On Friday, the curtain finally starts to lift on what must rank as the most difficult period for a South African economy that has been through the worst over the past decade. Nothing could have prepared us for operating under lockdown conditions over the past month that has Treasury now pencilling in a 6.4% economic contraction this year.
When we first moved into lockdown at the end of March, it was done with much goodwill. But as the days and weeks passed and the economic damage unfolded here and across the world, so social tensions arose. Tomorrow, we begin to release some of those tensions with a move to level four, where restrictions are being carefully lifted for important sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture. Expectations are that about 1.5 million people will get back onto our roads and highways and head back to work.
As welcome as this relief is for a great many of us, we shouldn’t lose all sense of perspective. The restrictions aren’t being lessened because the pandemic is no longer a threat to our health; we are still in the eye of the storm. Expectations are that the pandemic’s peak is only in September, after our winter period. What the hard lockdown has done is buy the state time to prepare better for what health crisis may unfold over the next four months.
An increasing responsibility to ensuring there isn’t a rapid rise in cases and the number of deaths from coronavirus is now being shared with business and citizens. While much must be done to ensure employees have a safe passage to their places of work with 70% still reliant on taxis, we need to prepare workplaces for their return. It is the responsibility of business to ensure that we don’t put employees in harm’s way. That will come at a steep cost for those small and medium-sized operations that haven’t traded for over a month.
Whatever these cost pressures, it would be morally wrong to cut any corners on hygiene protocols. It would also amount to short-term gain should the state have no alternative other than to move us back to a full lockdown.
There’s a great responsibility being placed on business in what is in essence a renewed commitment to the social contract. We hope businesses that can afford to operate with the bulk of their employees at home do continue to do so, in line with level 4 regulations, during this most critical of winter months that are almost upon us.
The coronavirus spreads faster in cold weather, with some of the world’s leading scientists warning that it could return every year. That being the case, our centres of work need to commit to much higher levels of hygiene standards. If as business we cannot commit, we will put society at further risk. .
Today, the trade and industry department will put forward regulations governing how businesses will operate under level four, taking into account feedback from mainstream business. We’ve laid our case and asked for allowances where possible and highlighted some of the shortcomings in government’s initial draft. This is a delicate path that we both have to negotiate, considering both the need to keep South Africans safe and to get the economy moving again.
As we’ve often said as Business Leadership of SA, the health of South Africans is central to the health of the economy, there’s simply no divorcing them. Ours is an economy heavily weighted towards domestic consumption, thus its recovery is invariably tied to a healthy populace able to earn and spend.
It’s with heightened caution that we should invite our employees back over the next week. Our economic recovery starts in earnest and we have to ensure it isn’t derailed by any reckless trading in this period. When the pandemic first exploded into our national consciousness, scientists and economists the world over warned of its possible damaging impact on South Africa because of our challenges with diseases such as HIV/Aids and TB against a backdrop of the worst inequality rates in the world.
The government-led lockdown we are now set to gradually emerge from has saved us from the worst of these forecasts, and for that we must applaud the measures followed. To review them and consider whether they were too draconian is irrelevant now; rather, they were relevant and necessary at the time. What we need to ensure as business in the weeks to come is that we don’t give justification for the return of a stricter lockdown.
It’s our national duty, as we start what will be a hard and long road to recovery. It’s not business as usual, and perhaps given the levels of discord between all the different spheres of society in our divisive past, this period may prove to be an opportunity to change relations.
As the days and weeks passed during the lockdown period, it was quite natural that tensions built up in society at large as we witnessed the alarming damage being done to an already struggling economy. The raising of the curtain is welcomed, but business and employees must understand that it comes with great shared responsibility.
Here’s to day one in our recovery.
This opinion piece was first published in Business Report.