With the country sliding deeper into recession every week as many industries remain closed or operate at half capacity, the urgency grows to reduce restrictions on the economy. The state needs to ensure the health of both its people and the economy.
I was much encouraged by signs of a growing realisation in the government of the desperate position of the economy and the need to change the approach to the lockdown.
At the end of the week President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) on the readiness of the state for a further reduction in SA’s economic restrictions to alert level 3. It was encouraging to see the government’s commitment and eagerness to move to this level in an effort to stave off the looming economic catastrophe.
What stood out for me in the briefing was the state’s reconsidered approach to the lockdown regulations, in which it will drop its rigidity. In his briefing to social partners, the president was quoted as saying: “All that is not expressly forbidden will be allowable.”
This is welcome as it points to less regulatory strictness. For a time it felt as if upholding the measures so strictly was beginning to unravel the social compact that has carried us through this difficult period.
It’s encouraging that the government has reviewed its stance and it goes a long way towards strengthening the social compact. The need to ease restrictions has become evident after the decision to allow online stores to sell any product other than alcohol and cigarettes under level 4. We were one of the few countries to shut down online e-commerce, apart from the sale of essential goods, during the lockdown.
At the end of May, the president has promised, the country will move towards level 3, further opening up the economy and we hope that even under those regulations a commitment to less rigidity is maintained. But as much as we welcome the more reasoned approach to lockdown regulations, we remain mindful of the risks posed by opening too fast, no matter the discontent.
It’s for us in the business community to ensure that our largest companies are ready to welcome back workers who can’t work from home and ensure their safety. The risks have become clearer with news this weekend of platinum miner Impala Platinum temporarily closing its Marula mine in Limpopo after detecting 19 Covid-19 cases among workers. In recent weeks we’ve seen reports of big grocers such as Pick n Pay having to temporarily close stores because staff have been infected by the virus.
The more the economy is opened, the more it becomes likely that we will have such episodes given that the peak of Covid-19 is expected in September. The challenge to business and the state, through its department of health, which has been commended for its response to the virus, is not to take their eyes off the ball and to emphasise that lives come first.
Unlike countries in the northern hemisphere, such as the US and Spain, SA is opening up commerce as we head into the winter and flu season. It’s our misfortune and it dictates that we navigate the next four months with the utmost care.
On Sunday the country had the highest one-day spike in coronavirus cases. That is a reminder to us of the risks ahead if we recklessly unlock the economy. The purpose of the hard lockdown that began at the tail-end of March was to prepare our defences, knowing full well that we would one day have to be released back into the economy to deal with a virus the likes of which the world has never experienced. We now have to test those defences and, over the next couple of weeks, prepare to move to level 3.
Traditionally the second half of the year is the strongest economically, but 2020 will be different. The damage of the “great lockdown” has scarred our economy, and the cost has yet to be determined. There has to be a co-ordinated push by the government and the private sector to ensure that over the second half of the year there aren’t unnecessary restrictions on commerce.
Nedlac is working by sector and collectively to achieve the country’s earliest possible migration to level 3. As we gear up and the economy is steadily unlocked, our society needs to adapt to working with Covid-19 as an ever-present danger.
This piece was first published in Business Day