Op-Ed: South African businesses call for urgent end to lockdown

President Ramaphosa should be highly commended for his decisive leadership and rapid action at the start of the coronavirus crisis. The response from government at that time is precisely what anyone could have hoped for – following consultation with medical experts and with due consideration to scientific analysis and global best practice, a strict lockdown was implemented in order to stem the spread of the disease. This was a brave decision given that so much was unknown about this virus at the time, however concern is rapidly growing around the severity and duration of the lockdown, particularly as new data and insights into this virus emerge.

The stark reality is that South Africa simply cannot afford an extended lockdown period. We do not have the financial muscle deployed by developed nations to mitigate the negative economic consequences of an extended lockdown, especially following more than a decade of rampant looting of state resources. There also seems to be an automatic assumption that big business will bear the brunt of the economic crisis – we are expected to keep paying salaries, to keep paying taxes (although deferred to assist with immediate cashflow challenges), to keep paying rentals, and to keep servicing loans. How is that possible when we are not allowed to generate revenue? Business has been forced to navigate a torrid operating environment over the past decade and many have experienced significant capital erosion. An extended lockdown period will be the final nail in many coffins and we’re already witnessing the agonising demise of some of South Africa’s best-known companies. If this trend continues, there will be little left to save by September.

It may seem callous to call for a return to business when it may result in further infections and deaths, however this is not a case of prioritising profits over lives. If SA hopes to rebuild any form of economy following this pandemic, we will need a strong and cooperative business sector. Government can neither manage this crisis on their own nor rebuild the economy and create jobs following it. However, the long-term sustainability and needs of big business is conspicuously absent from the current presiding narrative.

It would be expected that the medical professionals advising government would be biased toward the preservation of life and whilst their perspective is invaluable, it needs to be balanced with a view toward the long-term prosperity of our nation. The latest research and statistical analysis indicates that far more people may lose their lives as a result of the humanitarian crisis created by the lockdown than from the virus itself. The concern at this stage therefore goes far beyond business sustainability but also extends to our national ability to maintain social order and mitigate the catastrophic impacts of the lockdown. Business has a duty of care and stewardship toward the society in which we operate but we cannot exercise that duty if our voices are not heard or our sustainability concerns addressed.

The unfortunate truth is that there are many things that kill South Africans every year, not least of which is TB – a completely curable disease that kills approximately 3000 South Africans every month (compared to 161 CV-19 deaths during the past two months). A tragic consequence of the attention being focused on this novel disease, is the stigma that inevitably follows it, and there are now reports of TB and HIV patients who have stopped visiting local clinics to collect their TB and HIV medications, for fear of being stigmatised as COVID-19 cases. Whilst the coronavirus might kill you, TB will kill you if left untreated. If the intention is really to save lives, there are numerous initiatives that could do that without destroying the entire economy.

It is still completely unknown how severely South Africa may be impacted by COVID-19. Everything that’s been done to-date has been based on modelled projections of what could happen. Those models are based on data from other countries which are significantly different to South Africa. We simply don’t know if our climate, National Routine Immunisation Schedule, or any other factor may have a mitigating effect. What is clear is that the actual death rate has been substantially lower than previously predicted. The claim that this was because of the severity of the lockdown seems unlikely, as it is fairly apparent that social distancing is not being adhered to in most parts of the country with extensive queueing and crowding happening every day as an increasingly desperate populace attempts to collect grants or secure a meal.

The data being disseminated globally, and which likely informs the thinking of our national advisors, is also horribly skewed in order to support a particular narrative. Whilst total death rates are constantly updated and serve to strike fear into our hearts, it has now emerged that less than 3% of all deaths in the USA and Italy could be directly attributed to COVID-19. The other 97% of patients already had at least one severe co-morbidity which may have resulted in death anyway. Whilst 270 000 people have died from COVID-19 globally (including the 97% who had pre-existing conditions), it may surprise you to learn that around 18 million die every year from cardiovascular diseases (albeit non-communicable) and 1.2 million from the worst infectious disease, tuberculosis (TB). It begs the question as to whether the global response, based on projections of a worst-case scenario, has been proportionate to the actual risk and observed impacts to-date.

It is expected that a vaccine, if it is even possible to create one, will take at least another 18 months. There is no country that will be able to enforce a lockdown for that long. Lockdowns will not eradicate the virus, so we already have to accept that countries will start opening their economies while this virus is still around. Given that we are not investing in new healthcare infrastructure that requires long build times, we have to accept that we are as prepared as we can be for the inevitable spike in cases. There is no point in delaying the inevitable any longer whilst the economy crumbles and our people starve.

Government urgently needs to engage business as partners in this crisis. A key issue with respect to a continued lockdown is the extent to which testing has been done. With relatively few tests completed and a slowing of the government testing rate, we do not have a sufficiently broad and deep data set to understand how and where the disease is spreading in the country. In the absence of such data, a national lockdown becomes the only blunt instrument at the disposal of government to curtail the spread of the infection. Allow business to return and shift the responsibility of testing every employee onto the private sector – it is in the interests of business to ensure we have healthy employees and the exponential growth in the data set will be invaluable for government decision-making.

With some questionable decisions being made and confidence in government waning – the obscure National Command Council and its lack of transparency around regulatory decisions has not helped in that regard – it is very quickly approaching a situation where large-scale State violence will be required in order to enforce the lockdown regulations. This is perhaps why the decision was taken to deploy more than 73 000 additional soldiers in our streets. Given our history in this country and our hard-fought democracy, can we really accept that more people may die from hunger and State violence to enforce the lockdown, than may actually die from the virus?

For more coverage on COVID-19 visit: https://www.cnbcafrica.com/covid-19/


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