People at Cape Town International Airport wear face masks. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
People at Cape Town International Airport wear face masks. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

We do not fully know what the spread of Covid-19 will bring here in SA and elsewhere. We know, however, that this spring will end and that our country and our systems will need to be rebuilt. We dare not waste that chance.

The implications of Covid-19 are dire enough even in these beginning stages of the pandemic. Economies are shutting down. Forecasts for poor or decent growth are being revised down by the day. Any serious scenario planner is by now weighing up the implications of overloaded public health-care systems and the social, medical and economic consequences.

Everything is up in the air. Social distancing means not just that schools and universities are shut down, but also that parents have to deal with the prospect of children home with no child care, police services with reduced personnel, and retailers with scarce food and other products as supply chains are being compromised.

Social instability is a real possibility. The rich may have access to ventilators in private health care, the poor may not be so lucky in public institutions. Security companies may be hobbled by staff laid low by the virus.

Panic is the enemy. The volatility of the financial markets over the past two weeks illustrates just how so many of us know very little about the virus and what is likely to happen in the next few months. There is no steadiness, just wild swings that indicate the hopes and dreams and disappointments and prejudices of the day. This too shall end, leaving the devastation of our actions in its wake.

It is trite to say the world is in crisis. The current shutting down of economies is unsustainable. People have to eat. They have to work. They have to educate and be educated. They have to transact. So the crisis stage has to come to an end.

For SA, we must not waste this crisis. Whatever happens in the depth of this crisis, whatever damage is wrought, we have to use its inevitable passing as a time to reconstruct our country and its economy. We have wasted too many chances already.

After the global economic meltdown of 2009 we had a bunch of incompetents in office. The stimulus and marketing opportunity provided by the 2010 Soccer World Cup was trampled on by the president of the country at the time. Policies that could have aided the country’s upward trajectory were put on the backburner while the ANC started flirting with resource nationalism as Julius Malema, at the time chief of the ANC Youth League, beat the drum for nationalisation of mines. We missed the mining boom.

The economy is now an absolute and total mess. The numbers are known to everyone. Unemployment at 29.1%. The debt-to-GDP ratio at an incredible 60% and ratcheting up very quickly. We have a recession on our hands while no real stimulus measures are in place.

The Covid-19 crisis has taken our minds off it for a while, but March 27 is the day that Moody’s planned to announce its decision to downgrade the country to junk status. That decision, following the slew of negative economic news from every meaningful institution, from the Reserve Bank to the World Bank and many others, was most likely to be that we were indeed declared junk. The surprise and shock would have been if Moody’s had come in with a hold.

We may be afraid while the world digests the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects. But if we do not get our house in order then we will be punished in the months and years ahead.

So, what should we do? If we fail to plan, as the old saying goes, then we are planning to fail. President Cyril Ramaphosa needs to implement a reconstruction and development programme for the nation. He need not write one. He has to implement the many plans that have been forwarded to him and have been endorsed again and again. The National Treasury’s turnaround plan is one. A vigorous plan to get tourists back here is another. We do not have time. We do not have time.