[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s been an exceptionally tough year in just about every way imaginable. The COVID-19 pandemic has closed a door on the lives we led before and forced us into a new normal that we’re still just beginning to navigate. As we do so, let’s look back at some of the ways the pandemic and the resultant lockdown measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 changed South Africa – it’s not all gloom and doom.
Fewer alcohol-related deaths
The government received a lot of backlash from the people for its booze ban – not surprising, as South Africa has the highest alcohol consumption per capita in all of Africa, nearly double the continent’s average. South Africa’s drinking problem has inevitably become a burden on the healthcare system, not only because of the chronic illnesses that come with alcohol abuse, but also because when South Africans drink they also drive, causing thousands of road deaths each year. In total in South Africa, 62,300 deaths every year – predominantly low-income earners – can be attributed to alcohol abuse.
That in itself is an epidemic and it shouldn’t be so hard to understand how banning alcohol lightened at least one load that medical practitioners and trauma doctors had to deal with.
According to the New Humanitarian, South Africa’s alcohol problem was clearly exposed by the lockdown prohibition. The four-day Easter weekend, notorious for devastation on the roads, registered an 81% fall in road accident fatalities compared with last year, down from 162 deaths to 28.
Trauma unit head at the busy Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg, Dr Patricia Saffy, told 702 that they had witnessed a 60% decrease in the number of assault admissions to the unit after the overnight alcohol ban was introduced.
“We have clearly seen a decrease in the number of trauma-related incidents like assault with stabbing and assault without stabbing, as well as motor vehicle collisions,” she said. “This week we only saw 36 assaults, so there has been a massive drop. From a 100 per week to just 36 assaults. The trauma statistics have reduced tremendously due to the ban and curfew”.
After the ban was lifted at the start of June, that number shot back up to 100.
So, while there’s a lot to be said about the politics involved with the prohibition, the fact that it saved lives and eased the burden on healthcare workers (many of whom themselves are falling ill with COVID-19) is undeniable. It also highlighted the longstanding problem of alcohol abuse in South Africa which, like the pandemic, deserves drastic solutions to solve.
Decreasing gang violence
Gang violence has long plagued South Africa. According to the New Humanitarian, gang-related violence was “responsible for more than 4,000 murders in the Western Cape province alone from 2019 through to March 2020″.
During the lockdown, however, homicide rates saw a significant decrease, falling by over 70% in the first week of lockdown.
This significant improvement came in the wake of a nationwide gang cease fire, in which gang leaders encouraged their members to instead take care of their families as the pandemic raged.
“When our government announced the lockdown regulations, everyone started panicking about health but also about business prospects,” Welcome Witbooi, a former gang member who mediates between gangs, local communities and police said in an interview. “We had a meeting with the Council (A network of gang leaders across the country) and with them we decided to put out a national call to all gangs to cease fire.”
Furthermore, the lockdown interrupted the supply chain of illegal narcotics – which fuels much of the gang violence in the country –which may also have contributed to the unprecedented drop in homicides. Of course this was only temporary, and as lockdowns relaxed, the situation began to revert to its dismal pre-pandemic state.
Improved social services and safety nets
South Africa has been struggling economically for a long time, and the pandemic added a whole bunch of straw to an already rather broken camel’s back. To help cushion the economic blow, the government delivered an economic support package to the value of 10% of the GDP – a package projected to increase in the following 18 months to roughly $46 billion.
Lockdown measures aggravated the already high numbers of malnutrition and unemployment across the country, and in May, the government’s child grant scheme almost doubled to $40 per month per child as part of that support package.
Additionally, according to the New Humanitarian, “the hygiene needs laid bare by the virus have prompted a re-examination of water services for the country’s poor”. The pandemic has initiated calls for the enactment of government bills on water and sanitation, as well as plans for the development of infrastructure.
Though much of what the government has implemented to support low income families, children and the unemployed may only be temporary measures, the situation has highlighted areas which perhaps deserve more attention even as we adjust to the post-lockdown world. More will need to be done to benefit these communities in the long term.
Which brings us to our next point:
The economic devastation wrought by the pandemic and the lockdown measures that had to be implemented highlighted the fact that South Africa is in dire need of a new economic direction. COVID-19, which the United Nations called the “gravest test” to humanity since the Second World War, may yet bare some silver linings for Msanzi.
Ravi Naidoo, writing for the Daily Maverick argues that “even before COVID-19, the country was in deep trouble, having wilfully missed its chance to remake itself after the end of apartheid in 1994. COVID-19 just may offer an opportunity to make a fresh start to address the economic divide that sits at the heart of many of our ills as a nation”.
Naidoo adds that even before the lockdown started, “South Africa’s economic growth of barely 1% was among the lowest in the world, public sector salaries tripled in ten years, and government debt ballooned from 27,8% of GDP in 2008 to 62,2% in 2019“. Not to mention, the unemployment rate, which was already at 29%, was one of the highests in the world.
With all the government aid money that’s being redistributed to varying degrees of success, it’s no wonder that one more significant change has come in the form of president Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent no-nonsense approach to corruption within his government. Corruption has been a permanent feature in the South African government and in South African headlines for decades, and it may be too little too late, but it’s a step in the right direction.
It became obvious, as we began to endure increased pressure on account of the pandemic, that South Africa’s economic strategy was entirely unsustainable. This disaster has, at the very least, brought to the attention of the nation the need for reform. If we as a nation can continue to keep seeking ways to improve our economic situation after the pandemic with the same fervour we have been during the pandemic, it will prove to be one of the most valuable ways COVID-19 changed South Africa.
Jobs and lives have been lost, the economy is crumbling, and yet, there are one or two things we can be grateful for. One being that the government clearly learned a few lessons over the years.
There was a noticeable difference between the response to COVID-19 and the HIV denialism of Thabo Mbeki’s administration two decades earlier. Despite all the infighting in government, action to slow the spread of the virus was swifter than that of even some wealthy, developed countries, and for that, at the very least, the nation can be thankful.
According to the New Humanitarian, “South Africa has capitalised on a health system and network of community workers built to combat HIV and other infectious diseases. Thousands of health workers have been deployed on nationwide door-to-door screening operations, and more than 635,000 tests have been conducted – far better than most wealthier countries have managed”.
There is a lot that can be mourned when it comes to ways COVID-19 changed South Africa and the world, but occasionally, there have been silver linings – albeit small ones. More importantly though, the pandemic and the lockdown we have endured since it hit our shores have highlighted multiple facets of our government, our economy, and our habits as a nation that need to be address going forward.
Just because we’re emerging from our quarantines doesn’t mean it’s time to relax. In fact, now is when the real work needs to begin.