(Published - 14 July 2020)
South Africans are a highly social people. That’s part of what makes the national lockdown and the new nightly curfew introduced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday 12 July 2020 so challenging. But we can do this - and by doing it, we can help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
As regulation 33 of the new Disaster Management Act regulations notes: “Every person is confined to his or her place of residence from 9pm until 4am daily, except where a person has been granted a permit to perform a service permitted under Alert Level 3, or is attending to a security or medical emergency.”
After months of lockdown, and only a month of the relative freedom of lockdown level 3, it can be frustrating to have some of those freedoms rolled back. It is important not to view the night curfew as an independent measure, but to see the night curfew as a part of the comprehensive response to the pandemic. It is even more important to try to understand what the curfew is intended to achieve. The curfew attempts to
Reduce socialization in private and public spaces. Socialization for purposes other than work typically takes place after hours. During level 3 containment we have been encouraged not to visit socially. Some people adhered strictly and were essentially self-isolating while others identified safe social bubbles in which they could socialize with reduced risks. And some people continued with their socialization in terms of frequency and intensity. The curfew attempts to limit the intensity of socialization whilst not entirely prohibiting it.
Reduce risks associated with mobility after hours. In addition to the COVID pandemic, we continue to experience high levels of aggression and violence in our society. Many incidents of aggression and violence related to crime take place after hours (also when much alcohol is consumed). The night curfew will reduce injuries and subsequent presentations at clinical platforms such as hospitals, for treatment of crime-related injuries. In this way, the night curfew is assisting with reducing the burden or pressure on the health care system.
Reduce the pressures on public transport. A substantial number of South Africans are dependent on public transport, and the recognition of public transport as an essential service in our context is critical. The night curfew is an attempt to reduce the pressure on the public transport system. At the same time, it creates space for the sanitization of the vehicles involved - a critical step for ensuring that this crucial resource remains viable with the least amount of risk.
So that’s the thinking behind the curfew. But can it actually achieve all that?
COVID Curfew & Active Citizenship: Can We Do It?
COVID-19 is still very new to us all - but as time progresses, we learn more about this virus. For example: In highly social cultures, the spread of the virus has been more intense, as there were increased opportunities for physical contact with others and exposure to contaminated surfaces.
In South Africa, we are of course a highly social culture and people. We also have a good medical infrastructure, but it will be vulnerable if the curve or the rise of infections is too sharp.
The graded return to economic activity is crucial and it is dependent on sufficient time to implement sanitization protocols. The collapse of the healthcare system, lack of adherence to social distancing recommendations and the nature of socialization are critical factors in managing the burden of the disease.
The night curfew in and of itself cannot solve the pandemic. But it can help - if we let it.
The containment measures are asking of us to function very differently from how we are used to. In essence, we are all required to engage in behavioural change at both an individual and collective level. Changing our behaviour is not an easy thing.
As in all countries, there is variation in the extent to which people adhere to containment measures in South Africa.
The night curfew might be experienced as an infringement on our right to self-determination. For some, the reaction will be one of resistance, while for others it will be compliance; and for yet others, it will be compliance under duress.
The pandemic has also underscored the disparities in our society - and while we are all under the same lockdown regulations, we are not all sharing the same lockdown experience.
For some, following the containment measures takes place in comfort, while for others it is under dire circumstances. The extent to which we are able to demonstrate empathy with the vulnerable among us, our health care and other essential services, as well as our government (leadership) will contribute greatly to the success or failure of our response.
What is important is to underscore that we must all exercise decision-making in a responsible manner and accept accountability for the consequences of those decisions. The physical implementation of the curfew and legal consequences are less of a concern than mitigating the risk of infection. The limitation on movement is a drastic measure implemented under unusual circumstances.
We need to engage in active citizenship - to balance the pursuit and realization of our personal rights with the well-being of others. And now, more than ever, we need to find our collective strength and ambition to curb the spread of the virus.