Is the Rioting in South Africa Caused by Lockdown?

South Africa has now witnessed multiple days of deadly riots. More than 70 people have been killed, and whole city districts have been ransacked. Shocking videos posted on Twitter show looters pouring out of shops with stolen merchandise, vigilantes armed with rifles firing into crowds, and fleeing police vans being pelted with rocks.

The riots were triggered by last week’s 15-month jail sentence of Jacob Zuma, the country’s former president, on corruption charges. But many have suggested that poverty and unemployment helped fuel the lawlessness. Without wishing to excuse the wanton criminality on display, it’s worth considering whether lockdown is a factor here.

South Africa’s unemployment rate stands at 32.6% – the highest since the labour force survey began in 2008. Youth unemployment is almost 75%. Last year, the country’s GDP fell by 7% – the largest single drop since 1980 (when the IMF’s data series begins).

While unemployment has been rising for more than a decade in South Africa, the country’s dismal economic situation was exacerbated by months of lockdown.

How stringent has the lockdown been? We can check, using the Oxford Blavatnik School’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. Since the start of the pandemic, South Africa has had 228 days of mandatory workplace closures, and 421 days of mandatory stay-at-home orders in at least part of the country.

Lockdowns were damaging enough in countries like Britain that could afford to pay for lavish furlough schemes. But they must have been even more destructive in South Africa, where almost one in five people lives in extreme poverty. How these individuals were supposed to cope when the economy was put on standby is anyone’s guess.  

I’m not trying to absolve the looters of responsibility here. There’s no excuse for what they’ve been doing. But we should ask: how responsible was it for the Government to impose months of sweeping restrictions in a country where many people are quite literally living hand to mouth?

And likewise: how responsible was it for Western governments to impose sweeping restrictions over their own economies, knowing what effect this would have in the developing world.

Martin Kulldorff – one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration – posted a Twitter thread last November titled “Twelve Forgotten Principles of Public Health”. His 4th principle was: “Pubic health is global. Public health scientists need to consider the global impact of their recommendations.” Perhaps we should have paid more attention to his advice.

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