From hero to villain: Cyril Ramaphosa between a rock and a hard place on extended lockdown call

By Mike Cohen and Loni Prinsloo

(Bloomberg) – After initially being lauded for his decisive response to the coronavirus crisis, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been forced onto the defensive over his administration’s handling of one of the world’s most severe lockdowns.

Some of the most stinging criticism came from Glenda Gray, a member of a panel that’s advising the government on the pandemic, who said plans for a phased exit from the lockdown were nonsensical. Limits on when people may exercise, bans on sales of tobacco and summer clothing, and continued school closures also weren’t based on scientific evidence, Gray, the chairwoman of the South African Medical Research Council, said in an interview with News24, a Cape Town-based website.

Several other top scientists, along with business and civil-rights groups, have also questioned the rationality of some of the rules. The main opposition Democratic Alliance has filed a lawsuit aimed at having legislation that underpins them declared unconstitutional.

“We will continue to welcome different, even dissenting, viewpoints around our national coronavirus response. All viewpoints aid us and help us to work better and smarter,” Ramaphosa said on Monday in his weekly newsletter. “We have consistently maintained that we rely on scientific, economic and empirical data when it comes to making decisions and formulating regulations.”

The lockdown was initially imposed on March 27, just three weeks after the first case was detected in the country, with only grocers and providers of medical and other essential services allowed to operate. The rules were relaxed on May 1, enabling more industries to restart and the government has said there will be further easing by the end of the month. Meanwhile, job losses are mounting and millions of people are dependent on welfare grants, food parcels and unemployment insurance payouts.The National Coronavirus Command Council, the body that’s overseeing the government’s response to the pandemic, met on Monday to discuss which provinces and districts could be eligible for more lax restrictions, according to two officials familiar with the talks. Discussions are being held on what services can resume prior to an official move to a less restrictive national lockdown level on June 1, they said, asking not to be identified because they’re not authorised to comment.

The lockdown has been only partially observed, with social distancing proving impractical in many crowded townships, and infections have continued to mount. The number of confirmed cases surged by a record 1,160 on Sunday from the day before, taking the official tally to 15,515 as screening and testing were increased.

Different views

The Academy of Science of South Africa said it recognised and applauded the government’s response, which has helped to curb the infection rate.

“In such fast-moving and uncertain contexts, it is perhaps inevitable that different views will result among scientists themselves, such as how, when and where to ease the lockdown,” the academy said in a statement signed by 18 of its members. “There is no better way of maintaining that public trust than by speaking with one voice on the authority of evidence-based science.”

Ramaphosa has taken the first tentative steps toward restoring public trust by apologising for the mistakes that have been made and lifting a ban on some e-commerce, but more needs to be done, said Busi Mavuso, the chief executive officer of lobby group Business Leadership South Africa.

“I have every sympathy for the challenges government is facing on multiple fronts in dealing with this crisis,” she said in her weekly newsletter. “There is a great deal of uncertainty both on the medical issues and the economic fallout.”

Ramaphosa said all South Africans need to be party to the national effort to tackle the coronavirus, which had caused huge hardship and disruption.

It needs to be recognised that “the decisions taken by government are made in good faith and are meant to advance, and not to harm, the interests of South Africans,” he said. “Although we can point to the progress we have made in delaying the transmission of the virus, there is still a long way to go. The weeks and months ahead will be difficult and will demand much more from our people.”

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