Why are South Africans disrespecting COVID-19 regulations?

by Prof Deon Rossouw | Published on 24 July 2020 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter


Our President, the Minister of Health, and a number of other members of our national cabinet have on various occasions reprimanded – some would say scolded – South Africans for not adhering to the myriad of regulations that government announced to curb the spread of the Corona pandemic in South Africa. And they seem to have good reasons for doing so, given the fact that South Africa has not only the highest number of COVID-19 infections on the African continent, but also the fifth highest number of infections in the world.

Why are South Africans so loath to follow the seemingly well-intended regulations issued by government? The lack of respect for the laws and regulations in the time of the Corona pandemic is indeed cause for concern, as it can have fatal consequences not only for those who disobey these regulations, but also for all with whom they are in contact with.

Lawlessness can potentially cause huge harm to both individuals and to society as a whole. The Greek philosopher, Socrates (c. 470 – 399 B.C.) already emphasised and demonstrated how essential law-abiding behaviour is. When he was sentenced to death, and was awaiting his execution, a well-intended and well-off friend of his arranged for his escape from prison, but Socrates refused this offer, based on his respect for the law. He argued that one cannot be expedient in following the law, thus abiding by it when it suits you, but breaking it when the law does not suit you. As a consequence of his respect for the law, Socrates was executed, although he did not agree with the death penalty imposed on him.

A case can be made for breaking the law on moral grounds in circumstances where specific laws are regarded as unfair or unethical. This is in fact what Mandela did under the Apartheid legal dispensation. Civil disobedience is a recognized form of moral protest, but it is a form of protest that should only be used as a last resort, after all other legally admissible remedies have failed. And it should only be used in cases where fundamental human rights are at stake.

Living in a state of general lawlessness is not only inconvenient, unpredictable and unsafe, but also potentially lethal. Given the importance of law-abiding behaviour for creating safe, just and prosperous societies, how should we make sense of the wide-spread disrespect for the recent spate of regulations that were issued to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus in South Africa?

There are at least four considerations that might play a role in the reluctance of South Africans to abide by the said regulations.

Making an exception of yourself

There are some persons who simply make exceptions of themselves when it comes to abiding by the law. Although they might believe that laws are required in any orderly society, they nevertheless take the liberty of not abiding by the law themselves. By making exceptions of themselves, such people start normalising the breaking of the law. We have seen this kind of behaviour, for example with speeding on our roads, where over time more and more people start making exceptions of themselves, and ultimately speeding became a widespread phenomenon with fatal consequences in our society.

Also, in the case of the Corona pandemic, there are many persons who wilfully do not abide by regulations related to face masks and social distancing. By making exceptions of themselves, and getting away with it, they set the tone for a much wider disregard for these regulations. In this time where the disdain for regulations has become a matter of life and death, there is a moral obligation on all citizens to not make exceptions of themselves when it comes to obeying potentially lifesaving regulations.

Bread first, law later

Another reason for not abiding by the law and spirit of the COVID-19 regulations, is sheer desperation among a sizable part of our population. In the field of ethics there is the well-known principle of “Bread first, morals later” that signifies that personal survival overrides all other concerns. While theft is generally regarded as morally unacceptable, we tend to judge people differently who steal food to stay alive. What applies to ethics, also applies to the law. People who find themselves starving to death in the time of the Coronal pandemic, are likely to resort to all possible means to stay alive, including illegal means. This stark reality should remind us as a society that we have a moral obligation to provide for those who find themselves in desperate situations where survival has become the overriding concern.

Inconsistent application of regulations

Respect for the law and regulations are also undermined by the inconsistent application thereof. This is especially the case when the application of law and regulations depends on the position that you occupy in society or in an organisation. There are few things that erode the credibility of legal and regulatory standards as much as when one set of standards is applied to the big fishes, but another set of standards to the small fishes in the pond. The President of the USA is a perfect example in this regard. By blatantly ignoring for months the advice of health experts in his own country, when it comes to the use of face coverings to curb the spread of the virus, he unwittingly encouraged others to do the same.

The inconsistent application of COVID-19 related regulations in South Africa, in the case of the size and protocols of group gatherings, or of social distancing in public transport, undermines the credibility of regulations, and thus invoke a spirit of “if they can do it, why can’t I as well?”. If government, and law-enforcing agencies want to see more respect for regulations, there is a moral duty on them to ensure not only consistency across regulations, but also consistency in the application and enforcement thereof.

Irrational regulations

We are currently faced with regulations that border on the absurd. A political commentator recently remarked that while it is currently illegal to go and visit your mother, it would be perfectly legal – should you mother pass away – to get in taxi filled to 100% capacity, and attend your mother’s funeral along with 50 other persons. People tend to lose respect for regulations that seems either unfair or irrational. In the current situation there are just too many regulations that seemingly fail both the fairness and rationality test. This does not only breed contempt for those regulations that fail the test, but for COVID-19 related regulations in general. It is thus imperative for our government to recognise that the disrespect for regulations amongst citizens, which our president and members of his cabinet so publicly bemoan, is not only caused by a lack of virtue amongst citizens, but also by some unfair and irrational regulations that they themselves issued.

Plato (c. 427 – 348 B.C.), a contemporary of Socrates, argued that good people do not require laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around laws. This is a timely reminder that the cure for lawlessness, does not lie in making more laws, but in moral character. As we are approaching the peak of the Corona pandemic in South Africa, leaders from all walks of society would do well to not only appeal to other to respect the law and regulations, but also to appeal to the moral conscious of people to do the right thing in the time of the pandemic.