Our world, our country, our lives, all our assumptions and prejudices now divide in two.
Globalisation pundit Thomas Friedman defines it as “BC” (before coronavirus) and “AC” (after coronavirus).
With SA and much of the world now imprisoned at home, we can add a third acronym: “DC” – during Covid-19, the state we are in right now.
At least it lends perspective: most of our old problems seem quaint and entirely manageable. Remember load-shedding, state capture, Jacob Zuma, emigration? We are paying a big price right now for those excesses and lost opportunities. But at least they were navigable.
In the BC world, we were told that our sophisticated financial markets had shock absorbers and safe assets. And that artificial intelligence meant that the only secure human jobs of the future were those requiring physical contact, such as physiotherapy and fitness coaching. Now those careers are at risk, as physical distance doesn’t just lend enchantment, it can save your life.
Ideology back then divided around how much state and how much market, and every government intervention had to weigh the cost to the economy and the state balance sheet.
Here at home, it’s a field day for the central planners and the ideologues, who can ride the crisis to perfect their schemes of Utopia.
But in reality, the frail state, looted and short of key expertise, is – if the virus is to be conquered – entirely dependent on the co-operation of the private sector, from hospitals to logisticians to manufacturers. “All in it together” is not just a slogan, it is the reality that will see us through.
Remember in “BC” when the disgraced Brian Molefe called “white monopoly capital” the “monster in the room”? Happily in “DC”, Cyril Ramaphosa could announce that the two leading WMCists, the Oppenheimers and the Ruperts, had emerged from the Molefe swamp to stump up R2bn between them to aid the nation.
That is why at the commencement of “DC” the presidential leadership of Ramaphosa is so important and he is backed by the opposition and the whole of society.
Just a pity that he pops up only about once a week, and then fades and leaves the stage to the cabinet he has, not the government the country deserves.
There was huge goodwill and reassurance on Monday night when – a day late and many dollars short – Ramaphosa announced decisive measures to suppress the virus and stop it in its tracks.
The authoritarians – including minister Lindiwe Zulu sporting faux military epaulettes which made Carl Niehaus seem unimaginative – were having a field day. No home food deliveries, soldiers to be deployed everywhere and no exercise outside your flat or shack. Reason and logic seemed to fly out the window, along with crashed government websites.
It is of course entirely correct that the government should, for example, have access to all cellphone data to fight Covid-19. But as Yuval Noah Harari reminds us, harvesting biometric data en masse into the future “means governments can get to know us better than we know ourselves”.
In our country, where obeying the law is often an optional extra, maybe this is immediately justified. But it needs defined limits and oversight.
We have shut down our country to reduce the risk of catastrophe. Fair enough, even though we are dealing with uncertainty, something unknowable right now, not risk that can be measured. That is what happens with a virus that is novel, not known or pre-existing.
Since we have all become armchair immunologists, I am struck by the term “iatrogenic” – a medical treatment that has unintended, sometimes fatal, consequences. So the decisive broad-stroke approach rightly praised in Ramaphosa needs to be followed with calm, pragmatic and constitutional steps by his lieutenants.
That will mean there will be light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel. Not a greater darkness.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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