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As the first week of June 2020 approached, the ‘R’ word had adapted to a more positive form with the ‘Recession of lockdowns’ in many countries around the world – the number of coronavirus (‘rona’) infections were beginning to slow down and so the curves were flattening and lockdowns being lifted. However, South Africa, despite the increasing number of infections (as more people were being tested), moved from level 4 to level 3 in terms of the National Disaster Act, driven by the need to alleviate the effects of the lockdown on economic activity.

As we emerged, hesitantly, from the frustrations of selfimposed isolation into a semblance of normality and greater mobility, I reflected on the many webinars that I listened to and asked myself the question – what lessons have I learnt? Quite a few, and I’ve captured them into five distinct messages for this letter.

Before laying out the lessons, let me set the context with a quote from a book that I’m restarting1 to read: ‘… creating community, the most valuable form of social capital – the intimate, supportive relationships that spur collaboration while deeply satisfying our human need for connection, belonging and meaning’. Otherwise put, ‘a life-long community of colleagues, contacts, friends, and mentors …. social science research tells us President’s Corner that satisfying these relational needs isn’t just about some soft notion of “the good life”; these are the hard prerequisites for creativity, innovation, progress – and, at the end of that chain, profit.’2

The excerpt provides a backdrop and reference for key human traits that we at times take for granted. These are the traits which, in my humble view, have been temporarily suspended by the presence of ‘rona’ in our lives.

Thus, the first lesson from ’rona’ was the imperative of our time: to safeguard lives and livelihoods. In the absence of a vaccine, adhering to appropriate protocols to ensure safety and hygiene is our only chance of preventing further infections and transmission of the disease. The ability of people to live normal lives has been shattered as if by the force of Thor’s hammer. It is public, private, and civil society leadership, in an unprecedent response, that has been carrying these imperatives, high above the shoulders, in either hand – the balance maintained while we trudge towards a vaccine will determine the ‘new normal’.

The pandemic is described firstly as a humanitarian crisis and secondly an economic disaster. The former arises from the extent of devastation on the poor and destitute; the inadequacy of health facilities and potential increase in poverty and inequality. However, the response to these challenges was amazing. The unbounded combined action to save lives has never been witnessed on this scale and depth in South Africa. This brought to mind the second lesson and confirmed that life is a value – we have realized what matters most, viz., safety and health, wellbeing, love and care for ourselves and others … all the emotional and mushy stuff that we often forget about.

At the same time, we must show care for what we have become and created as a society, the economy – our livelihoods and source of purpose. This creates the connections beyond family, gives us hope, and it is where innovation happens and where we seek fulfilment because what we do in this realm makes a difference – not only to our own lives, but to others’ lives too. ‘Rona’ has been the sobering antithesis to this life experience.

Now enter lesson number three – politics are the other side to the economy on the social coin, and therefore one cannot exist and act without the other. A thriving economy makes for political gain and the economic recession expected for the balance of 2020 and into 2021 will make for interesting politics over the next twelve to twenty-four months, both domestically and in several other countries around the globe.

Then there was the lesson of what the new normal may look like. While we await a viable vaccine to be found, we will need to learn to live with ‘rona’. An interesting lesson from Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus, is how the population has been colour-coded into red, amber, and green depending on the extent of exposure to the virus, which then determined the degree of mobility allowed by the state. Enter the surveillance society, where with the use of technology our every movement will be monitored, for better or for worse. Further, given the unprecedented levels of stimulus funding provided, the role of government in markets will be different, but how different only time will tell. Business will be a more active and responsive participant in society to address key issues, viz:

  • An inclusive approach to economic development that ensures a meaningful reduction in inequality. Pay parity will become an area of public scrutiny; co-investment in infrastructure that enables greater mobility and reduces the cost of living, to name a few. Business will be judged by its impact in a way that changes lives.
  • ‘Rona’ has elevated the urgency for response to climate change – the cumulative and systemic impacts from climate change and ‘rona’ demand a coordinated regional and global response. ‘Rona’ has demonstrated the ability for collaboration, which will be expected in relation to climate action.
  • The tech race will intensify, but all participants will win. Based on the coordination and cooperation witnessed in response to ‘rona’, technical collaboration should enable developing nations to transcend current challenges and progress for the benefit of their citizens.

Lastly, I believe we are moving towards an era of increasing engagement because of a combination of the factors that I’ve described earlier, such as the state of the fiscus and debt troubles faced by governments post the lockdowns, he recessionary state of the global economy and social consequences, and policy response and effectiveness to manage economies out of the economic trough. Government or business cannot manage this situation individually. For our society to emerge strong from the effects of the lockdown, the acknowledged imperative of safeguarding lives and livelihoods must persist. Leadership from the public and private sector, with the support of civil society, must strengthen even further to build a foundation of trust amongst these social players and in society in general, which will then provide for better collaboration.

M.I. Mthenjane
President, SAIMM

1 This is this common ... right?
2 Excerpt from ‘Never Eat Alone … and Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time’. Keith Ferrazi and Tahl Raz., Penguin Random House.