As South Africa begins to ease Covid-19 stay-at-home orders, it must reckon with the negative impacts the measures have already caused.
The inconsistencies and lack of scientific basis for many of the emergency rules are harming citizens, devastating business and threatening opportunities for international investment. All this, without providing commensurate protection against the spread of Covid-19. Yet there's no sign that the the government is prepared to reverse course any time soon.
The severity of the threat from Covid-19 certainly justified targeted stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures. But like any restrictions, these must be narrowly tailored to achieve the desired outcome. Especially in this instance, the failure to do so has caused not only unnecessary suffering and economic harm, but it is undermining the citizenry's confidence in health officials at a time when that trust is crucial to ensure widespread compliance with justified emergency public health measures.
Bloomberg News reports that the recently published regulations have "baffled" most South Africans. The policies dictate everything from what t-shirts can be sold and how they are meant to be worn to the style of shoes permitted to be sold. And then there's the draconian ban on the sale of alcohol, which will now partially end, with sales only allowed on certain days and on certain hours and only for consumption at home. And the ill-conceived ban on the sale of tobacco will remain indefinitely. Such bans are proving not only ineffective, but have already caused a range of unintended consequences.
A lesson from the painful Covid-19 experience in the U.S. is that it is critical to maintain measures such as social distancing and frequently hand washing with soap. But bans on products and services have shown to be ineffective and harmful tools an an effort to fight the spread of disease.
Judges in the U.S. are already stepping in to reign in unjustified bans. For instance, a Michigan court just ruled against the governor's closure of barber shops, finding that the state didn't show a connection "between the cutting of hair and an increased risk of transmission."
The same obvious logic applies to South Africa's bans on the sales of alcohol and tobacco. A survey conducted by academics at the University of Cape Town found that the ban on cigarette sales has fortified the already bustling illicit market in tobacco, which the researchers found "will be increasingly difficult to eradicate when the lockdown and the Covid-19 crisis is over."
When cigarettes are sold underground, taxes are evaded, criminals are rewarded and sales to minors always increase.
Some who favored an end to the ban on alcohol proposed doing so with a sin tax to lower demand. As if liquor stores are somehow magically unable to enforce the same social distancing measures as supermarkets. Measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 must actually have a scientific basis. But the bans on alcohol and tobacco are merely thinly veiled chicanery to advance a different agenda under cover of Covid-19.
Consider the ban on the sale of tobacco, which inexplicably also includes far-lower-risk e-cigarettes. The harm from smoking that may make someone more vulnerable to Covid-19 comes from years of smoking. Yet, not surprisingly, the University of Cape Town survey found that few people quit smoking as a result of the ban, and among those who did, many of them only plan to do so temporarily.
But it gets worse. As counterintuitive as it is, there's early but growing evidence that current smokers are somehow at a lower risk for being admitted to the hospital for Covid-19. The evidence is far too preliminary to exclusively base policy or personal decisions on, but if, as many believe, nicotine confers some protection against Covid-19, the ban on even e-cigarettes would be especially fool-hearty.
Unless the South African government reverses course quickly, the reckless polices will have long-term economic consequences as well. It's not just about alcohol, tobacco, t-shirts and shoes. It's about whether the South African government allows its markets to operate in a rational way.
South Africa has the potential to earn the financial support of international investors. But first, the international financial community needs to believe that this otherwise appealing market operates in a trustworthy manner, governed by science and common sense.
South Africa's draconian response to Covid-19 is an outlier among countries in the free world. And investors are beginning to get spooked. But it's not too late for the government to come in line with the rest of the world. Doing so would pay dividends not only to the embattled citizenry, but to the country's economy as well.
- Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.