Will midnight signal the arrival of a permanent pandemic in SA?

Today is the last day for the Draft Health Regulations to ‘be in place’; failing which, South Africa will finally return to normal and citizens can recover their lives, without the penalty of these lives literally being illegal hanging over their heads. I’m torn. On the one hand, I wait in anticipation, hoping government incompetence will be our saving grace. On the other hand, I can easily see nothing happening tomorrow other than the SA Government relying on some technicality to further extend the period for finalisation of these regulations. The ultimate anticlimax. These regulations relate to “the Surveillance and the Control of Notifiable Medical Conditions”. If the words ‘surveillance’ and ‘control’ – particularly in context of government regulations – are not enough to cause an unsettling chill down your spine, it’s uncertain whether anything will. One of these regulations, Regulation 15(1)(c)(iii), provides that: “A person who has been in contact with a person who is a carrier of a notifiable medical condition… may not refuse to submit to mandatory prophylaxis, treatment, isolation or quarantine…” In this article by Gabriel Crouse, a writer and analyst at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), Crouse asks a question of paramount importance relating to Regulation 15(1)(c)(iii): “You may wonder why exactly Minister Phaahla thinks now is the time to introduce that lockdown measure, on day 768. When Covid-19 was killing 1,000 South Africans per day in the worst waves, our rights of bodily integrity were respected, but now they will be torpedoed at a time when daily deaths average at 10. Why?” Does a rational answer to this question exist? This article first appeared on Daily Friend. – Nadya Swart

Permanent lockdown

By Gabriel Crouse* 

Circa May 5, the lockdown measures currently in place will no longer apply under the Disaster Management Act, which is why Joe Phaahla, the Minister of Health, is expected to fill the gap by forcing the same restrictions under the National Health Act.

Gabriel Crouse, Author at
Daily Friend

Today or tomorrow, around day 768 of South Africa’s lockdown, something very interesting is going to happen. The lockdown will take its last step to official permanence. Here is a link to Minister Phaahla’s Surveillance and Control Regulations, which the IRR formally opposed, and which are set to be implemented from 5 May.

Going permanent will only be slightly more exceptional than going invisible, which in a sense is what lockdown has been doing for the last 750-odd days. In the first three weeks of lockdown, when terror was nationwide, I encountered violations of curfew in parts of Johannesburg’s CBD that were daring at first and casual a few days later. By Level 5, three weeks later, street retail was back on foot on the shady side and by Level 4, the pavement had become invisible once again in much of the poor city centre, just like the rules of lockdown.

Masks

Masks, still mandatory everywhere indoors except in domestic settings today, have gone half invisible from my errands route. In one of Jo’burg’s nicer suburbs, I can go grocery shopping, hardware hunting, quizzing, dining, watching movies and bar hopping without ever wearing a mask, like most around me.

In my little Covid-19-obsessed circle, I was the firm pro-masker and felt vindicated when the Bangladesh study with over 330,000 participants came out with supposedly conclusive proof that cloth and ‘surgical’ (non-N95) masks work in public. The New York Times headline and image on this work captured the mood in September last year.

But then a friend introduced me to the work of Ben Recht, professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and specifically the numbers. It is a long, fascinating story in three parts. He takes a contrarian stance on some points of interpretation but the basic point to work back from is that the difference between the control group and treatment group in the Bangladesh study was: “only 20 cases out of over 340,000 individuals over a span of eight weeks.”

Then Leana Wen (MD), a regular on CNN, wrote: “Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations and should not be considered an acceptable form of face covering,” while advocating for the US Government to buy proper masks for all that country’s citizens.

Criticism

Then came a series of pieces from South African experts which culminated in this scathing criticism by six of South Africa’s most respected scientists of Minister Phaahla’s ‘Surveillance and Control’ forever ockdown. The experts claim that in the present circumstances, “the type of cloth mask most worn by the public (which rarely provides a good seal around the nose and mouth) provides little-to-no protection against being infected and does not meaningfully reduce transmission”.

Sometimes everyone needs a mask though, if only for show, like when visiting Home Affairs. On Monday, I went to a rural Home Affairs office where roughly a third of the officials seemed to be wearing their masks as earrings, another third as chinstraps, none of whom was as impressive as the remainder who went ‘Full Monty’ with no mask visible at all, just a naked face. I tried following suit but was told that it was against the rules, for me. At least the guy who took my temperature at the entrance was wearing his mask properly, outside.

Besides non-compliance, lockdown has gone invisible in a rhetorical fashion. On 4 April, President Cyril Ramaphosa finally called off the State of Disaster [SoD], under heavy pressure, while announcing that practically all the lockdown measures (business and worship restrictions, mask mandates, vaccine passes) would stay in place for 30 days. After 30 days, Minister Phaahla’s Surveillance and Control Regulations would make the same lockdown measures permanent.

This prompted a News24 headline to cheer, in part, “Goodbye, lockdown!

The next day, a Business Insider headline included the phrase “post-lockdown rules” to describe pre-lockdown rules extending post-SoD.

It would have made more sense to say “Goodbye SoD, hello again lockdown”, and tomorrow it will make sense to say just Lockdown is Officially Permanent”.

Permanent lockdown

One way the lockdown is made permanent is by restricting venue capacity to 50% (indoor and outdoor) as long as Covid-19 is classified as a pandemic. There is a long and technical story to tell, but the upshot is that because epidemiologists and policymakers have failed to define pandemic-to-endemic transfer in non-controversial terms, there are always going to be people saying it’s a pandemic.

The other lockdown measures, mask mandates, vaguer business restrictions, chains around tourism, are to be in place as long as Covid-19 circulates in the population to any degree. The same applies to measles, or novel Influenza A flare ups, or TB and so on. That is forever by any definition.

Minister Phaahla has also introduced a new lockdown measure to replace the lapsing ‘right’ to arrest and detain people for two days on suspicion of things like sneezing. That most amazing lockdown measure was introduced early in 2022 by Cogta Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and we have been trying to find out ever since if anyone has been detained for days for sneezing, and if so how many?

The Presidency confessed it did not have the numbers and so referred us to the Department of Justice and Minister Phaahla’s Department. We are still awaiting the answers, but in any event the list will soon be closed off because that provision drops this week.

Replacing it, it seems to me, the ‘Surveillance and Control’ style of lockdown starts by ordering that a person who has been confirmed as having one of an open list of illnesses “may not refuse to submit to medical examination” and must “submit to mandatory prophylaxis, treatment, isolation” as instructed. Once they have been tested, a court order can be sought and then they can be detained and forced to take treatment.

You may wonder why exactly Minister Phaahla thinks now is the time to introduce that lockdown measure, on day 768. When Covid-19 was killing 1,000 South Africans per day in the worst waves, our rights of bodily integrity were respected, but now they will be torpedoed at a time when daily deaths average at 10. Why?

  • Gabriel Crouse is a writer and analyst at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). His journalism is based on fieldwork and quantitative analysis, with a focus on land reform. Gabriel holds a degree in Philosophy from Princeton University.
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