A woman queues with residents during a distribution of hampers, masks, soap and sanitiser organised by different charities at the Iterileng informal settlement near Laudium, Pretoria. Picture: AFP/MARCO LONGARI
A woman queues with residents during a distribution of hampers, masks, soap and sanitiser organised by different charities at the Iterileng informal settlement near Laudium, Pretoria. Picture: AFP/MARCO LONGARI

I was about a third of the way through SA author Deon Meyer’s thriller Fever when it dawned upon me that as far as his fictional account was concerned, I – and almost everyone I cared about – was probably dead. So were you. It was deeply unsettling.

In recent months we have all had to confront the possibility that Covid-19 could have a devastating impact on humanity. As the months have passed since the first cases were diagnosed and a pandemic declared, we have also seen scientific principles applied to stop the worst of the spread, and it’s clear that with careful management, its most damaging health consequences can be contained.

The forecasts are disturbing. According to SA’s Covid-19 modelling consortium —an esteemed group of scientists, actuaries and other professionals — local casualty rates are likely to rise significantly from current levels. More than a million people could be infected by mid-July, which means the country’s health system will be out of beds, and by November more than 40,000 people could have died from Covid-19.

The numbers may be imperfect, but they’re still terrifying. Somehow the government has to balance the complexity of the health crisis with the need to grease the wheels of a shrinking economy. SA’s response to how it allows the most stifling aspects of the lockdown to be lifted needs to be properly informed against the risks that getting the country back to work pose. We must learn to live with the virus in our midst, and manage our response to it, rather than hunkering down until it miraculously disappears one day.

I once asked Discovery CEO Adrian Gore, who founded the insurer in 1992, how he maintained the sort of faith in the future to keep investing and growing, despite going through considerable periods of uncertainty. “If it’s not Armageddon, you must be building,” he said.

Well, the past two months have felt precisely like Armageddon – if not from a health perspective (thanks to stringent global measures to contain the spread of the virus) then certainly from an economic one.

The economic consequences of the global shutdown stand to be far more serious than even the dislocation caused by the global financial crisis of 2008/2009, and governments are realising that the risk of staying in hard lockdown could be more crippling than a carefully stage-managed opening up of the economy.

Talking to entrepreneurs who have cracked the big time, the most obvious theme is that very little that happens on their way to the top does so by accident. Most of what they achieve occurs deliberately, often painfully, and always over an extended period.

“Nothing happens overnight,” Gore told me. “You have to focus on slow, steady, incremental growth. You have to question everything. But you must act.”

It’s a critical lesson as the government contemplates a high-risk strategy of opening the economy while combating a rising tide of Covid-19 infections. The number of infections in SA is nearing 20,000, with more than 350 dead. There have also been about 8,900 recoveries.

Pressure to open the economy

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 statistics will worsen as the economy opens up, but the failure to act decisively will do far greater harm in the long term; various data points show the devastating economic cost of the lockdown.

SA’s early success in containing the virus might have given us an inflated sense of superiority as to how we are managing fatalities; now the government is coming under extraordinary pressure to allow trade amid mounting evidence of the negative consequences of maintaining the increasingly unpopular lockdown.

Policymakers around the world are having to make similar decisions, but many other countries have the benefit of solid public health systems and more stable national balance sheets to support citizens. SA doesn’t have those luxuries, and may even have to reimpose a severe lockdown if cases spiral out of control — but that should not prevent it from acting.

It’s clear that opening up economies is going to be a combination of trial and error in which there will be casualties. What is absolutely certain, however, is that if we do not act, the long-term consequences will be catastrophic for millions, further widen SA’s considerable inequality gap and condemn future generations to a life of extreme poverty, just as the world and, indeed, SA were making progress at alleviating some of its worst effects worldwide.

The data shows the country is at a critical inflection point. The consequences of maintaining a stranglehold on commerce will have a far greater negative impact than the virus will in the short term. Economic data is pointing towards the permanent destruction of jobs and the long-term loss of income for millions unless an ordered return to work can be orchestrated.

The school conundrum

We need to be paying very close attention to the lessons from other parts of world.

Basic education Minister Angie Motshekga this week said it was precisely what they were doing, as they prepare to welcome grade 7 and 12 pupils back to classes from June 1, and to gradually phase in the rest of the grades.

And yet, there are signals that the government must be prepared to reverse decisions quickly, should the need arise — even at local level.

South Korea, for example, had to send children home from some schools near Seoul soon after they returned to class as some pupils tested positive.

It’s going to happen. Perhaps it’s not entirely a bad thing, because done properly with appropriate tracing and tracking, it may very well help the government to target hotspots it is currently missing.

In the UK, government advisers are telling Downing Street to hold off until a new system of tracing the spread of the virus is shown to be successful. More than 1,500 primary schools in that country have said they will not open if asked to do so on June 1.

For global elites, they appear intent on riding out the crisis. Cambridge University has announced a scrapping of all face-to-face lectures for at least the next year. Private boarding school Eton, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson and many of his predecessors were educated, has said it will take similar steps.

Germany is also learning that opening up its economy is far harder than closing it down.

When countries were in shutdown mode, fear of the unknown was a great motivator for compliance. Now, however, a different kind of fear has spread through societies around the world, and the risk is that citizens try to normalise too soon.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg is reporting that a new outbreak in China suggests the virus could be changing. This complicates efforts to eradicate it. Early studies show the new outbreak in northeast China is characterised by people carrying the virus for longer, and taking longer to recover, than was the case in the early cases in Wuhan.

There are going to be no quick fixes. Regulatory flexibility, however, will go a long way to mitigating the very worst health consequences of the virus, while giving the economy a chance to alleviate its financial impact.

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