The third dimension of Covid-19 uncertainty





Government’s proposed easing of Covid-19 restrictions will have to balance health risks with economic effects. But the human, social, and political dimensions of the response should not be ignored.

We are confronted by three great fields of uncertainty. The first concerns the health science of Covid. We remain poorly informed about how the virus spreads, asymptomatic carrying, the effectiveness of social distancing, treatment options and testing reliability. Above all, we do not know if those who are infected will develop sustained immunity, or whether and when an effective vaccine will be available.

A second zone of uncertainty is economic. The implications of lockdown are hard to estimate. We face an explosion of public debt, companies will be destroyed and never return, unemployment is rising, and output shrinking. We face a potential collapse of the international trading system.

While government has carefully counterpoised “health” and “economy”, a third zone of uncertainty — human culture and behaviour — has been largely  ignored.

We do not know how citizens will respond to their confinement, and whether it will permanently change patterns of respect for authority. Will post-lockdown consumers return to pre-lockdown patterns of behaviour, travelling, consuming, and working in habitual ways?

Equally importantly, we do not know if the trust and co-operative behaviour required for self-confinement and compliance with official guidance will survive heavy-handed enforcement.

This third, human, dimension of the pandemic tends to fall in the cracks between the social sciences.

Economists have selectively harvested cognitive science and social psychology to elaborate various supposed “cognitive biases”: a normalcy bias that makes us slow to recognise threats; a confirmation bias that supports our preconceptions; and an “exponential myopia” that prevents us from understanding the basic maths of an epidemic.

The idea that human beings are basically rational, but with “biases” that impair our judgment, is deeply unhelpful in our abnormal world. Indeed, many popular reactions to the coronavirus have eschewed scientific and economic rationality altogether.

In our early HIV/Aids epidemic, more than two decades ago, the sexual transmission of HIV was used to blame the victims. Today we are headed down the same moralising path: liquor and cigarettes, according to our new moral guardians, increase vulnerability to Covid-related death and must be “banned” — or rather moved to the informal economy.

Our security apparatus has recovered its suppressed consciousness of how an authoritarian government should behave. The casspirs are freshly painted. Police roadblocks have appeared in exactly the same places they were found 30 years ago: on the borders of townships, similarly designed to contain protest. The talk is that we should not isolate individuals but rather communities; this used to be known as apartheid.

What does this mean for SA’s response to Covid-19? Government’s strategy has bought time to prepare the health system. We certainly need field hospitals, testing kits, masks, ventilators and burial places: they can help prevent the health system from being overwhelmed. Time has been bought to scale up screening and disaggregated information gathering; hopefully we are building a testing and tracing infrastructure.

This can all support a targeted lifting of the lockdown that distinguishes regions, different sectors of the economy, risks of transmission within sectors, lockdown effects, and broader economic and health considerations.

But we also need to consider the effect of lockdowns on ordinary people: their trust in government, their willingness to comply with regulations, their stigma, and their anger.

Four weeks of lockdown has been a long time, but we are starting a marathon that may last for 18 months or two years. The trust and willing compliance of ordinary citizens will become a valuable resource. We must be careful in these early stages not to break the link between government and the people through thoughtless and unnecessary actions by arrogant ministers and officials.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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