Blame SA’s Covid-19 failures on leaders keen to copy First World

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Covid-19 infections are rising sharply in SA — and Latin America.

This is fitting — SA resembles the countries of South America more than those of its home continent.

It has become common to point out that Covid-19 has highlighted SA’s inequalities.

It is just as important to recognise that inequality shapes how the country is governed, ensuring that, while SA is in Africa, those who govern it may be closer to counterparts in Latin America.

The first reason SA has been unable to stem the tide of infections is that its strategy always assumed a severe epidemic was inevitable. It is hard to fight anything if you assume you are bound to lose.

This followed advice from SA’s medical scientists, almost all of whom embrace this view despite scientists in other parts of the world having helped to prevent great damage.

Why is this? Possibly because their points of comparison on the pandemic were not Asia and parts of Africa where infections were curbed, but rich countries of the global north, many of which were overwhelmed.

They also probably assumed that while some countries might be able to prevent a severe outbreak, SA could not.

This would reveal a common way of thinking in SA — that the country must compare itself to the rich countries of the north, but that it will never match up.

The failure to curb Covid-19 does show SA’s glaring capacity gaps. But the problem is not a lack of technical know-how.

It is, rather, a particular view of the world and the difficult relationship between those who govern and the governed.

SA could have contained Covid-19 had it done what it said it would do — create an effective testing programme to identify people with the virus, trace their contacts and isolate them if infected.

The government likes to boast about the large number of tests conducted. It talks less about why testing has not stemmed the virus — a bottleneck at the National Health Laboratory Service, which supports provincial and national government health departments.

Testing can control Covid-19 only if results are received speedily enough so the contacts of infected people can be traced.

It seems the lab was simply not up to the task and that the government put too much faith in a hi-tech laboratory which was simply overwhelmed.

Senegal, a far poorer country, developed a test which cost $1 (R16.69) and produced results very quickly.

Unlike Senegal, SA failed to come up with a solution fitted to its needs.

The second problem is that the behaviours needed to stem Covid-19 are difficult for most South Africans in urban townships and in shack settlements.

Overcrowding makes physical distancing hard, clean water may not be available and people are forced to travel in full taxis.

The government could have overcome these problems if it had chosen to work with people in these areas to find ways to protect themselves. Instead it relied on instructing people to do things they clearly could not do.

To SA’s elite, of which the government is now part, people in townships lack sophistication and maturity; poverty is confused with inability.

The government has not formed a relationship with voters which would enable them to work together against a common threat.

Why is SA governed this way? Unlike other sub-Saharan African countries, and like several Latin American countries, SA is both “First World” and “Third World”.

A significant section of its people live like, and measure themselves by the standards of, the affluent in North America and Western Europe.

People who live in “First World” conditions also find it much easier to lobby politicians. That is why the government’s claim that it would be guided only by the science of Covid-19 collapsed as lobby groups persuaded it to open activities which allowed the virus to spread.

Facilities designed for the “First World” one-third of the population cannot meet the needs of the other two-thirds.

The elite’s deep admiration for the “First World” ensures the government always wants to rely on what works only for the one-third.

And yet SA is divided into two worlds. An entire economy and social system serves one-third of the people and excludes the rest.

Another consequence, common to SA and much of Latin America, is that those who live in “First World” conditions tend to see those who don’t as people who have not attained their exalted standards — they must be told what to do and controlled if they do not listen.

Many South Africans like to think the country is unique in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its contrasts of wealth and poverty certainly are one of a kind.

Its response to Covid-19 shows how much this prevents the government from doing what it needs to do.

Steven Friedman is Professor of Political Studies at the University of Johannesburg. This article was originally published in The Conversation

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