It is now over three months since South Africa’s national lockdown was announced. Even as restrictions begin to ease, we all continue to adjust to the abrupt changes to our lifestyles: to the ways in which we live and work. These changes inevitably imply that many of us have been forced to reflect anew on our values: on what we value, and on whether the ways in which we ordinarily live align with those values. For some, the usual nagging conflict between our personal and professional responsibilities is thrown into sharp relief as the line between our home and work lives has been all but obliterated. We have all felt the absence of those things that we value but often take for granted: face-to-face interaction with our friends and families; time spent in the natural environment; solitude.
Questions about what we value, and which values we ought to adhere to and promote, do not, of course, only arise at the personal level, but also at the societal level, as we grapple with how to respond to the threat posed by Covid-19. It is common for governments the world over, including in South Africa, to defend their lockdown strategies by emphasizing that they are “following the science”. It is of course essential that the most up-to-date scientific evidence informs decision making, but this evidence can only inform, and does not obviously determine our choice of strategy. Science can give us information about the projected consequences of particular strategies, but does not tell us which set of consequences we ought to prefer or pursue. Here we are necessarily dealing with trade-offs. Choices have to be made, and these choices necessarily involve balancing respect for individual liberties against the need to promote and protect public health. While recognizing that it is essential that we take drastic measures to limit the spread of the virus, we ought to be concerned about reports of heavy handedness by the security forces and deaths in police custody during hard lockdown, as well as the strangely puritanical approach to easing lockdown taken by our government, which has seemed at times to conflict with well-established principles of public health emphasizing proportionality and favouring the least restrictive means. Ultimately, we must also balance the goal of preserving life at all costs (saving the greatest number of lives) against the significant, long-term economic damage which will be inflicted by an extended lockdown, with the associated impact upon human lives and wellbeing (and perhaps at a greater cost of life years). Determining where this balance lies is particularly important in South Africa, given our high rates of unemployment and the precarious state of our economy pre-lockdown.
It is also worth noting that, despite the commonly cited phrase that “we are all in this together”, we are not all equally affected, clinically or socio-economically, by this pandemic. While we are all at risk of contracting Covid-19, and none of us are invulnerable to its worst effects, it is also the case that the risk of serious illness and death is far greater for those of who are older, or those with co-morbidities. In South Africa, while our population is relatively young, our high rates of diseases like TB, HIV and diabetes are therefore concerning. We are also not equally affected by the socio-economic costs of lockdown, and those who are already economically vulnerable will inevitably suffer the most, as is already being borne out. Perhaps, therefore, the value that ought to guide us as we slowly emerge from lockdown, and as the locus of our efforts to curb the virus shifts from legal enforcement to voluntariness, is solidarity, understood as a recognition of and identification with others based on our nature as social beings (Dawson & Jennings 2012: 76), and an associated willingness to carry the costs of inconvenience and upheaval for the good of those who face far greater risks.
Dawson, A. & Jennings, B. 2012. The Place of Solidarity in Public Health Ethics. Public Health Reviews, 34 (1): 65-79.