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For the first time since the SA government started using lockdown restrictions to respond to rising Covid-19 cases, it has erred on the side of caution and used pragmatism in its response to the latest Omicron Covid-19 variant.
Rather than tightening restrictions, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the country would remain on alert level 1 for now, implying that a drastic increase in infections could force the government’s hand.
Days before the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) met to discuss the latest variant, a number of business organisations had warned against a knee-jerk response of tightening restrictions and banning or restricting trade in sectors such as liquor.
This is because such restrictions have always been imposed without consultation with the affected economic sectors, putting many businesses and jobs at risk. However well intentioned, decisions made without consultation always have unintended, often negative and sometimes disastrous consequences.
Businesses understand the need to protect lives and livelihoods. But they have been rightly insisting that a reasonable balance should be struck between saving lives and ensuring minimal disruption to economic activity. Previous lockdown restrictions have unfortunately caused unintended consequences such as business closures and job losses.
In the alcohol sector, government’s decision to restrict or ban liquor sales has merely entrenched the illicit market, which the liquor industry says will be difficult — if not impossible — to control or eradicate going forward.
This time around, faced with the new variant, government is finding itself between a rock and a hard place. Daily cases are rising and the emergence of the Omicron variant means the forecast fourth wave is likely imminent. However, while government and the scientific community gather more information about the variant, it is evident that any move to tighten restrictions would be premature.
To its credit, it appears that government is realising more and more that intermittent restrictions, while necessary when faced with rising infections, hospitalisations and deaths, are causing mounting damage to an already struggling economy. Last year GDP fell to about -6%, the worst rate in four decades, and after a rebound, growth is expected to average just 1.7%-2% over the next two years. Unemployment is at a record high, the highest among 82 countries surveyed by Bloomberg, while poverty and household food security have worsened, mostly as a result of job losses and the impact of the pandemic.
The economy cannot absorb any more disruption, let alone harsher lockdowns, necessary as they may be. However, it is now obvious that Covid-19 is going to be with us for years to come, just like the flu, and that regular vaccinations will be needed to strengthen our immunity. Rather than defaulting to harsh lockdown restrictions whenever cases soar, perhaps the time has come for government, working together with the business sector and supported by the medical profession, to develop alternative long-term and sustainable responses to the pandemic.
The nature of the virus means there will inevitably be new variants, and as things stand it is impractical to assume the virus will be completely eradicated in the foreseeable future. The most potent response to rising cases other than lockdown restrictions is to accelerate vaccination and encourage continued adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions of wearing a mask in public places and sanitising.
The decision to establish a task force that will undertake broad consultations on making vaccination mandatory for specific activities and locations is a step in the right direction. Already, some JSE-listed companies have followed the stance taken by Discovery to mandate that staff be vaccinated. And the trend is increasing — some public universities are also issuing mandatory vaccination notices to students and staff from next year.
A carrot and stick approach is the best way to respond to vaccination hesitancy, and this means mandating entrance to certain public places for only those who have either been partially or fully vaccinated. Places of worship, government departments, retail stores, sporting and entertainment events are some of the places where only those who are vaccinated should be allowed to enter.
Government has been given a window period before the onset of the expected fourth wave to ramp up its Covid-19 inoculation campaign. SA, like most African nations, has seen a sluggish uptake in vaccinations despite an increase in supplies. The current excess supplies could be used to offer third doses to the most vulnerable, including those aged 50 and above, so that we continue to fortify the immunity of the most vulnerable section of the population. This will soften the impact of any future variants and reduce the number of people who may need hospitalisation, and even potential fatalities.
Government, working with the business sector, labour and other social and civic partners, can step up the vaccination programme by saturating the media with the benefits and advantages of vaccination. Such campaigns about the efficacy of vaccinations have been patchy in SA and this has allowed anti-vaccination campaigners to exploit the vacuum by spreading misleading and in some instances frightening misinformation.
A communication strategy to counter this is urgently needed. There is no way SA will escape the fourth and probably subsequent waves, but perhaps by then significant progress will have been made towards national herd immunity, thus preventing the imposition of damaging harsher lockdowns. The time to act is now.
And if it becomes necessary to impose tighter restrictions perhaps government can take a leaf out of its book to put into practice what it has been urging: full consultation with the business sector, and taking on board some of the suggestions offered. Consultations for the sake of it will not work.
• Kamhunga is a former financial journalist now working in corporate communications.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.