Nhlanhla Nkosi poses for a picture with his fashionable mask at Nkosibo Laundromat and Dry Cleaners in Melville, Johannesburg. Picture: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times
Nhlanhla Nkosi poses for a picture with his fashionable mask at Nkosibo Laundromat and Dry Cleaners in Melville, Johannesburg. Picture: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

Throw out the rule book. It is useless now. These are uncharted waters. Everything we know has been turned on its head. When we finally emerge on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic, battered and bruised, we will be a different country. The only quality that will matter over the next few months, and the years of recovery and rebuilding, will be leadership.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decisive action this week — locking down the country and announcing a raft of measures to cushion the economy against the impact of the spread of the virus — shows that at the very least we are still doing well on the leadership front. We should be grateful for that. Testing times lie ahead. The month ahead will be challenging and painful. The three months ahead will be filled with pain we have not experienced before as jobs are lost, businesses fold and a tsunami of bad news ripples through our country and the world.

It may seem hyperbolic to say this, but this looks like a war. It feels like a war. This time we are fighting not man but an enemy we cannot see, a virus that moves around and between us and replicates so fast that we are always several days and steps behind it. A lockdown may starve it. The lockdown is the only scientific tool we have against the virus right now. Ramaphosa is correct to lead the nation in trying to defeat it this way.

Yet we have to prepare for a troubled future.

There are 10.3-million South Africans without jobs today. There are millions more whose salaries or wages run out within hours or days of payday. Living hand-to-mouth is not a fancy expression. It is a reality for many people every day.

This is the challenge of the next three months or more as Covid-19 rips through our world and our country. When we tell people to stay at home, for many this is that one little but significant push towards falling into a deep trough of poverty. Many workers do not get paid leave. Many employers, such as families who employ a domestic worker, are laying off their workers to self-quarantine but also to preserve the little cash they have. That domestic worker moves from some income to zero revenue in a heartbeat.

Millions of us will at some point be infected by the virus. Health minister Zweli Mkhize puts the number at 60%-70% of the population. The only way to avert some of this is the lockdown, if we adhere to what we are being asked to do.

Our children will emerge into a devastated, post-war type of economy. Our national debt will have soared. The reconstruction and development programme I have been banging on about these past few weeks will be even more necessary and urgent than it is today. We will need a New Deal in many ways. We will need to do things differently. We cannot afford the laziness, incompetence and corruption that have become the norm in SA in recent years.

When we finally emerge on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic, we will be a different country

But to reach that stage where we rebuild, we will need to ensure that SA passes through the dark tunnel it finds itself in right now. Many in our industries will not survive this lockdown or the extra measures that may need to be taken in future. The hospitality industry is mothballing hotels because there is just nothing coming through the pipeline — so how long will it take for the Germans and Chinese to return? The winter of our discontent is here.

Yet we must not despair. Out of chaos and devastation there is a chance to remake ourselves into a country that is more focused, more agile, more industrious and more prosperous. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we should never again allow ourselves to be caught unprepared financially and systemically. We need a country that works.

Even if these are hard and painful times, this is an opportunity to build that country of our dreams.