Wisdom and agility must be our watchwords in charting the best way through Covid hell

05 July 2020 - 00:00 By KHUSELA DIKO
Deputy Minister of Social Development Ms Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu in partnership with the United Nations family conducted a full assessment of a care home to ensure compliance with regulations and health protocols.
Deputy Minister of Social Development Ms Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu in partnership with the United Nations family conducted a full assessment of a care home to ensure compliance with regulations and health protocols.
Image: Gallo Images/Alet Pretorius

The Covid-19 global pandemic is like no other challenge the world has faced in the past century. Managing it requires a willingness to embrace uncertainty and complexity, and a refusal to succumb to easy conclusions.

It is, to say the least, a difficult time to be in government anywhere in the world. The pandemic has provoked multiple crises, all intersecting and interrelated, which are evolving on a daily basis.

The best parallel we have is from 1918, more than 100 years ago, when a similar pandemic tore through an otherwise very different world.

This doesn't mean that we are flying blind. An extraordinary amount of data and evidence has been marshalled during the past five months, and we have the benefit of both the great depth of expertise in our own country and the knowledge we have gained from others' experiences.

As time goes on, more gaps in our knowledge are being filled, and conjecture is becoming evidence. In the past week, for instance, two important studies have started to measure the impact of national lockdowns in Europe and elsewhere, finding that these steps "have had a large effect on reducing transmission".

But it would be foolish to argue that there is any settled truth about how best to navigate this crisis. As many countries begin to gradually lift their lockdowns, for example, some have experienced a surprising slowdown in infections while others have witnessed a second wave. The reasons remain ambiguous and tentative.

The debate in SA has nevertheless been characterised, in many instances, by overconfidence and a false sense of certainty on all sides. Complexity offers fertile soil for misinformation, and for opportunism.

During the past few weeks, many called for an abrupt and complete end to the lockdown. "The damage to the economy has been too great," they argued. "If some people must die, let them die."

Few would have used these words exactly. But this was a common sentiment expressed in response to the frustration and hardship caused by the national lockdown.

The debate surrounding any country's response to the pandemic suffers from a structural problem: it is easier to advance some arguments when you do not need to act upon them, and when you know that you will never be accountable for the consequences.

It is easier to conclude that the lockdown should have ended weeks ago if you are not the one to sign that proclamation. Similarly, it is easier to call for the national lockdown to be reimposed if you do not have to inflict that economic damage yourself.

Leadership during a crisis means absorbing the risk of acting under conditions of uncertainty. Indeed, that is what each of us relies upon in our leaders - that they should act on our behalf, with our best interests at heart, and take that burden off our shoulders. This is the fundamental purpose of good leadership.

Those countries that have fared worst during this crisis have had leaders who acted on the basis of false confidence, on gut feeling, or in whichever way they believed would be most popular at the time.

The logic of the virus is brutal, and has little regard for folk intuition or popular opinion. It may be popular to open the economy when deaths are low, but the virus responds to a more basic biological imperative. It may be easy to dismiss the pandemic as "little more than the flu", but this belief will not reduce the case mortality rate.

The stakes are too high to project a false sense of confidence, or to take the opportunity to score political points. The stakes, in this case, are real people's lives - all of our lives, and the lives of those we love.

Not everyone will agree with all of the regulations that were passed during the lockdown. But SA's response has been guided by a consistent deference to scientific evidence - even as unanimity or consensus among scientists is impossible.

We are acutely aware of the weaknesses and frailties of the state. Yet tens of thousands of public servants have worked 16-hour days to pull off extraordinary feats on limited resources and, however imperfect these efforts, our country has achieved incredible progress in only a few weeks - and thousands of lives have been saved. As in every country, there have been strengths and weaknesses in our response.

The stakes are too high to project a false sense of confidence, or to take the opportunity to score political points

This kind of nuance is more important than ever. We all have a responsibility, as we collectively navigate uncharted and dangerous waters, to keep our own certainties, new and old, firmly in check. We have a duty to balance many different simultaneous truths, and many areas of ambiguity, in our minds at once.

As we become used to level 3 regulations, nobody will be completely happy with the government's strategy. At level 3, most economic activity has resumed but significant restrictions on movement and gatherings remain. Strict limits on the number of people allowed in any store, salon or school are in place. Some have called for a complete end to restrictions, while others have called for the hard lockdown to remain in place. Instead, we are continuing to strike a fine balance.

If the path is uncertain, the objective is clear. As a recent piece in The Guardian captured it: "The true metric of success in a pandemic is simple: the overall number of deaths prevented."

Although cases are increasing, we are far readier now than we were two months ago. It is up to all South Africans to take the basic precautions that will protect these gains.

There is no perfection here. There is no sure path to success. Distrust any politician who tries to convince you otherwise, or who seeks to downplay the threat to your life to suit their own agenda.

President Ramaphosa has often quoted the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping: "We must cross the river by feeling the stones."

That wisdom has never been more relevant than it is now.

Diko is presidential spokesperson


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