IUCN Red List: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ contributes to the achievement of Target 12 of the 2011 to 2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. Target 12: By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained.

IUCN–Toyota Partnership: The five-year partnership between IUCN and Toyota Motor Corporation announced in May 2016 has been significantly increasing knowledge on the extinction risk of more than 28,000 species, including many that are key food sources for a significant portion of the global population. This partnership is driven by the Toyota Environmental Challenge 2050, which aims to reduce the negative impacts associated with automobiles to zero, whilst simultaneously making positive impacts on society.

The IUCN Red List

Global figures for the 2020-1 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species:

  • (Total threatened species = 31,030)
  • Extinct = 878
  • Extinct in the Wild = 75
  • Critically Endangered = 6,523
  • Endangered = 11,067
  • Vulnerable = 13,440
  • Near Threatened = 6,976
  • Lower Risk/conservation dependent = 190 (this is an old category that is gradually being phased out of The IUCN Red List)
  • Least Concern = 59,874
  • Data Deficient = 17,154

The figures presented above are only for those species that have been assessed for The IUCN Red List to date. Although not all of the world’s species have been assessed, The IUCN Red List provides a useful snapshot of what is happening to species today and highlights the urgent need for conservation action. Relative percentages for threatened species cannot be provided for many taxonomic groups on The IUCN Red List because they have not been comprehensively assessed. For many of these groups, assessment efforts have focused on threatened species; therefore, the percentage of threatened species for these groups would be heavily biased.

For those groups that have been comprehensively assessed, the percentage of threatened species can be calculated, but the actual number of threatened species is often uncertain because it is not known whether Data Deficient (DD) species are actually threatened or not. Therefore, the percentages presented above provide the best estimate of extinction risk for those groups that have been comprehensively assessed (excluding Extinct species), based on the assumption that Data Deficient species are equally threatened as data sufficient species. In other words, this is a mid-point figure within a range from x% threatened species (if all DD species are not threatened) to y% threatened species (if all DD species are threatened). Available evidence indicates that this is the best estimate.

The IUCN Red List threat categories are as follows, in descending order of threat:

  • Extinct or Extinct in the Wild
  • Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable: species threatened with global extinction.
  • Near Threatened: species close to the threatened thresholds or that would be threatened without ongoing conservation measures.
  • Least Concern: species evaluated with a lower risk of extinction.
  • Data Deficient: no assessment because of insufficient data.
  • Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct): this is not a new IUCN Red List Category, but is a flag developed to identify those Critically Endangered species that are in all probability already extinct but for which confirmation is required; for example, through more extensive surveys being carried out and failing to find any individuals

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