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Getting to the heart of the South African lockdown debate

As Covid-19 continued to dominate the news during May, the debate over when to ease government’s lockdown regulations became more and more heated. Although most businesses have now been allowed to open under level 3, discussions over the lockdown restrictions have become polarised and politicised, with the Democratic Alliance leading a slew of legal challenges to the regulations and the Economic Freedom Fighters encouraging workers to continue staying home.

My database of 66 top online news articles from May shows that those in favour of the extended lockdown regulations have been given much more airplay than those against this. President Cyril Ramaphosa was mentioned 129 times in these articles, and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize 80 times. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma appears 36 times. By contrast, the ministerial advisory council, some of whose scientists have questioned the lockdown regulations, appears only 30 times. Glenda Gray, the most vociferous advisory council member against extending the lockdown, is mentioned 14 times, as is DA leader John Steenhuisen. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, given that public attention has been fixed on the government to see when it would relax the lockdown regulations, and we rely on the state for much of our reporting of Covid-19 statistics.

When polarising issues emerge in the public discourse, I am interested in finding out exactly how we became divided, and understanding the reasoning of both sides of the argument. This is ultimately what helps us to move towards a solution, rather than insisting dogmatically on our own sides and trading insults with those on the other side. An excellent tool for uncovering the logic behind such polarising issues is constellation analysis from Legitimation Code Theory, which was developed to describe ways in which knowledge is built in many different practices.

To understand how the lockdown debates were portrayed in the media in May, I did a constellation analysis of one front-page article from the Sunday Times, “Mkhize defends lockdown rules as scientists say they are being sidelined”. This article very clearly develops two constellations of ideas: a “pro-lockdown rules” constellation with Mkhize as its leading light, and an “anti-lockdown rules” constellation supported by a variety of smaller stars from “science, business and labour”. 

To be more specific, this “anti-lockdown rules” constellation contains the advisory council’s chairperson, Professor Salim Abdool Karim; Gray and Professor Shabir Madhi as well as organisations no less diverse than union federation Cosatu, the Black Business Council and the Liquor Traders Association of South Africa. This characterisation of Cosatu as against the lockdown rules is quite an oversimplification, considering that Cosatu supported Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel’s bewildering rules about clothing allowed to be sold during level 4. Nevertheless, the impression given in this article is of a diverse coalition of voices arrayed against the government’s slow approach to opening up the economy.

The “anti-lockdown rules” constellation has harsh words about the government’s “official-risk-adjusted strategy” for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. These included describing it as “a catastrophe” and saying that the strategy “is not based in science and is completely unmeasured”, in the words of Gray. They favour “non-pharmaceutical interventions” including “hand washing, mask-wearing, social distancing, and bans on gatherings bans”. (I hope that the last item on the list was a typo by the editorial staff.)

Later in the article, organised business and labour weigh in, with comments that “a drop down to level 2 would get the economy fired up”, so “workers could return to work and take care of their families”. 

The two principles holding the “anti-lockdown rules” constellation together are that the continued lockdown rules are unscientific, and that quicker easing of the lockdown would help our ailing economy.

By contrast, the “pro-lockdown rules” constellation comprises Ramaphosa, the government, Mkhize, his deputy Joe Phaahla and acting director general Anban Pillay, as well as the National Institute for Communicable Diseases’ (NICD’s) Lynn Morris. One advisory council member, Wolfgang Preiser, is portrayed as sitting on the fence, with comments in favour of easing the lockdown slowly, but also criticising the lockdown rules about clothing sales and the narrow 6am to 9am exercise window.

The NICD’s Morris quotes from the World Health Organisation’s extremely cautious list of six criteria to be in place before a lockdown is lifted. These are: 

  • Transmission of the coronavirus is under control; 
  • The health system is able to detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact;
  • The risk of outbreak hotspots is minimized in vulnerable settings like health facilities; 
  • Workplaces, schools and other essential places have preventative measures in place;
  • Measures are in place to manage the risk of importing new cases and
  • Communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to adjust to the new norms.

Mkhize agrees with the “anti-lockdown rules” camp that “from a health perspective we have got the maximum benefits from the lockdown”. Similar concessions by Mkhize appear in two other places in the article.

So if the “anti-lockdown rules” constellation has science and the economy on its side, what are the arguments associated with the “pro-lockdown rules” constellation? Mkhize says: “Now what we need to do is to adjust all our containment measures so that we now adjust to a new normal of dealing with our lives,” and talks about “social behavioural change”. 

One sentence that stands out in Mkhize’s reasoning for the lockdown rules is: “You have to create space for those capabilities [to contain the virus] to be built in the communities to be able to do it.” If I’m interpreting him correctly, he means that time is needed for adequate measures to be put in place to allow businesses and other institutions to open safely. We’re seeing this at the moment in the debacle about ensuring schools’ readiness to open, with starting dates being shifted to later dates.

But if this is the argument of the lockdown proponents, the message isn’t coming across nearly as clearly as it should be. From this brief analysis, we can’t tell if the problem is with their messages being unclear or if the media is not reporting it clearly enough. 

If the real cause for the delay in easing the lockdown is that institutions needed time to prepare to reopen, then why were institutions not given a clear message earlier urging them to start preparing? 

An analysis of one news article on the lockdown debate won’t tell us all we need to know about the complex balancing of different needs that should inform the easing of restrictions that have affected our lives. But it can help us cut through the rhetoric and start seeing the reasoning on either side, enabling us to work together on the task at hand: getting South Africa back to work safely.