A VIGOROUS public debate is one of democracy’s most important features. Which is why democratic countries face a huge problem when the debate chooses to fall silent.
Anyone looking at South Africa’s debate in the media, social or traditional, could be excused for imagining that Covid-19 is no longer a problem. Now that just about all the restrictions on the lives of the 30% or less of the country who take part in the debate have been lifted, the pandemic is no longer a topic of public conversation. But the daily statistics tell a different story. On most days, around 2 000 new cases and a few dozen deaths are reported: in some countries, a fraction of that number would be enough to trigger severe restrictions. So, it is not the virus which is on the wane, only interest in it among those who shape the national debate.
The problem with debates which go to sleep is that they virtually ensure that nothing will be done about important problems which serve the interests of most citizens. Debate is necessary in a democracy not only because people must be able to speak their mind. It also makes it much more likely that the government – and politicians in all parties – will be more aware of the issues which worry citizens and the problems they want fixed. The pressure which public opinion builds can prompt governments to serve citizen needs more effectively and place on the agenda issues which would otherwise be ignored. So, when the debate falls silent, this usually means that the government will ignore the needs of most people because it is under no pressure to deal with them.
Lack of debate on Covid-19 has been a problem since the virus arrived in this country – the restrictions the government imposed were hotly contested but the country’s effectiveness in tackling the disease has been a non-issue for media, political parties and citizens’ organisations (or at least those which are allowed into the debate).
Right now, two Covid-19 issues are being ignored despite the fact that both could cause severe damage if left unattended.
Asleep as the Tide Comes In
The first issue was highlighted by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s most recent address to the nation.
His talk was prompted by reports that Covid-19 infection rates were on the rise again. He confirmed that the government was worried about an increase in cases and added that, although these were concentrated in a few geographical areas (mainly the Eastern Cape and a section of the Western Cape), they could spread to other parts of the country now that travel between provinces was allowed. In response to this problem he announced not a plan to fight the increase in Covid-19 cases but a further easing of restrictions, this time on alcohol sales and international travel. While he did extend the State of Disaster which has been in force since March – which means that some gatherings are still not allowed – his only attempt to deal with the problem was yet another complaint that people were not protecting themselves against the virus and another call on them to follow the public health rules.
It is hard to see any logic in this approach. If the country faces a growing problem, there seems little purpose in the President addressing the people unless he wants to announce that the government is doing something about it. People do not usually take the government seriously if it announces that we have a huge problem but that it has no plans to do anything about it. Even stranger is a government announcement that the problem is growing but that it plans to get rid of some of the measures which were meant to control it. The address continued a trend which has been clear since restrictions began easing – the lack of a noticeable connection between the number of cases and what the government does about Covid-19. That is partly why it is forced to warn people of a problem and then to announce that it plans to do even less about it than it is already doing.
The address’s approach also continued patterns which have been clear for a while. The government knows that Covid-19 has not gone away and that there is a danger of a new surge in infections. The only countries whose Covid experience it and its scientific advisers care about, the United States and those in Western Europe, are experiencing new surges which must worry decision-makers here, particularly since they may be caused by ignoring the rules when infections were low. But it is besieged by lobbies, cheered on by the media, which want it to open up every activity, even those which obviously spread Covid-19 (indoor gatherings, for example). It knows that it gets no Brownie points from the public debate for containing the virus but plenty for lifting restrictions. And so, it lifts them even when it knows that this creates public health risks. The only weapon it then has left to fight the virus is the one Ramaphosa used in his address – blame the problem on citizens and tell them to behave themselves.
This approach, it has been noted on this page before, turns government from the servant of citizens to their master. It also creates two immediate problems. First, the claim that cases are rising because some people are breaking the rules is made repeatedly but rarely if ever backed with evidence. When South Africans make claims like these, the unspoken message is always that ignorant and reckless people in townships bring Covid-19 on themselves by ignoring the rules. But anyone who has visited a public park in the major cities and seen a fair slice of the suburban citizenry without masks and ignoring distancing knows that, if township residents are ignoring the rules, they are not alone. This suggests that there may be other reasons why some areas see rising cases and others do not.
Second, there is virtually no prospect that anyone ignoring the rules will start to obey them because the President asked them to in a broadcast. Not everyone who studies the issue agrees on why people obey public health measures. But whether you believe that the key is effective government enforcement or trust between government and citizens, whether citizens co-operate is decided by what the government does, not the personalities of citizens. It needs either to increase restrictions and enforce them or win people’s trust so that they will follow the rules without being forced. Either way, appeals or lectures by presidents and cabinet ministers will make no difference.
All this means that nothing is being done about rising infections and we may see a new surge. This will threaten people’s well-being and could also be a severe setback to an already weak economy: the International Monetary Fund has joined the voices who insist that economies will not recover until Covid-19 is beaten. The fact that outbreaks are concentrated in particular areas does not necessarily mean that those who live elsewhere are unaffected: as Ramaphosa pointed out, people travel. It does not take that many travellers to begin spreading the virus again, triggering a new wave of cases at least as serious as that in mid-year.
The debate’s response to this has been total silence – not even the lifting of restrictions attracted much notice since the rules which were resisted have gone. And so, the way is clear for a new wave triggered in part by the fact that the government is under no pressure to prevent it.
Who Is Who in the Queue?
The second issue on which the national debate is dangerously silent is the news that a vaccine which will protect people from Covid-19 may be on the way.
It is not yet clear when and whether a vaccine will be available: one danger posed by the announcement by two pharmaceutical companies that their vaccine was ‘90% effective’ is that this may persuade many people that the fight against Covid-19 is won, despite the fact that it may be quite a while before a vaccine is available. But the announcement does seem to have convinced scientists who work in the field that an effective vaccine is possible and that one will be available in the not too distant future.
If they are right, this raises important questions. The first is whether a vaccine will be available here – Ramaphosa, in his capacity as Chair of the African Union, has been pressing for vaccines, if they are available, to be distributed fairly across the globe. But it could be argued that far more effort is needed from the government to ensure that people in rich countries do not corner the market at the expense of the rest of the planet. Even if a vaccine is available here, it is very unlikely that it will automatically be available to everyone. More likely is that, if nothing is done, it will be available only to those who can afford it or, at best, those whose medical aid schemes can afford it.
This prospect should be familiar. The last major epidemic the country experienced was, of course, HIV and AIDS. There is no vaccine for HIV but there is medication which turns the disease from a death sentence to a chronic condition which does not prevent those who are infected from leading normal lives. Then, it took a campaign and a battle lasting some years to ensure that the medication was available to all who needed it, not only to those who could afford it. The problem is arguably more urgent in this case: if access to a Covid-19 vaccine is limited to the better off, this may be not only a moral problem – it may also make it much harder to eradicate the disease. And, as long as it is circulating, there is no guarantee that it will not mutate in ways which make vaccines less effective than they need to be. Even if the cost problem is solved, initially it seems likely that there won’t be enough vaccine for everyone and that some will have to wait their turn.
Given the stakes, we would have expected the vaccine announcement – which Ramaphosa did mention in his address – to trigger a national debate on who should get it and on what terms. First, we might have expected calls for the government to ensure that the vaccine arrives in this country. Second, we should have seen the beginning of a debate on affordability. Should a vaccine be paid for by public money and so be available to all at no charge? Should public money be used to pay only for those who can’t afford it? And, if limited supplies mean that not everyone can be vaccinated, who should be first in line? What rules should be applied to decide who goes to the front of the queue and who has to wait?
Debates on how public money should be spent are essential to democracy. And yet the vaccine announcement has also been met with total silence. In this area too, whatever the government does or does not do will be the product of decisions by politicians and officials, not vigorous public debate. And that makes it much less likely that the decisions will be what citizens need rather than what government administrators believe they need.
In two key areas, the country faces a new phase in the Covid-19 epidemic with important consequences for everyone who lives here. In both, the absence of a debate because the people who participate in it don’t feel affected by the pandemic and so have no great interest in how – or whether – we choose to fight it means that the government has a blank cheque. If previous experience is a guide, it is not at all likely that it will use its freedom from public pressure to take decisions which best serve the millions of South Africans who are so deeply affected by what it decides.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor, politics department at the University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.