SA needs a bazooka to fight the virus. Cyril offered us a pea shooter

SA needs a bazooka to fight the virus. Cyril offered us a pea shooter

Covid 19 has converted us all into armchair immunologists.

So here’s a trick question used sometimes to test aspiring medical specialists: “What treatment is offered by ear in an emergency?” The correct answer: “Words of comfort.”

At his best, Cyril Ramaphosa reminds me of a trusty doctor. He might have a lousy diagnosis to deliver, but he will offer it in a calm and empathetic manner.

On Sunday night, declaring a national “state of disaster”, CR was at his best: equable, authoritative and reassuring. The “medicine” he prescribed might or might not interdict the spread of the new plague loosed on the world. Will there be enough ICU beds, for example? But as the response is drawn from the World Health Organisation (WHO) prescription list, it is both evidence- and science-based. No midnight trawling of the internet, as in the government-sponsored quackery, two decades back, on our last pandemic, HIV-Aids. Travel bans, restricting public gatherings, hand washing and personal distancing beat beetroot and garlic every time. All things considered, Dr Zwele Mkhize trumps Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimiang. “Don’t panic, but prepare properly” is the essence of the Ramaphosa message. Mitigating anxiety – without underemphasising the severity of the disease and how it is transmitted – is a key requirement of the head of state.

Yesterday, I consulted a real medical practitioner. He advised: “The measures announced by Ramaphosa were absolutely correct; I just wish they were in place two weeks ago.” But, like the delayed presidential press conference, this is a case of late better than never.

But imagine, for a nightmare moment,  if the EFF ruled here?

In a weekend statement it called for “all coronavirus-infected persons” to immediately be sent to the apartheid prison, Robben Island. I was reminded that, when I wrote a column on this new plague sweeping the world just 10 days ago, there were two confirmed cases of Covid-19 in SA, and 100,000 in the world. On Monday there were 62 identified cases in the country and more than 160,000 globally. By the time you read this those figures will be history. And while the words “logic” and “EFF” should never appear in the same sentence, on the EFF proposal, very soon, at this exponential rate, a town the size of, say, Germiston would be insufficient to house the afflicted. And that is just the reported cases. Most do not know they have the virus.

But the winner for idiocy at a time of real and unfathomable crisis is Zimbabwe defence minister Oppah Muchinguri. According to a weekend report on her speech at Chinhoyi, “coronavirus is the work of God punishing countries that imposed sanctions on us”. Her military grasp is as sure as her geography. The Almighty, to borrow her metaphor, chose to strike first at staunch Zanu-PF enabler China (cases to date: 80,800; deaths 3,213, the highest in the world).

Bewildering and ever-changing notes have been sounded from the White House and its self-described “stable genius” Donald Trump. On January 25 he advised: “We have it totally under control. It’s going to be just fine.” He, in the spirit adopted by the EFF, then blamed “foreigners” and took a swipe at Barack Obama. On February 26 he said: “We’re going down substantially,” as the US infection rate, largely undetected in the absence of mass testing, began to spike. Harvard immunologist William Hanage noted: “We twiddled our thumbs as the coronavirus waltzed in.” Trump finally got round to announcing a national emergency last week. And on Monday, previous nonchalance changed. Trump moved to urgency: he recommended avoiding groups larger than 10 people, unnecessary travel and a stayaway from bars and restaurants, etc.

But in one crucial respect, America is in far better shape than us to fight the war unleashed by this pandemic. And that is in the trenches of the economy. The US has almost unlimited firepower. It slashed interest rates to near zero and its Federal Reserve decided to buy $700bn via quantitative easing (buying treasury and mortgage securities) to feed the banks and keep credit flowing. It might not work, as the stock market plunged further this week, and far more aggressive measures might be needed. But it has weapons for this war.

That brings us to the least credible and most imprecise aspect of Ramaphosa’s speech. Before the first coronavirus infection arrived here, our economy was in the ICU. It could soon topple over entirely. On Sunday, after his precise account of the medical and social measures, all Ramaphosa could offer on the financial front was a vague, un-costed “comprehensive package of interventions to mitigate the impact of Covid-19”.

In far less urgent times we have heard this all before – so-called stimulus packages and the like which have never yielded the promised results. Instead of a big bazooka, the government has disarmed itself. It will fight perhaps the greatest threat to our economy with a pea shooter.

The fiscus is running on empty, the reforms needed to stabilise the electricity supply, to fast-tracking skills visas and debt reduction were much spoken of but not implemented, or even started. Peter Attard Montalto of Intellidex wrote this week: “The government has not set enough funds for a rainy day, and coronavirus now adds severe external shocks.” The Reserve Bank has its limits, too. If we rely on a big cut in the interest rate on Thursday to revive things, that could simply see more short-term foreign funders – who buy our bonds and fund government borrowing  – to leave these shores, pushing up borrowing costs and flattening the rand.

Pursuing ideological fantasies (NHI, bailouts of zombie SOEs, etc) and timidly approaching urgent economic reforms before the virus struck, have meant too much red ink on the government balance sheet and little, almost zero, room now to move or nurse the economy back to life. Except to plunge us over the debt cliff, way beyond the danger zone.

This is going to cost government big. And each of us is going to have to pay the price. 

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

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