Post-Covid Politics

21 MAY 2020

Health workers fill out documents before performing tests for Covid-19 at the screening and testing tents set up at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg. Picture: MICHELE SPATARI / AFP

Health workers fill out documents before performing tests for Covid-19 at the screening and testing tents set up at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg. Picture: MICHELE SPATARI / AFP



Politically speaking, what comes next? Credible analysis of “post-Covid politics” requires attention to three aspects of the crisis.

The first is alertness to the importance of time. Our sense of the passage of time has been profoundly disrupted by the pandemic. It is hard to believe that our first confirmed case of Covid-19 was recorded as recently as March 5.

Under stress, our instinct has been to track shifts in often meaningless data, on a day-to-day or even hour-by-hour basis. Our sentiments about government, or particular politicians, swing alarmingly from positive to negative in a matter of days.

Our vehement condemnation of slow lockdown lifting will be followed within days by denunciation of government for acting too quickly.

Close to the start of our Covid-19 experience we do not know ourselves. Restaurants that Americans longed to visit in April have reopened with empty tables. Parents of schoolchildren reluctantly withdrawn from SA schools just weeks ago, now clamour to prevent their return.

We do know, at least intellectually, that prior pandemics and economic dislocations have changed how people think, the concepts they have used to capture the dynamics of their societies, and the ways they have framed what is morally right. But, like them, we cannot apply this understanding to our own situation.

The first peak of infections — one that will itself change how we think — is still a couple of months away. Who can conceive how our world will seem to us in two years’ time? Or, in the absence of a vaccine, even further ahead?

Second, the most persuasive political analysis has tempered awareness that we might see radical change with the constraints and opportunities imposed by “normal politics” and the socioeconomic realities of our society.

The Financial Times, whose grasp of cold realities is often overestimated, fired the starting pistol on global windbaggery about political transformation in an editorial on April 3. Warning that the virus, and the economic lockdowns needed to combat it, “shine a glaring light on existing inequalities”, the FT noted that “we are not really all in this together … the economic lockdowns are imposing the greatest cost on those already worst off.”

On the basis of this belated recognition, the FT leapt to the conclusion that “governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. Redistribution will again be on the agenda [and] policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”

Maybe so. But “normal politics”, and resource constraints, will continue to sharply limit the possibility of a policy transformation in SA.

Schools and clinics need to function, and such institutions need to be painstakingly built. Even technophiles must accept that we do not have a country poised on the brink of rapid technological transformation: a recent paper from Afrobarometer, drawing on a 2018 survey, notes that a majority of SA households do not own a computer. We will not become another place simply because we wish to do so.

A third consideration is one of framing: most of us remain trapped in a public health framing of Covid-19, because that is how the crisis was first introduced to us. Yet relatively few of us will experience the virus itself as devastating.

What we will experience instead is an economic catastrophe: a loss of livelihoods and the collapse of businesses in the formal and informal sectors.

Over the months and years ahead, as Covid-19 becomes a background condition in our lives, fiscal crisis, business failure and higher unemployment will provide the lenses through which we view our political options.

Rose-tinted speculation notwithstanding, the fiscal bill will still have to be paid. These economic constraints will define our post-Covid-19 politics.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

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