Senator J. William Fulbright occupies a place in the political Pantheon reserved for a breed now extinct: he was a Southern Democratic Senator who staunchly opposed the war in Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He lost his re-election bid in 1974 for being too out of touch with his conservative voters.

But he did bequeath to posterity a trenchant rebuke to the reason offered by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson for America’s futile military offensive in South East Asia, the so-called ‘domino effect’ –the’ loss’ of Vietnam would see the rest of the region fall to Soviet control.

He wrote, “The Soviet Union has indeed been our greatest menace – not so much for what it has done, but because of the excuses it has provided us for our own failures.”

Substitute “Coronavirus” for “Soviet Union” and you get an eerie update on that wisdom, at home and abroad.

“The Corona coalition” is the term disenchanted Israelis slapped on the new government formed by criminal accused and longest serving country prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu and his arch electoral foe, Benny Gantz. Netanyahu, accurately dubbed ‘the magician’ alchemised the pandemic into an improbable fifth term as premier, courtesy of the man who once vowed never to serve in government with him. It was, Gantz lamely offered, ‘in the national interest.”

In the US, Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has ruthlessly started to play the “China Card”. Chinese culpability for the origins, initial concealment and later misinformation on Covid-19 is clear. But that hardly excuses and explains Trump’s fumbled and dizzyingly contradictory responses to a disease which has now claimed 30 000 lives and is on course to exceed the total of Americans killed in Vietnam. But deflection and blame-shifting has become the Trump trope. It could win him a second term.

In the UK, a very politically divided country united behind Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his near-death experience at the hands of the disease two weeks ago. But for the now recuperating prime minister, last weekend’s London Sunday Times provided an unwelcome expose. In great detail it revealed that as the virus entered the country in February, the nonchalant PM was missing in action –  inattentive to the crisis which has now killed over 18 000.

Here at home, the national command council would make the Supreme Soviet of yesteryear envious: Clearly enjoying the right to compel and boss people about, some of its edicts defy common sense, the law and the constitution. Our legislative regime requires that enactments be rational, proportionate and constitutional. Not so with the rule by regulation absent of a court challenge.

This week, as Cyril Ramaphosa unveiled a R500bn rescue package, lower down the government food chain we witnessed what in time will be called ‘the idiocy of cooked chickens’. Trade and Industry minister Ebrahim Patel blithely and incorrectly announced that hot food was banned. It wasn’t; but this minor legal difficulty was solved when colleague Nkosana Dlamini Zuma legalised his illegal announcement by amending the regulation.

There is no excuse, not even a dread virus, for sloppy, pettifogging and entirely evidence-free draconian edicts. Nor for changing the rule book to save ministerial face.

There is even less excuse for the brutal and sadistic behaviour of the defence force in some cases. And while the minister of defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula ,  infamous in 2016  for smuggling illegally a friend of her son into the country from Burundi on a commandeered military jet has scant regard for the law and its niceties. But even from this low bar, her response to the alleged torture of Collins Khosa at the hands of the SANDF in Alexandra was  breathtaking. She advised the public ‘not to provoke’ the soldiers.

An unprecedented 70 000 troops are about to be deployed on the streets. Should we be reassured by the utter constitutional ignorance and arrogance of Army Chief of Staff Lindile Yam?

He told MP’s this week that the military only takes orders from the president and not parliament. Actually, the Constitution, in section 201, envisages a distinct role for the very parliamentary committee Yam was advising is not ‘a client’ of the SANDF. But such detail is casualty of the command and control model which has rapidly become the replacement of constitutional government here.

Citizens cannot let this killer virus kill off the constitution and its checks and balances.  They are needed now more than ever.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

Featured in The Sunday Times