Picture: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Picture: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

A little more than a year ago I was preparing for a weekend in Franschhoek with friends to celebrate my wife’s birthday. Sitting at OR Tambo, I took a call from FM editor Rob Rose: "This Covid thing — how about writing up your early thoughts? Deadline Tuesday." Click.

The weekend was idyllic with the Cape winelands at their best, but my mind was unsettled: writing about events that have already happened is always easier than doing so when they are evolving.

My piece appeared on February 6 2020, headlined "A Real Game-Changer". It was, it turned out, an understatement. At the time, there were 28,276 people infected globally, and 565 dead. Few of us were ready for the pandemic.

The fact was, it was already here. At the end of February, I flew to London for a few days, attended a conference with 600 people, and flew home. As I got back, the arrivals hall at OR Tambo was a seething mass of humanity; no masks or social distancing, and a solitary person checking our temperatures to much banter as three immigration officials struggled to process four planeloads early one Saturday morning.

Today, the scorecard is: more than 48,000 dead in SA, amid 1.5-million infections; in the US, nearly 500,000 dead, and 28.3-million people infected. It’s a scale of contagion that is difficult to comprehend.

Imagine if this pandemic had struck 20 years ago, when the internet, Wi-Fi and smartphones were in their infancy. There was no Amazon or home deliveries to speak of, and no Uber Eats. Life would have been far worse.

Today we live in a world where the biggest retailer is a tech company (Amazon), as is the biggest media company (Facebook). Google has entered the language as a verb. The fastest-growing automotive company is Tesla. The pandemic has underscored how tech rules.

A year ago, had you heard of Zoom, Teams or Moderna? A punt on those shares would have yielded immense riches.

Imagine if this pandemic had struck 20 years ago, when the internet and Wi-Fi were in their infancy

It was only in June that the CEO of Microsoft said he’d seen more adoption of digital processes in three months than in the previous two years. We’ve adapted, embracing new technology to survive in a new world. Today, we meet on Teams and Zoom, and join webinars from home.

Early in the pandemic, an illustrious economist, now at Cambridge University in the UK, pointed out that we were about to experience not one but three pandemics in parallel: the health, the economic and the mental.

Sadly, he was correct: just the negative impact on education alone will be felt for years to come.

But could anyone have also predicted the impact of science — particularly the development of vaccines in record time?

Covid has highlighted many shortcomings in the way countries are run — we’ve seen draconian measures imposed without dialogue or debate that have driven many out of business and into poverty.

In SA, we’ve seen an inability to process Unemployment Insurance Fund claims, a scandal of pension mismanagement, rampant corruption and an utter lack of accountability. The Covid postmortem will not be pretty.

While many South Africans have lost their businesses or their jobs, MPs and the bloated public sector are impervious to what is happening. And worse, many continue to steal from the people they are meant to serve.

And yet, there will be those who create their own luck, starting new businesses to survive. Some will thrive, others won’t.

There’s no doubt Covid has been a game-changer. The tragedy of the past 12 months, brought home by harrowing pictures of frontline workers battling the virus, will remain with us forever in our memories of lost loved ones and countless other ways.

The vaccine will bring hope as it chases down the mutations, but we’re nowhere near out of this.

  • Sampson is CEO of Brand Finance Africa


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