Vaccinations, state of disaster and keeping an eye on government

FIFI PETERS: At last night’s family meeting President Cyril Ramaphosa said he believed that the worst of the Covid-19 crisis was behind us and that he was looking forward to better days ahead. This is as he announced that the national state of disaster would end come midnight.

Read: LIVE ARCHIVE: National State of Disaster ends – Ramaphosa

To review the impact of the national state of disaster in strengthening our fight against the pandemic, I’m joined by Busisiwe Mavuso, the CEO of Business Leadership South Africa. Busi, ma’am, always a pleasure to speak with you. Just as the president was reflecting on the national state of disaster and all the things that it enabled this government to do – from introducing the R350 social relief distress grant to the Ters scheme that helped cushion the blow for those who lost some of their income or even all their income – I’m interested in what business thought about the state of disaster and just how you would rank it on a scale of one to 10 in strengthening our fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

BUSISIWE MAVUSO: Fifi, good evening, and thank you very much for inviting me. I think there is absolutely no doubt that the declaration of the state of disaster at the advent of Covid in our country was definitely the right decision. It had a very positive impact on our ability to manage the impact of the pandemic on lives and livelihoods. Remember, we were hit with Covid during our weakest, as an economy. If you look at it, you would know that our economy was already struggling coming out of 2019, where I think we had two consecutive negative quarters of growth. So our economy was actually not performing in a manner that it was supposed to perform.

Covid hit, and I think it really exacerbated what was already that situation. So government, I think, decided, number one, to declare the state of disaster as early as they did, to impose the restrictions that they actually needed to impose – the hard lockdown – although I guess it can be argued whether that was fully effective , in some areas bringing in all the necessary interventions to assist those actually most impacted by the pandemic. I think all of that was brilliant. You remember the R500 billion package that they came up with? I think that was tantamount to pulling a rabbit out of the hat, because you looked at it and you said, ‘In this depressed economy, where the fiscus was as strained as it was, how did they actually manage to juggle the numbers around to come up with that package? ‘

I guess we can have discussions as to whether that was effective or not, but let’s agree that the effort that they put in was absolutely a brilliant one.

We also understood, Fifi, why they needed to deliberate on the extent of the powers to be granted to the health minister and the other organs of state so that future waves of Covid-19 can actually be managed without the need to appoint the national state of disaster. So the extension of it after 15 March 2022 was absolutely understandable.

But I think we were already starting to get worried, as business, in terms of what it means on a practical level in terms of what businesses [are] operating, and what the restrictions were now doing to the economy, and to our plight of unemployment as a country.

FIFI PETERS: Just in your reference to future waves, perhaps we’re not completely out of the woods just yet. We do not know what is around the corner in terms of future variants. I’m interested in your perspective on the benefit of hindsight, which I suppose can only kick in after the fact. Just knowing what we do know now, what do you think the main lessons in terms of the management of our Covid-19 pandemic are, and perhaps in the event that we are faced with future variants that also prove to be quite dangerous, what do you think we should do differently in our management and the balancing act of lives and livelihoods?

BUSISIWE MAVUSO: I really think we have done our best in terms of trying to manage the pandemic. The one thing which we believe in as business is how we actually intensify the drive to get more people vaccinated. [The number is] sitting at 49%, if that’s the number – I stand to be corrected – of our population, that [number] vaccinated does not help. I think we have seen how the Omicron variant was actually not as intense, and if you speak to a lot of people they will tell you a lot of people had probably maybe already been vaccinated. Some people were already reaching their herd immunity, and so forth.

But you remember that we kept on shutting the economy down, increasing the alert level to a higher level whenever we had a wave; that did not actually help the economy precisely because we were struggling to get our vaccination rates at the level where they’s actually supposed to be. I think we’re paying a dear price in as far as that is concerned. You remember the last unemployment number – 35.3% in terms of the narrow definition, and about 46% in terms of the extended definition.

Already [we have] an ailing economy, whereas if you look at what is happening, for instance, in the UK, that economy was already operating at full capacity I think from late last year, where people did not even have to wear masks, where industries like hospitality , tourism, and sporting were actually opened up much earlier on. We continued having imposed restrictions on those industries, because we were worried about getting a lot of people in the same space, because we knew that our vaccination levels were not what they were supposed to be.

I think that for those businesses that have mandated vaccines, that is a brilliant move because it has meant that a lot of people will be left with – I do not want to say no choice, because it does not sound good – left with no choice but to actually go and vaccinate. I think I say that because when you’re looking at the facts you will see that 63% of those that are actually not vaccinated have not done so because of vaccine hesitancy; it’s not because they’re antivaxxers. When you are looking at the people who vein actually antivaxxers, that is a very small and minute community. So we could have done more to drive vaccination rates by probably imposing the restrictions that the president imposed yesterday, to say that for a venue capacity to have more than 50% there’s going to have to be proof of vaccination.

I remember speaking to my brother about this. He was not yet vaccinated and he was saying, ‘Once it’s made difficult for me to enter certain spaces if I’m not vaccinated, I’ll go to vaccinate. At the moment I can still access everything I need to access – why do I need to vaccinate? ‘

I really think that we could have taken a tougher stance in terms of ensuring that people are vaccinated. I do not know, Fifi, if we have done enough to take the vaccination fight to townships, because then in an environment where unemployment is so high, do people have money to take a taxi to actually go to a vaccination site to get vaccinated? I really think that, from a logistics perspective and a site perspective, we could have made it easier for people to get vaccinated.

FIFI PETERS: Busi, I understand that after this transition period, as we phase out the national state of a disaster over the 30 days, it will be replaced by the National Health Act, which has now been distributed for public comment. I’m interested in whether business is commenting on this proposed National Health Act and what those inputs are.

BUSISIWE MAVUSO: We are consolidating our inputs, Fifi, as business. So a lot of businesses are definitely bringing in their comments, and I think we’ll have a consolidated view at the end of it. But I think there is a very strong emerging view from business, in as far as giving too much power, I guess, to the health minister, in particular, as I said earlier on in other organs of state.

When it comes to future waves of Covid-19, we actually know and understand that approving a legislation that gives the state or a particular person too much power to impose limitations on individual freedom is actually a crazy matter.

So we’re looking at how we navigate that, and how we actually make sure, as I said earlier on, that the disruption to businesses going forward is going to be as minimal as possible.

Look at what has happened, for instance, in the alcohol industry, where they switched it on and off as they pleased. When you looked at what you said, when looking at the supply chain that it actually impacted, it actually did not make sense. But also look at what happened at the earlier stages of Covid, where you could go into the shops but you could not buy a stupid thing like flip-flops. So we really did not know, conserving our input such that we do not see a recurrence of such mindless decisions that are actually going to be taken in the future by those going to be given the powers.

We are also worried about the hospitality / tourism industry. It incorporates about 49 000 small and medium enterprises with high employment ratios of low- and unskilled people. Our fixed geographic distribution is disproportionate compared to other sectors generating economic activity, employment, and entrepreneurial opportunities in remote areas of the country.

So we are looking at how to protect those industries going forward so that black people, women and youth are not as adversely impacted as they were this time around.

FIFI PETERS: All right. Busi, thanks so much for those insights. I enjoy them every time, and thanks so much for making time to join the show. Busi Mavuso is CEO at Business Leadership South Africa.

I imagine we will wait for business’s consolidated view on the National Health Act that has been put out there for public comment, and give you that conversation as soon as that view is published.

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