WE ARE IN the middle of what I would call the perfect storm. Our country, like most of the globe, is besieged by the coronavirus pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the modern industrial age. In our context, it’s a health crisis that is set against a backdrop of an economy in its longest run of weak growth since the end of World War II.
With economists chalking up yet another year of below 1 percent growth for the South African economy this year on the back of our continued struggles with load shed ding and historically low business and consumer confidence, the tarot cards were already making for some uncomfortable reading for us all.
This epidemic now threatens to bring the country along with the global economy into another recession, the second in just over a decade. With every passing day and week where we don’t get on top of Covid 19, it will further slow activity in an already struggling economy.
For the state, which is already under much strain to meet its obligations as tax revenues remain under pressure, it’s imperative that as a country we find a co-ordinated response to this pandemic. There’s much riding on all of us in society, not only the government, to do our bit to ensure this storm doesn’t capsize our ship one that has been bordering on being unseaworthy for many a year. Our response to the pandemic has to be a co-ordinated one.
First, one has to applaud the clear messaging around the crisis here at home from both the Presidency and the Health Minister Zweli Mkhize. Earlier this week, as Business Leadership SA we attended a Nedlac special executive council meeting on the impact of the virus. There is broad support for the government’s public health response, with social partners set to be identified as champions and to co ordinate communication strategies in support of this. In the meeting we made commitments to the cause, singling out the importance of containing the spread of the virus.
In this regard, business is ready to help assist with tracing, tracking and monitoring cases. What will also be essential in these trying times is security of supply, with particular regards to health supplies. South African ports and customs should be cleared to allow for the importation of these critical supplies.
As the coronavirus spread from China, there have been heightened concerns about global supply chains. Where we can as a nation, we must ensure that ours remain unclogged. In these times of crisis, there are always opportunists who will appear. As such, there must be condemnation of rent seeking and it must be clear and timely.
Already, we’ve seen the public falling prey to panic buying. If that continues it will add another layer of pressure to these supply chains. Panic buying must be discouraged, and we’ve already seen messages from some of our retailers reassuring customers that there’s no need for the hysteria. At the workplace, adaptation to our new realities is needed. With about 70 percent of workers travel ling to work via taxis and buses, there must clearly be an appreciation of the risks of exposure to employees. There should be no stigmatisation of affected employees.
For employers that can, we encourage short time, shift work and, where possible, remote working. Workers and companies should be supported through special leave provisions to make use of Unemployment Insurance Fund and the Compensation Fund benefits. The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition must provide support to distressed companies.
We will establish a Nedlac Response Team and along with that, engage in urgent sectoral negotiations on issues relating to workplace measures at a sectoral level. Business will look to adequately capacitate the various work streams emanating from this intervention. With regards to the macroeconomic impact of the virus, the National Treasury should monitor the impact and react accordingly, cognisant of its own limitations, given the state of the fiscus.
The coronavirus outbreak provides perhaps the greatest economic and social test for the South African government, over and above the many challenges the State has faced over the past two decades. This is a test of our will to work together, across political lines, to safeguard the health of our greatest asset, our people, and to nurture the economy in these difficult times so as to enable it to feed their hopes and aspirations. It’s a test we quite simply have to pass. It’s all hands on deck to keep this vessel, the South African economy, afloat in what is the perfect storm.
Busi Mavuso is the chief executive of Business Leadership South Africa.