President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the media at Union Buildings shortly after engaging with business and political leaders about the effects of coronavirus in South Africa.  Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the media at Union Buildings shortly after engaging with business and political leaders about the effects of coronavirus in South Africa. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Our leaders have united in the fight against the coronavirus, now we must play our part

By Reneva Fourie Time of article published Mar 23, 2020

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On Wednesday March 18, South Africans experienced an unprecedented display of maturity when leaders of political parties gathered, under the direction of President Ramaphosa, to provide a coherent response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

For once, political parties placed the country and its people above their political ambitions. The usual bickering, insults and point-scoring were refreshingly absent. Witnessing their united and collective display of leadership in a period of difficulty engendered reassurance. This display of unity was affirmed with additional public statements by smaller political parties after a meeting of political leaders on Sunday, March 22.

A crisis such as that arising from the outbreak and rapid spread of Covid-19 requires whole-of-society preparedness and responsiveness. The minimisation of its destructive impact necessitates swift, coordinated, collaborative action by multiple stakeholders around a well-communicated, concrete plan with definitive roles, timelines and accountability measures. Such a plan should include consideration of business and operational continuity to ensure that critical services are sustained without compromising the safety of workers. 

In a testimony to the power of plurality and participatory democracy, the meetings of South Africa’s leaders demonstrated the enriching constructiveness of the alignment of a diversity of perspectives towards a cohesive national response.

The framework of interventions endorsed by political leaders was outlined in a preceding address by the President on March 15.  It was expanded upon at a subsequent inter-ministerial meeting; and given flesh at the Nedlac meeting of government, union, community, and business leaders; as well as successive sector-based meetings. 

The positive responses by several entities across the board, including religious bodies during this period of Lent, Easter and Ramadan, confirmed the value of a people-centred, people-driven approach to problem solving. 

Even the governing African National Congress surprised with clear instructions from its National Working Committee, which postponed meetings for three months; a significant decision given that its structures were preparing for a July/August National General Council and that next year is an election year for local government. We trust that the one or two segments of our society that are still consumed with sectoral interests will come on board soon.

The decisive and hands-on leadership displayed by President Ramaphosa and his Cabinet, particularly Dr Zweli Mkhize, our Minister of Health must be welcomed and congratulated. We rest assured because our leaders speak with one voice; and because their confidence resides, not only in our willing co-operation, but also in the institutional capabilities of our National Disaster Management Centre, our world-class National Institute for Communicable Diseases and our selfless and dedicated doctors and nursing staff.

While appreciative of the sterling leadership displayed, we must remain cognisant that, historically, pandemic mortality rates are highest amongst those located in the lowest socio-economic strata. 

The most vulnerable are those persons who live in conditions of overcrowding, with low levels of literacy and high levels of unemployment. Disaster management plans usually have focused interventions to protect the young and elderly, but dedicated interventions to ensure accessibility of critical information, services and protection by the socio-economically marginalised are also needed.

Communication by government around the pandemic has been excellent thus far. And awareness has been broadened by allowing government’s Covid-19 information website to be accessed at no cost and through the phenomenal efforts of radio stations and the media in general.  These efforts, however, have mostly benefitted those who are digitally savvy and proficient in English. 

The rate of increase in infections is too high and all measures should be utilised to implore the urgency and seriousness of the matter upon citizens. This includes conducting door-to-door visits to ensure that all people understand the nature of the pandemic, its current and anticipated impact, and the prescribed precautionary measures. The voluntary initiatives in this regard are commendable. The state should equip these social activists with safety equipment, information packages and training, to support the spread of a common message.

The advocacy of social distancing and self-quarantining, necessitating the early closure of schools, has also resulted in the need for reliable care and continued food security for children. We have housing shortages; backlogs in home-based running water, sanitation and electricity; inadequate access to emergency vehicles; and low levels of general food security amongst some segments of society. All these challenges should be accommodated in our planning. Prevention is undoubtedly better than cure. But in the event of infection or exposure, testing and healthcare if needed, should be made available at no cost.

The contributions of local big businesses and the release of emergency funds by government will go a long way, but South Africa cannot finance this process on its own. We are not Denmark that can cover 75 percent of worker salaries for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic, nor are we France that can suspend the payment of rates and utility bills. It is important to request funding from multi-lateral platforms such as the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility. The enormity of the crisis requires international solidarity.  

In the wake of global devastation and large-scale obliteration, South Africa has thus far been spared the rapid levels of pandemic mortality witnessed in China and Europe. We mourn their losses and empathise with every affected household and community. Amid the sadness and uncertainty, it is heart-warming to note the calibre of leaders that we have in South Africa, as revealed by this crisis. 

The scope of solutions presented, and the wideness of its impact, would not have been possible without the support of all our leaders and the co-operation of citizens. We can however do more. There is a need for all to refrain from non-essential social activity. 

Having just celebrated Human Rights Day and recalling our defeat of apartheid and its divisive legislation, we certainly possess the ability to cohere as a nation. If everyone co-operates, we can stem the spread of the coronavirus and we will be able to emerge victoriously from this crisis.  

* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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