Editor's Note: The current cigarette ban's relevance to the fight against Covid-19 has been questioned by citizens and civil society alike. Many wonder if the restriction is a personal vendetta or actually based on scientific evidence.
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The government’s stunning reversal of its decision, announced by President Ramaphosa, to allow the sale of cigarettes has left many unanswered questions.
The first of these, is what is the exact medical justification for the ban? One would think this would be the first question that the government answers, but that is not the case.
The answer to this question should be contained in the minutes of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), and organisations such as the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (FITA) have requested that the government provide them with these minutes.
It is not for us to speculate about what might have caused the decision by the government, but the consequences are apparent for all to see, sales of cigarettes in the black market have increased while the quality of cigarettes being sold has declined.
This means that smokers are more at risk of adverse health consequences due to smoking during the lockdown.
It also means the state is losing revenue, the consequence of which will be to widen the fiscal deficit even further than it has already been stretched by the economic fallout from the lockdown.
The government claims that the decision was made purely for health reasons, yet refuses to reveal what these are.
READ ALSO: Covid-19: Minister Dlamini-Zuma defends position on tobacco ban
South Africans are justifiably sceptical, including non-smokers. The government has made a decision that seriously impacts on the freedoms enjoyed by South Africans, who say the least they deserve is a proper explanation for the decision.
South Africa is one of the few countries to ban cigarettes during its lockdown, what did South African scientists see that other scientists in the world haven’t seen? Did they publish their findings in a peer-reviewed journal?
Professor Alex van den Heever, a public health expert at Wits University, has called the cigarette ban ‘meaningless’.
In addition, Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma also cited the 2 000 submissions opposed to allowing cigarette sales, while a change.org petition calling for lifting the ban on cigarette sales currently has more than 500k signatures.
It is not unreasonable to expect some of these people might have also made submissions if the President had not announced a lifting of the ban.
Accompanying the furore over the government's u-turn are the usual Radical Economic Transformation (RET) voices in support of the ban.
To them, it is seen as a chance to finally destroy one leg of monopoly capital. The idea is that companies like BAT will be forced to close down or lose market share due to the ban (they will lose this market share to companies operating illegally), it is not an opposition to cigarettes per se.
Of course, this warped logic has raised the question of whether the government has made this decision for purely altruistic reasons? Is there a nefarious social agenda at play here?
These are valid questions, troubling signs of something like this are apparent in other areas outside of cigarettes. Minister Bheki Cele has been hinting strongly that he might pursue an alcohol ban beyond the lockdown, President Ramaphosa himself has spoken of the government forging a ‘compact for radical economic transformation’ after the lockdown.
He has also spoken of a ‘new economy’ founded on ‘fairness, empowerment, justice and equality’. Whether this means the accelerated implementation of policies like the NHI and EWC is not yet clear.
The Department of Tourism’s insistence on using BBBEE criteria in disbursing emergency funds to the tourism industry has received no criticism from the President.
If the government’s Covid-19 response is guided purely by science, it is a remarkable coincidence that the science so neatly aligns with the ruling party’s ideological goals.
This period in our history requires extra-ordinary vigilance. It is possible that the government has only the best intentions, but as citizens, we should question whether that is actually the case.
We can only do this if we have access to the reasoning behind every measure, failure to do this can only encourage citizens to disregard regulations whose purpose they do not.
About the author:
Mpiyakhe Dhlamini is a data scientist and researcher. He is also a policy fellow at the IRR (Institute of Race Relations). He believes passionately that individual liberty is the only proven means to rescue countries from poverty.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Briefly.co.za.
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