God judges a nation not on the basis of how well it treats its billionaires, millionaires, owners of capital or even its middle-class, but based on how its decisions, laws and policies impact on the vulnerable in society. In the Bible, the conventional categories of the vulnerable include – the orphan, the widow, the poor and the alien. This category also extends to include children in general, both orphans and those with parents (who were sometimes sacrificed to gods like Molech in order to secure some fortune in life), as well as the elderly. Concerning the elderly, the Bible proposes a social order in which the elderly are respected. The command goes, “honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12, NIV). The word “honour” means to weigh heavily. The command continues: “You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:32, NKJV). The word “honour” in this verse has a different meaning – it means to favour, to be proud of and to make glorious. The apostle Paul later instructed children “to honour their fathers and mothers” (Eph. 6:1-3). He used the word that does not only mean to respect, but that also means to establish the monetary value of a thing. Paul used a business-economic word in the context of social life. Implied in the Scriptures above is the fact that societies tend to sacrifice vulnerable groups when they have limited options in the process of public choice and administration. A pandemic like the one we are currently facing, puts a severe strain on public resources, leaving societies with ugly and undesirable decisions to make. But the case that these Scriptures are making is that we must have a moral compass and a system of public ethics in our political process, in which we are clear about the need to protect the vulnerable in our society – “in the presence of the elderly, we must stand up”, i.e. we must give priority to the vulnerable. We must not push ourselves to a point where we find ourselves unable to fulfill this moral and public duty.
The idea that God judges the nation based on how it treats the most vulnerable in society therefore suggests that when we establish laws and policies, we must do so from the vantage point of the vulnerable. It suggests that our guiding principles in society must be fairness, justice and the need to establish equity and equality. The issue is that this is not always the case in capitalistic societies. Modern capitalistic societies are guided by the famous words of the fictional character, Gordon Gekko, from the movie “Wall Street”, who said, “money never sleeps”. This perhaps captures the imperative of Capitalism, which is not just that money never sleeps, but that money should not be put to sleep. Like this coronavirus, which spreads through human movement, the activity or dormancy of money is equally determined by us – humans. So the real issue is not that “money never sleeps”, it’s that “humans never sleep”. Humans in general and owners of capital in particular, never sleep, as they think about ways of making more money. In other words, Capitalism is not just the thing of the “capitalist”, it’s a social construct in which economic activity and transaction must not be put on pause. The sin of Capitalism is not in the need to make money, it is in the idea that the process of making profit must never stop, even when such a process poses a public health threat. Capitalism tends to destroy the very goal of human wellbeing that it advocates for, because in a capitalistic society, not only does the capitalist have sleepless nights thinking about profits, the laborers themselves hardly get to experience proper physical sleep. In such a system, the health of laborers gets compromised quickly, they age faster than their affluent counterparts. The words of James come to mind: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you” (James 5:1-6, NIV). In a capitalistic world, continuous profit making is a sacred altar whose fire must never be put out, and upon which societies sacrifice human souls of the vulnerable (Rev. 18:11-13).
Capitalism is driven by the laissez faire principle, which does not simply drive the nobility of human freedom as it relates to economic activity, but which always tend to have an unwanted and inevitable consequence of the survival of the fittest. In this context, Capitalism is the jungle of modern human civilization. This capitalistic drive is now playing out in the current debate between public health and economics. To even position public health and economy as opponents is in itself a reflection of how entrenched Capitalism has become in the soul of nations.
Now, pandemics don’t happen all the time, but when they do hit us, they bring a significant threat to human health, on a larger scale. This particular pandemic has taken many lives within a very short space of time. To date, there has been over 4 million infections in the world and just over 300 thousand lives have been lost. We have seen the global epicentres shift from Asia to Europe and now in North America. This surely should leave other continents like Africa not only with epidemiological advantage and insight concerning the character of this virus, but also with a clear knowledge of what not to do. The city of New York has been hit hard by this virus, and the victims have mostly been the vulnerable minorities – the elderly and those who had underlying health issues (comorbidities).
Thus, the current debate on the lockdown needs to be clarified and properly framed for the conversation to help us arrive at a rational and publicly beneficial conclusion. The following considerations are important:
- There can be no argument against any effort to preserve life.
- We are no longer in a fixed level 5 type lockdown; we are now in a process of a steady and cautious relaxation of restrictions back to normal life – a process the government refers to as a risk adjusted strategy. President Ramaphosa indicated on Wednesday evening that in the month of June, we are moving to level 3, provided the spread of infections allow us to do so. Therefore, the issue under question cannot be the lockdown itself, but the pace of movement back to normal life. We are basically arguing about whether we should be driving “back home” at 60km or 120km per hour. The opposite end of the argument has to do with the need to see a speedy and perhaps even an abrupt relaxation of lockdown restrictions, no matter what the public health consequences may be. Like in any argument, you will of course find middle positions.
- We have evidence before us to suggest that the government is in the process of relaxing the restrictions. It may not be at a pace that we would like it to be, but there is movement towards a direction we all want to see.
- We must consider what is the justifiable pace that allows us to open the economy without causing massive public health risk.
- The government has injected billions of rands into the economy, to compensate for the economic gap created by the lockdown. This meets the Keynesian economic principle, of the need for a government to pump money into the economy through fiscal means, mechanisms and processes, in order to preserve and stimulate the economy.
- Our lockdown began on the 26th of March. It has been in place for less than 2 months. And it will surely not be a permanent reality.
- If we consider other nations: China imposed the lockdown in Wuhan towards end of January, and only started to relax restrictions end of March / beginning of April. Italy activated the lockdown process end of February, they are only now starting to relax restrictions. It therefore seems that you are looking at a baseline of 2 months before you can consider relaxing lockdown restrictions.
- The leadership approach in a pandemic should be to proactively save lives. We do not have to encounter a massive outbreak first, in order to justify a lockdown. Leadership must be powered by foresight and imagination that is inspired by intuitive knowledge of the nation that this government is leading. That is, you cannot implement policies that would work well elsewhere, in South Africa. The policies of the government must be applicable to the nation of South Africa, in 2020.
- We must consider the opportunity cost principle – and that is, what are we prepared to lose, in order to preserve life? Equally, the balance of scales principle is important to consider – when economics and public life are put on the scale, in a pandemic situation, the scale should tip in favour of public life.
Unpacking the Debate
In a situation where you are faced with a serious public health risk, the debate for a speedy return to the economy is not only a reflection of the hegemon of Capital, but it also reflects the voice of the class making the noise – it can only be those who have in fact been active in the economy, prior to the pandemic. If you have not been active in the economy prior to the pandemic, you have no economy to return to. Thus, there is a class dynamic to this argument. And so those leading the protest against the government, must not only be clear in terms of the constituency for whom they speak, but they must also make a clear and a convincing proposition on what should happen to the economically inactive population, that faces serious public health risk, with no economy to return to, and with no personal means or resources to retreat back to, in case of an outbreak. Equally, the argument for a speedy return to the economy does not incorporate the voice of the “missing middle” in this pandemic conundrum – those who are laborers within the system, who understand the need to return to the economy but who are also equally fearful of being infected by this disease. These constitute the face of the economy. They are in the front-lines of economic activity and so face a higher risk of being infected. Unlike corporate executives and owners of capital, who would have space and means to observe social distancing, and who have the privilege of working from home etc., this group is torn between the need to save their lives on the one hand, and the need to save their livelihoods on the other. They know that they work in spaces of continuous and close human contact. Basically, the economy does not return back to life without the front-line laborers going to the fields. To go to the fields is to move back into the reality of human contact. And then you must consider the statistics in terms of the percentage and social profile of those front-line laborers in our nation. Now this is the vantage point from which we must approach this debate.
In their state of inner tension and confusion, this missing middle does require a trustworthy political voice and leadership that will not only represent their interests in corridors of power, but that will also help lead and guide them on what to do.
It is perhaps easy to talk about a speedy return to the economy, when you have a house to return back to, in case of an outbreak. It is easy to talk about a speedy return to the economy, when you can drive to work in your private car, without having to use crowded public transport. It is easy to talk about a speedy return to life, when you can drive your children to school. And when we talk about “economic loss”, we have to be asking the question, “whose loss?”
Equally, economic modelling in the debate of the lockdown must consider not only economic loss caused by the lockdown but also the potential economic loss that can be caused by the outbreak of the virus. That is, the lockdown is not only about saving lives, it is also about lessening the economic burden of the pandemic.
Others argue for a speedy return to life so that we may build public or herd immunity. Well, the one who suggests this does so because they believe they have a good chance of survival. If we consider this from the vantage point of the sickly, the poor and the elderly, we would not even begin to make such a proposal. No one makes a proposal for an abrupt return to life in order to quickly build public immunity, when they know that they don’t have a good chance of survival, to enjoy life after the pandemic. In other words, this policy approach is great, but perhaps not for the South African reality.
No matter how you look at it, this is a class debate, a push between the strong and the weak…
Ezek 34:20 “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, 22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. 23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken. NIV
The economic debate against the lockdown is not simply that the poor will become poorer, it is that capital lies dormant, it is accumulating dust, leaving the capitalist with a burden to service it when there is no profit coming in. This is understandably difficult, exceedingly difficult! But when this is considered against the need to preserve life, it fails the test of rationality. On the other hand, in times of the pandemic, it is not economics that saves lives, it is containment measures and the public health care system. Through the lockdown and the process of gradual relaxation, the public and especially the vulnerable, are given a temporary place of safety from the invading virus.
The solution to the shoving among the citizens is a shepherd – a leadership that has intimate and intuitive understanding of all sides of society, especially the vulnerable…
Ezek 34:23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken. NIV
The president has thus far played the role of being that shepherd. He has equally acknowledged the mistakes and weak areas of the government – and mistakes must be fixed. But there is no doubt that we’ve seen the process of shepherding of the nation, and a deep sense of care for life. Nations that will survive this pandemic are those that prioritize life above all things. This is what the Bible refers to as “sheep” versus “goat” nations (Matt. 25:31-46).
South Aftrica’s timing: Whats’ before us?
We have the following conditions that make for the perfect storm in case of an outbreak…
- Spatial design that does not allow for social distancing (townships and shacks).
- A crowded public transport system.
- A significant portion of our population with underlying health issues (comorbidities).
- Winter season.
- Poor and immobile villagers who do not have immediate access to public health care system.
- Households with elderly people who are breadwinners to orphans.
- Crowded public schools.
- An overwhelmed public health care system.
In case of an outbreak, the following will happen…
- Those with resources will return back to their homes for protection, if they are infected, they will get best available help faster.
- Those without proper housing will be left stranded.
- Those without immediate access to public health care system will be left vulnerable.
- The government will be left with the public health care burden.
- Instead of making a case for economics against the lockdown, we will then need to think about the economic bill of the outbreak.
- Communities will be left with severe psychological and cultural trauma associated with pandemic related public health protocols.
- Simply put, this would be a disaster!
Given this reality, if I have need and means to take the government to court, I would rather do so as a way of ensuring that the government is well prepared to take care of the elderly, the poor, those with pre-existing health issues etc. in case of an outbreak. In a situation like this, I would opt to make noise on behalf of the vulnerable.
The need for a trans-political leadership collective
The government has played its role in trying to protect the public, not without mistakes. Beyond our President, what we now need is a leadership collective that will help engage the communities on the ground. We need leaders of communities, faith-based organizations etc. to amplify the voice of the government, driven by the conviction that the current processes are informed by the need to save lives. Beyond a leader, you always will need a leadership collective. There are two stories in the Bible to consider in this context…
Moses and the 12 spies
Moses was a great prophet and a revolutionary leader who led Israel out of bondage. When Moses reached the Promised Land, he sent twelve spies to spy the land and to bring back the report.
Num 13:26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. 28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.” 31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” 32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. NIV
Moses was let down by his own leadership collective. They spread a bad report among the people, causing a counter-revolution in the camp. This is the danger of having splinter voices in society. This is the danger of allowing our frustrations to overtake us, and of moving our eyes from the public vision and objective. When they spread a bad report, leaders affect and shape and or frame the public debate incorrectly in the minds of the people. In the end, lives get destroyed and the national destiny gets lost.
Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites
There is a good example in the Bible that shows us what happens when the leadership collective works together towards a common vision…
Neh 8:1 all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel. 5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 7 The Levites-Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah — instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. 11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.” 12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. NIV
The Book of Nehemiah is a case study of Community Building and Public Leadership. In this story we see Ezra reading the law for the people, with the support of the Levites, who went down and engaged with the people, explaining for them the meaning of what was being read. In our case, there has been a lot of information that we’ve had to process. As we engage a gradual relaxation of the lockdown, we will need leaders on the ground to explain the meaning and objectives of the lockdown relaxation process to the people. While the need to see the president on our TV screens will remain (just as Ezra stood on a high wooden platform for all to see him), this will have to be combined with a community-based leadership process. Without this, we run a risk of community outbreaks.
The duty of the government is to establish public wellbeing. It is to be the agent of justice, ensuring that the muted voice of the vulnerable is heard (Rom. 13:1-5).
The lockdown relaxation process is underway, perhaps not at a pace that some of us may prefer. We shall eventually have to face this virus and build public immunity. However, given the conditions and socio-economic profile of our nation, there is a strong case for a steady, gradual and cautious adjustment of lockdown restrictions.
We who are engaged in this debate need to clarify our own vantage point, without which we lose the opportunity to provide effective leadership in society – now and in the future. The pressing issue in this debate is not in the details of the lockdown relaxation process, it’s one of the vantage point from which the debate is engaged. The conclusion of the matter in this debate will directly be determined by the point and angle from which we start it.
Pastor – LivingStones Agency
Visionary Leader – Kingdom Humanity Fellowship
Please follow the links below to access other resources relevant to the current pandemic…
- The Doctrine of Suffering – Part 1
- The Doctrine of Suffering – Part 2
- Covid-19: A Prophetic characterization of the current pandemic (part 1)
- Covid-19: A prophetic characterization of the current pandemic (part 2)
- Restating the foundations of the New Covenant
- Drivers for effective life in the current season of the pandemic
- Doing church in the crisis of coronavirus