The shift to level three next week is important and welcome. It will allow more of the economy to reopen and for people to earn a living. It will limit the damage to the economy as we fight through this crisis.
The move follows significant engagement between government and social partners including business. There is alignment that business must ensure it can operate safely for both workers and clients. As business, we now have a week to ensure we put in place the necessary measures to do so, while also working with government to help with the wider battle against the disease.
A few of us as business leaders met with President Cyril Ramaphosa and several other cabinet members on Thursday. It was clear that everyone understands we need to transition through the lockdown levels as quickly as possible, but that can happen only if business can operate safely and protect workers. In part, businesses will need to ensure health and quarantine facilities are available to workers and safe means of transport. It means workplaces must respect social distancing rules and other health protocols.
While government has been accused of arbitrary and irrational decisions (including by me on occasion), the spirit of engagement now is based on rational analysis of the options we have to protect the economy and fight the pandemic. The president has led this engagement and shown great leadership in resetting the course of government’s response when it has become clear that it is needed. That was clear again in his speech last night.
The pressure is now on us, as business, to innovate and adapt to the crisis. We must develop new ways of working and servicing our customers to comply with health protocols. We need to help workers find safe ways of getting to work. And we need to fight the pandemic by using our roles as employers to help our employees test and quarantine when necessary. If we can demonstrate that operating supports, not hinders, the fight against the disease then there will be a rapid move through the lockdown phases. We are of one mind with government on this.
A lot of creative energy is going into thinking through how business can meet these requirements. Can we help workers avoid peak transport hours by staggering production times? Can we engage health practitioners and suppliers to ensure workers have access to testing and other support? Are we able to reconfigure our facilities to ensure both workers customers and are safe? There is no such thing as zero risk, but the challenge is to minimise risk as far as is reasonably possible. Just what amounts to “reasonable” is of course subjective, but the science is increasingly giving us insights into what slows transmission. Use of PPE, social distancing and avoiding enclosed spaces are no longer in dispute.
We are acting urgently and together with government I’m confident that a rational risk-based opening up of the economy will happen.
We are also starting to think through the kind of recovery we need to embrace as we move into a new normal beyond this crisis. It will take major reform, a new Marshall Plan, to drive an acceleration in investment as business and government focus on rebuilding. Our economy will carry the scars of this crisis for some time, but we must ensure that it can rebuild as fast as possible. Some things will be changed forever and we can use the rebuilding process to reshape the economy to be resilient for the future. We need one that can deliver abundant low-cost and green energy, fast and cheap broadband, efficient low-cost transport links, confidence that investors can rely on their property rights, clarity across the economy on the rules and regulations that we function with. Going into this crisis the economy was already in recession because we had failed to get those right all along. The recovery is our opportunity to correct past mistakes, complete unfinished work, adapt to the new ways of working we will face after this crisis, and do it fast.
The positive message from government is that it is committed to driving a recovery and is open-minded on engaging with business on how to do it. We share the burden of getting it right.
We are starting to see innovation happening widely. I wrote in my Business Report column that those who innovate – and quickly – will be able to firstly keep their heads above water and then prosper. The changing times are evident through Facebook’s announcement of a new “shops” feature that allows any small business to sell directly from social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, for free. That is a new way to sell directly to customers, changing the landscape for conducting business. These changes are going to going to drive disruption in the jobs market and one wonders what will happen to traditional marketing channels. To preserve jobs in what is an already high unemployment environment, business and indeed the state are going to have to be innovative to avert an even greater economic crisis that will emerge from these changes.
There has been mounting criticism of government policy in in recent weeks, particularly at its inflexibility, with some regulations difficult to understand. This causes much angst with social partners. I was therefore encouraged by signs of the growing realisation in government circles of the desperate position of the economy and the need to change its approach to the lockdown period. I wrote in Business Day that there has to be a co-ordinated push between government and the private sector to ensure that over the second half of the year there aren’t unnecessary restrictions to commerce. As we gear up and the economy is steadily unlocked, our society needs to adapt to working with Covid-19 as an ever-present danger.
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