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Coronavirus: At this time of a national disaster, leaders must step on it, including stepping on toes


Mcebisi Jonas is MTN group chairman and former deputy Finance Minister of South Africa.

Amid the global Coronavirus pandemic, the lesson for South Africa is that in order to weather the international storms we have to get our own house in order.

The financial markets are collapsing. Coronavirus, or Covid-19, is spreading across the planet, its impact only starting to be felt in South Africa. The global system is shaken, exhibiting a worrying fragility and volatility. World powers are preparing extraordinary economic interventions in anticipation of a possible worldwide recession.

South Africa felt battered before the bad news of the last few weeks. We were already dealing with load shedding, unemployment, rising crime and the effects of corruption in the public and private spheres.

If there is one abiding feature of the present moment it is that many South Africans are consumed by a sense of helplessness and despair.

Read the headlines. South African Airways and South African Express are fighting for survival – and the Covid-19 effect on airlines may finally put them out of business. Eskom is in the throes of an operational and financial turnaround that has yet to materialise. Prasa is in a state of near collapse in Gauteng and the Cape, causing untold misery to hundreds of thousands of commuters.

The forecast of GDP growth of 0.7% has been halved to 0.3%. Unemployment is at all time high at 29.1% – and youth unemployment is above 50%. There will be pressure to reduce interest rates further to provide some relief but this in itself will not be a stimulus. The government and unions are squaring up for a fight on the reduction of the public sector wage bill. Business confidence is at an all-time low.

Many South Africans fear that we might not even have reached the bottom yet.

What power, what agency, do individuals have to influence change when confronted with such tough realities?

There are no easy answers for those who seek comfort in simplistic slogans or populism or shrug their shoulders in defeat. The answers lie squarely within our power to change. But it is going to take hard work, tough decisions, and decisive action.

The current set of international crises has complicated the path forward, which is why they are worth dwelling on. What they show is that, collectively, people have the capacity to shape their own destiny. Even in the bad news of Covid-19 we can detect, in the uneven global patterns of those nations that are affected, that these crises are not just Acts of God.

Some countries got it right, others got it wrong.

China got it wrong at first when it sought to cover up the emerging spread of the disease, muzzling the doctors who had first-hand experience of what was happening. But through an iron-fisted approach that involved putting at least half the population in quarantine and using aggressive surveillance techniques China managed to bring new infections down to single figures.

Not every country has the recourse of Chinese state power. But the rapid responses of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam and other Asian countries in the path of the disease were exemplary and they have managed to flatten the curve and evade the worst.

Mike Ryan, the World Health Organisation’s head of emergencies, says that “a systematic government-led approach using all tactics and all elements available seems to be able to turn this disease around”.

Hong Kong set up systems to try to identify and treat every case in their territory. They developed diagnostic tests and rapidly deployed them to labs at every major hospital in the city. At one point, Hong Kong had 12,000 people in quarantine. Singapore’s prime minister called for calm and assured residents that all healthcare related to the disease would be free.

South Korea tests 20,000 people a day; it isolates new cases; it tracks and tests people who have been in contact with the new cases, and isolates new cases.

However, Iran and many countries in Europe, including Germany, Spain and Italy, were slow to take the virus seriously. In three weeks Italy went from three confirmed cases to basically shutting down the entire country, imposing a nationwide house arrest.

The biggest unknown is the United States, in which – despite President Donald Trump’s early efforts to downplay the pandemic as a hoax – an emergency could be unfolding. The Trump administration did not react quickly enough, strongly enough or decisively enough to limit the spread.

Because of the early absence of adequate tests there is very little idea of how prevalent the disease is and how fast it is spreading. If sickness comes in a sudden rush in the next few weeks, it could swamp the healthcare system.

Emergency measures on the scale of Italy or China in the US and other leading markets will deal a further blow to the global economic system. The impact of the Chinese slowdown, the worst in decades, will be magnified if the US economy as well as key European economies are effectively quarantined.

Experts believe it could take a year to 18 months for a vaccine to be ready. Social distancing on a global scale is already being implemented.

In South Africa we are already seeing an adverse impact on tourism affecting the hospitality and travel industries, two key sectors of the South African economy most sharply affected – and the capital markets have been battered as part of the global crash.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s tough new measures including travel bans, school closings and bans on gatherings of more than 100 people showed grit and leadership at a bleak moment.

South Africa’s Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and our healthcare workers have so far dealt with the crisis in an exemplary manner by being transparent and quick to identify cases and to act.

The test now is whether we acted quickly enough to slow the spread and whether we can operationalise the far-reaching measures that the President proposed.

We are fortunate that we can benefit from the experience of other countries and should be preparing now for the worst-case scenario with public education, adequate mass testing equipment, free medical care for all and planning for a medical emergency, including the mass provision of hospital beds and ventilators.

We should also learn from the experience of other African countries who have extensive experience in dealing with infectious diseases. Nigeria defied expectations by containing and defeating Ebola in 2014, thanks to the incredible work of Dr Stella Ameyo Adadevoh, who died in the epidemic. 

That the oil price war landed in the middle of a global health pandemic has placed a further burden on the world economy.

Russia is no longer prepared to continue cutting production, to the great benefit of the US fracking industry, which was able to capitalise on the market restraint of the other big producers to push up their own production.

The American fracking industry in Texas and New Mexico – where there are few fields that can operate profitably below $35 a barrel – will be immediately hit, though the oil-dependent Russian economy will also be severely damaged in the longer term. Saudi Arabia, too, will have to dig into its foreign reserves to subsidize what has effectively become a war for market share.

The impact will be deeply felt by other OPEC members such as Iran, the Gulf states and the African oil producers Nigeria, Angola and Algeria – though cheap petrol will be a boon to South Africa and other economies which are dependent on oil imports.

A diplomatic solution could yet prevent a fight to the death on the oil markets between Russia, the United States and Saudi Arabia.

But this geopolitical tension points to other seemingly intractable conflicts in the Middle East and on our continent. In Libya, Saudi Arabia and Russia actually find themselves on the same side in a coalition against the government in Tripoli which is backed by, among others, Turkey.

In fact, it speaks to increasingly aggressive geopolitical manoeuvres of global powers, who are particularly intent on scoring gains in Africa.

The lesson for South Africa is that in order to weather the international storms we have to get our own house in order.

Rahm Emmanuel, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, famously once said: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

Covid-19 is a challenge for us and, though an emergency, will require the same qualities that we will require to tackle our most urgent problems: a competent and capable government seized with urgency, willing to take tough and drastic action if necessary.

But it is also going to require an engaged population looking out for each other.

We are all in this together. The virus will not distinguish between rich and poor, white and black, or whether you live in a city, a township, a village or on a farm. To combat it we must look after everyone, especially the elderly, the most marginalised and those least able to cope.

We have to find our sense of compassion as a nation.

This is our starting point. In order to achieve this, we urgently need to reduce the gap between pronouncements and actions.

That is the first step to building confidence. 

Second, we need to make tough choices, for better, for worse. Not everything is going to require consensus. The tough ones rarely do. 

Third, we must make a firm distinction between short-term goals and long-term objectives and stop using long-term approaches to short-term challenges. 

Leaders must step on it, including stepping on toes. The notion of social compacts work for the longer run but are not a substitute for short-term decisiveness.

Fourth, we should eschew false pretences of unity. Unity must be purposeful and principle-driven and not tradeable for opportunistic gain.

Fifth, leaders must lead in the interest of the people, the country and the nation. Politicians who are only focused on party conferences or leadership elections need to broaden their focus and think about the people who desperately need real leadership.

There has to be greater trust in the human ingenuity of our people. And we should revile partisanship in the interest of the national good. Then we can have a country we all can justly claim as ours, a living, breathing embodiment of our Constitution. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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