Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA) notes with concern the increase in Covid-19 related hospitalisations and positive tests in the Free State and Gauteng. These suggest that the country faces a third wave of the pandemic which will require interventions to reduce the risk of transmission of the disease.
We approach this prospect knowing that decisive action is preferable to none. We have now learned from the previous two waves what steps are important and which have the appropriate outcomes in terms of protecting lives and livelihoods in our country. We must be guided by the scientific evidence as well both our own successes and failures, and those in other countries around the world.
Businesses have learned to adapt to restrictions that are imposed to reduce transmission risks. Many businesses have invested in their premises to be able to operate safely. We believe that we now have an endowment of safe operating capacity that was not present in previous lockdowns. This means that businesses can continue to operate, subject to fully complying with safe operating standards, in a way that was not always possible previously. Consequently, we can now fight the pandemic with a less negative impact on our economy.
We also believe that evidence must remain the key guide to interventions. Since the pandemic was first detected 18 months ago, we have learned a great deal about what works in managing it. We must continue to be responsive to new evidence as it becomes available. What may have been best practice in the last wave may no longer be given subsequent learning.
This can be the case in respect of highly restrictive curfews. Studies have now accumulated which show that any reduction in virus transmission is outweighed by the impact on homelessness and domestic violence. Similarly, alcohol sales bans have been studied and the impact on both the healthcare system and virus transmission has been questioned. Tourism and hospitality, which employ a disproportionate number of women and unskilled workers, are heavily affected by curfews with seriously negative social effects. The cigarette bans of earlier lockdowns have also been shown to be ineffective at reducing cigarette consumption and instead stimulated significant growth of the illicit economy and losses in excise tax receipts. We should remember that it is outcomes that are important – reductions in virus transmission and the burden on the healthcare system can be achieved through a variety of interventions. We should choose those that have the maximum benefit at least cost based on a rational assessment of the evidence.
Where restrictions in economic activity are required, these should be clearly explained with clear end dates. This allows businesses to plan, for instance to obtain funding to survive through a known period, rather than facing an open-ended disruption which is significantly more difficult to manage and leads to far greater business distress and job losses. Setting clear end dates, or at least clear criteria upon which restrictions would be lifted (such as infection rates) is vital.
Of course, a comprehensive vaccine programme is urgent. Business remains committed to supporting government with vaccine acquisition and distribution. South Africa has resumed the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, of which 31-million have been ordered. This, and additional orders, form the foundation of a large programme that must be implemented as soon as possible. This is the only long-run mechanism to bring the pandemic under control.
BLSA is a willing partner to government in considering options to reduce transmission and in assessing the economic impact of such options. We stand ready to work with government in considering and then implementing the best mechanisms available to protect both lives and livelihoods in the face of the third wave.
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