Picture: 123RF/SEZER ÖZGER
Picture: 123RF/SEZER ÖZGER

SA remains the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa with more than 740,000 cases, even though the country’s recovery rate has improved significantly, to about 92%. This is testimony to the combined efforts of the public and private health sectors, and the success of efforts to educate people about the coronavirus and how they can protect themselves.

SA was one of the first countries in the world to impose a hard lockdown, which virtually stopped all forms of economic and social life to the point where some people were accusing the government of political overreach, especially on civil liberties.

In hindsight, though, the hard lockdown, notwithstanding its devastating impact on an already sick economy and worsening unemployment, was probably the best route to contain what was essentially an unknown, invisible enemy, as President Cyril Ramaphosa described it in his numerous speeches to the nation.

However, the cost has been colossal: for example, the GDP contraction for 2020 is expected to be as high as 7%, with an estimated 3-million job losses. Some businesses have collapsed; the tobacco and alcohol sector has incurred billion-rand losses; the tourism industry has been decimated; and the aviation sector has ground to a halt. Not to talk of revenue losses for the already cash-strapped government.

To its credit, the government responded to the lower infection rate and steady progress of recovery of those infected by easing the lockdown regulations to the current alert level 1. However, it is evident, based on what is happening in Europe and the US, that we are not entirely out of the woods — the risk of a second wave is still high and potentially unavoidable. Some have said the second wave in SA could hit as early as late December or early January.

To pretend as if a second wave will not hit SA is fatally flawed and irresponsible. There is therefore a need for a redoubled, collective national effort

It is clear that there is an element of lockdown fatigue among people, which has resulted in some lowering their guard and behaving and going about their daily lives as if Covid-19 no longer exists, let alone ever existed. A visit to the shopping malls and other public places attests to this.

Large social and family gatherings, where social-distancing and mask-wearing are neither being enforced nor observed, continue to be the biggest risk of spreading Covid-19 in SA. Reports of police raiding overcrowded night clubs operating well beyond the midnight curfew, and of mourners breaching the maximum number of people allowed at funerals, show an element of irresponsible and reckless behaviour that threatens the progress made so far to lower Covid-19 infection rates.

Against this background, reports that the government may be considering re-imposing some of the stricter lockdown regulations should worry everyone, particularly the business sector, which has only just started to see some green shoots of recovery after the impact of lockdowns.

The economy is in crisis, government finances are strained, and any further fiscal slippage could trigger another round of credit downgrades. Many companies, particularly in the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector, are struggling to recover from the effects of the previous lockdown levels, while productivity in larger companies in key sectors, such as manufacturing and mining, is nowhere near the pre-lockdown level.

With less than two months before the end of 2020, this year is probably a write-off for some businesses in terms of profitability and commercial success. That companies have managed to hang on this far by the skin of their teeth is itself a miracle. While the government has launched an economic recovery and reconstruction plan, its impact — let alone success — will probably only be felt in the latter half of 2021 or first half of 2022.

This is because the economic decline, exacerbated by the lockdowns, has not only been systemic but structurally devastating such that only a huge injection of investor confidence, accompanied by significant spending, will begin to boost the economy.

Ramaphosa and his government are right to be alarmed and concerned about the possibility of a second wave, and it would be irresponsible of them not to act to protect lives and livelihoods. But this will come at an economic cost, as we have seen before. And this time around the economic impact could be fatal to many businesses, and the country could take years to recover.

Europe is a particularly sobering reminder that SA can easily slip into that downward spiral, with the resultant devastating consequences of a stricter lockdown. Some SA companies with businesses in Europe are already feeling the financial pinch of the hard lockdowns imposed in some countries, such as the UK.

Now is the time for employers to continue reinforcing messages to staff, whether they are working onsite or remotely. Religious organisations, too, should play their part; so should provincial governments through their health departments. To pretend as if a second wave will not hit SA is fatally flawed and irresponsible. There is therefore a need for a redoubled, collective national effort, led by the government, organised business, political parties and other social partners, to intensify messaging around simple measures people can and should take to prevent the spread of the virus.

It is important for people not to lower their guard in terms of the basic measures of wearing masks in public places, social-distancing and washing hands. Law enforcement should not relax efforts to monitor and deal with large social gatherings, which are fertile grounds for infections, as is unchecked congestion in stores and shopping malls.

Investment in the manufacture of personal protective equipment (PPE), preparing ICU infrastructure and ensuring public hospitals are in a permanent state of readiness should continue.

It is always easier to build on progress than start all over again. All should, therefore, play their part to prevent a second wave of Covid-19.

• Kamhunga is a former financial journalist now working in corporate communications.

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