On the issue of the widening and constriction of our sovereign borders, the propulsive fuel for populists far and wide, the virus is a global crisis, though infection rates and governmental responses differ widely. 

US President Donald Trump’s cry of “America First” and Boris Johnson’s “take back control” Brexit had winning voter appeal. Writing in the Financial Times last week, Philip Stephens commented archly: “Viruses do not respect state frontiers. The worldwide spread of coronavirus has instead given eloquent expression to the stubborn fact of international interdependence.” But quarantines, travel bans, tourism declines and border closures mean a huge global separation as well.

As for our local minister of health, Zwele Mkhize, his early assurance that “high alert” had been achieved by mid-February due to temperature screening at airports was rendered moot when “patient one”, a resident of KwaZulu-Natal, landed at an SA airport without displaying symptoms.

DA MP Siviwe Gwarube reminded parliament of the “inherent weaknesses in the country’s health system”. Exhibit A on her list was the East Rand facility identified as the centre for treatment of the epidemic, Tembisa Hospital, where 10 babies had died due to “hospital-acquired infection”.

It was later removed from the list. But there is hardly an oversupply of excellent, even adequate, public health facilities here.

One advantage in the current health crisis could be that politicians concentrate on the essential and the emergent. And defer, or bin, such futuristic ideological flights of fancy as the proposed national health insurance (NHI) scheme, which Mkhize described as “the best thing ever to happen to SA”. As the worst international virus hits us, he might reprioritise — just as Mboweni did in the budget by allocating all of R5m for the NHI fund, or 0.0021% of the 2020 budget, according to a calculation by Rob Rose in the Financial Mail.

Swift fallout

With breakdowns in just-in-time supply chains, especially in China, and whole cities being quarantined there and in Italy, as well as travel bans across a brace of countries, international gatherings axed and corporates and sovereigns eyeing contracting economic growth and declining global output, there is a big cost just three months after this novel virus’s first infection. The psychological outriders of the pandemic — fear and panic — are sending investors into safe havens (gold and 10-year US treasury notes). And keeping customers away from stores.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) put a price on the effect on global exports in just the month of February: $50bn. The scariest aspect of the better responses to the disease is this: the more stringent the public health response (closing cities and factories and sealing off borders), the greater and more adverse the economic effects. A modern Catch 22. And with vaccines unlikely for at least a year, it is hazardous to estimate where and at what cost it ends. The Wall Street Journal took a stab on February 23 and offered that “an extended Chinese shutdown could cripple global manufacturing and cost the world up to $1-trillion in lost output”.

For SA, whose biggest single export market is China and from which we import a range of supply chain, medical and retail  essentials, the same report states: “Countries most reliant on China could see half a percentage point wiped off their GDP this year.” That would push our feeble growth rate into negative territory, even on nominal terms.

Back to the global and local populists. From the US came welcome news of the revival of moderation as the centrifugal force in its Democratic Party, whose nominating contest received a shock-and-awe jolt on “Super Tuesday” when a third of delegates to its nominating convention were chosen. This was just as Trump came under pressure from plunging and whipsawing markets (the stock exchange had been his self-proclaimed measure of success) and his erratic management style (a recent tell-all memoir on his administration was titled The Cost of Chaos).

Joe Biden’s much-acclaimed ascent from political death via his South Carolina landslide followed by 10 state wins on “Super Tuesday” has been acclaimed. It was, until it happened, also improbable. Politically, it is a reassertion of the centre and a stinging rebuke to the forces of populism or “revolution” channelled by the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. But it is too early in the political calendar to claim a victory for moderation and incrementalism. “Sleepy Joe” Biden, who at 77 is mocked by Trump, 73, as a semi-senile captive of his party’s extreme wing, is a deeply flawed campaigner. But it’s a sign that given a choice between political purity — represented by Sanders — and the compromises embedded in Biden’s 45-year political career — voters chose pragmatism. That would be a “virus” worth internationalising.

Meanwhile, back at our ranch, the arrival of the coronavirus here allowed some populist, hypocritical showboating dressed up as race purity from the usual suspects. Facing the unknown consequence of this public health hazard, EFF MP Naledi Chirwa usefully offered that testing for the virus “be extended beyond the white-dominated and elite spaces”. But armed with gold-plated medical aid schemes, rest assured that is precisely where she and her party leadership will go to be tested.

Chicken soup was once defined as “Jewish penicillin” — it might not help but can’t harm. As we await the lengthy outcome of clinical trials on a Covid-19 vaccine, the chief rabbi of SA offered a useful antidote against the forces of unreason and political point-scoring at a time of local and international crisis. Warren Goldstein wrote: “As the coronavirus spreads across the world it reminds us, in the most powerful way, of our common humanity. The virus does not recognise race, religion or nationality. We are all human beings as brothers and sisters facing a shared crisis.” Amen to that.

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

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