Democratic citizenship means holding the government to account – not doing its job. This is always so – but is particularly so in the midst of a pandemic. Since the South African government began easing lockdown restrictions, and infections and deaths have begun rising sharply, we have been hearing more of a message that has been there all along but is becoming louder: that it is up to citizens to protect themselves. The government, this suggests, has done all it can and it is now up to citizens to do the rest by keeping their distance, washing their hands, wearing a mask and not touching their face.
The message is delivered by scientists, sections of the media and some in government in tones which make it sound like common sense. In reality, it lacks sense.
Passing the Buck
Yes, everyone should obey the health rules. But, as many voices have been pointing out for months, many people can’t do this through no fault of their own.
Besides the often-mentioned people whose overcrowded homes and lack of access to clean water make health measures very difficult, people who are forced to ride in taxis if they want to feed themselves and their families have no control over whether the driver applies the rules. Personal responsibility does not decide whether people who have now returned to work are working in safety – or whether the health workers about whom so many kind words are said will receive the protection they need to avoid falling ill.
There are many other examples. Protecting ourselves from a fast- spreading disease is never only, or even mainly, a personal responsibility. Our ability to do this is influenced by what the government and those who advise it, as well as other important actors such as business owners and the people in charge of schools and universities, do. The question is often not whether people want to obey the rules but whether their circumstances, and the government’s rules, allow them to do this. Across the globe, countries’ success in preventing the virus’s spread has depended on the actions of their governments. Even the extent to which people take personal responsibility for protecting themselves depends on whether they trust the official messages on the disease.
And so, the claim that our safety depends purely on what we as individuals do is buck-passing: it shifts responsibility for how many people fall ill and how many lose their lives from those who are responsible for keeping citizens safe to the people they are meant to protect. And so, it enables those entrusted with public care to avoid any blame when they don’t do what is needed to protect the people.
This is hardly the first time the government has passed the buck to citizens in this way. On the contrary, it has been a constant theme over the past quarter century. Traffic accidents and fatalities are often blamed purely on drivers, not those who make the road rules and those who implement them. It is common for police to insist that they cannot shoulder the burden of fighting crime alone and people in government have suggested that the quality of schools depend on parents and learners, not the people who run the education system.
There is an important link between these examples. In each, the government’s success record is questionable – which is why it seeks to shift the burden onto citizens. There is no need to pass the burden to citizens when the government is doing well and so, whenever we hear voices telling us that citizens must do the government’s job, we can be sure that the government is not doing well. Which makes it revealing that the message is being used in the battle against Covid-19 – and that it has been so common a theme in the government’s attempts to protect citizens from the disease.
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The government’s entire Covid-19 strategy has been based on a message which shifts blame to the people.
At no stage since the disease arrived has the government – or the scientists it consults – ever aimed to stop the spread of Covid-19. From the outset, they assumed that a severe epidemic and many fatalities were inevitable. The lengthy and hard lockdown was, they insisted, merely an attempt to ‘buy time’ before the country was engulfed in infections and deaths so that the health system could cope when this happened. No credible reason was given for why it was impossible to avoid many illnesses and deaths when other countries have been able to do this. Nor was any evidence offered that getting the health system ready would reduce deaths since there is no cure for Covid-19. One reason why rich countries have battled to contain it is that their health systems are built around curing people who are ill. This obviously does not help if there is no cure, which is why they did not cope.
Despite this, the claim has, in the main, been dutifully repeated by reporters, commentators and the social media choir. And so, it has performed a very useful function for the government and its scientific advisors: it has enabled them to avoid blame for a rise in infections and deaths. Countries which have managed to prevent the virus spreading have relied on effective testing and tracing. If people who have contracted the virus can be identified through testing, they can be isolated. If the people with whom they have been in contact are traced, they too can be isolated and, if necessary, tested. The lockdown could have been the beginning of an effective fight against the virus if it bought time not for a vague attempt to ready the health system but for effective testing and tracing.
The government claims that it took testing seriously and likes to point out how many tests have been conducted. But the testing and tracing did not achieve their goal. In at least one case, the Eastern Cape, this seems to have been because the provincial government did not test as it should have. But by far the biggest problem was a bottle-neck at the National Health Laboratory Service, which continues. This removes much of the usefulness of the test and trace strategy – by the time the results come back, the infected person’s contacts, who may be unaware that they are infected, will be circulating and possibly spreading the virus. The government and its scientific advisors say this happened because there is an international shortage of testing supplies. This is true, but it has been known for much of this year so the scientists and the government should have foreseen it.
Despite this, they have not been held accountable for the testing problems which may well explain a high and rising number of infections. Media, civil society groups and academic commentators have not asked them to account for why the country’s ability to contain the spread of Covid-19 has been severely weakened by a problem which was expected. The reason may be that they have all accepted the perpetual excuse that an epidemic was inevitable: those who influence opinion note regularly that the rise in illnesses was unavoidable. And, of course, no government can be blamed for not preventing the inevitable – particularly when its representatives and scientists can point out that they predicted their own failure all along!
All of this explains why it has seemed to be ‘common sense’ to declare that people have a responsibility to protect themselves. If the government did all it could then, of course, it is up to citizens to protect themselves. The sad fact that some are unable to do this is no-one’s fault. But, in reality, the epidemic’s inevitability is a myth which conveniently justifies everything the government and the scientists have said and done. We do not know why the myth was invented. But if one of its purposes was to shield the scientists and government from accounting, it succeeded.
The Real Active Citizenship
The fact that telling citizens to look after themselves threatens them with a deadly disease shows how much of a problem this idea of citizenship is. It will be important to remember this example for long after Covid-19 is no longer a threat because it highlights two very different uses of the term ‘active citizenship’.
The government often sings the praises of active citizenship, as do important official documents such as the National Development Plan. But what does the term mean? The view which is most popular among officialdom was expressed a couple of years ago by then Brand SA chief executive Miller Matola. As examples of active citizenship he mentioned: understanding the Constitution,’ pursuing ventures to better the lives of our children and future generations’ and ‘being accountable for our environment and surroundings in the midst of climate change’. He added that this also meant that ‘the best people must work for the state’.
A common theme is clear. Active citizenship means taking on obligations which advance official goals: knowing the rules, employing people, looking after the environment and working for the government. The message is best summed up by slightly misquoting a former American president: ‘Ask not what your government can do for you, ask what you can do for your government’. This view is, of course, the one which inspires the idea that it is up to citizens alone to protect themselves from Covid-19.
There is another version of active citizenship’s meaning. It is far more consistent with what democracy means than the first view. Here, people act to hold the government to account in the hope of ensuring that it serves them and their fellow citizens. In democracies, it is the job of the government to serve the people, not the people’s job to serve the government. The lever which makes this happen is active citizenship – a constant process of watching what the government does and, where it is found wanting, of working to ensure that it does what it is meant to do. Democracy equips citizens with the rights they need to play this role – the freedom to speak and associate with like-minded others as well, of course, as the vote which enables the people to remove from office government which do not serve them. It is, for very obvious reasons, the view which is less popular with government ministers and officials. But it is far more likely to ensure that democracy works for the people.
In this view of active citizenship, the people may continue to take partial responsibility for their actions. Governments cannot wash our hands, wear a mask and keep a distance from others on our behalf. But they will also insist that the government does what it needs to do to make safety possible. Active citizens insist on knowing how effective government testing is and, if it is falling short, why. They also insist that the government ensure that everyone enjoys access to water and that ways are found to enable them to keep their distance. They would also make it clear to the government that it is expected to provide citizens with the resources they need to stay at home and so reduce the likelihood that they will fall ill. Practicing this form of active citizenship means insisting that the government explain, and justify, its strategy to fight the virus. It also means that government scientific advisors must explain and justify their strategy and open themselves to critical questioning from the public – even people who hold higher medical degrees should not be above criticism and question, particularly when their advice has so great an impact on human lives.
This second form of active citizenship exists in South Africa – among those with the resources to exercise it. During the fight against Covid-19, it has been exercised largely to complain about restrictions, not to demand a more effective fight against the disease. Which is one reason why the government has been largely able to shift the burden of fighting Covid-19 onto the citizenry.
Prof Steve Friedman is a lecture at the University of Johannesburg. He writes for DDP in his personal capacity and his views do not represent those of the organization.