We have to tackle the coronavirus as one nation, together

22 March 2020 - 00:00 By William Gumede
An effective coronavirus strategy must simultaneously stimulate the economy, combat the virus itself and push for a societal behavioural change.
An effective coronavirus strategy must simultaneously stimulate the economy, combat the virus itself and push for a societal behavioural change.

Tackling the devastating Covid-19 outbreak, which snowballs health, economic and social crises into one, means SA will have to, in one go, overcome all the obstacles that up to now have undermined attempts to lift growth, boost development and forge societal solidarity across race, class and ideology.

An effective coronavirus strategy must simultaneously stimulate the economy, combat the virus itself and push for a societal behavioural change.

The problem is that there is very little trust in the government. Worse, most of the country's leadership, intellectual and ideas capital sits outside the ANC, politics and government.

Furthermore, there has been up to now little capacity within the government to co-ordinate complex delivery programmes, plan across departments, agencies and sectors, and form effective partnerships within and outside the government.

Winning the war against the coronavirus will mean the effective mobilising of the talents, resources and ideas of all South Africans in and outside the ANC, the government, the private sector and civil society.

A government going it alone will fail, with deadly consequences for all South Africans.

A government of national unity (GNU) between the ANC and key opposition parties is not practical right now, but the first thing would be to create the closest equivalent to a GNU by involving the best talents of all political parties in the national response to the disease at all levels of the government.

There has to be a partnership between the public and private sectors at all levels, starting from the health sector.

In the private sector, prices of basic foodstuffs should be capped also.

As part of a deal between the government and the private sector, there should be an increase in the production of protective medical equipment needed to fight the coronavirus — with the government guaranteeing to buy up any surpluses.

A debt holiday should be introduced by banks for at least three months for household mortgage payments, vehicle loans and business loans, especially for small businesses.

A property rates and rental fee freeze over the same period should be considered at the municipal level. VAT refunds should be introduced, allowing businesses and employees to reclaim VAT on goods purchased.

Personal income tax for this financial year should be reduced. The government must also introduce tax breaks or equivalent support for businesses in sectors heavily impacted by Covid-19 to help them not retrench large numbers.

The hierarchical structure of the government, where directors-general or senior civil servants, even if they are clueless, are expected to lead, should be immediately abandoned to allow the most capable leaders to lead a particular programme even if they are outside the state.

Medical specialists in the public and private sectors and medical professional associations must be at the heart of the intellectual, management and patient response to the disease, not bureaucrats.

In the health sector, public and private hospitals must strike a partnership where the private sector proactively makes available beds, medicines and personnel to the public sector. Joint leadership between private hospital groups, medical aids and public hospitals should be established. Private sector medicine prices must be capped to discourage profiteering.

Medical specialists must be at the heart of the response, not bureaucrats

There should be a freeze on wage increases across the economy. Restrictions on bulk food buying should be introduced. Corrupt individuals involved in the illegal trade in medical protective equipment should be harshly dealt with.

Churches, trade unions and taxi associations should get their members to adhere to social distancing, anti-infection hygiene measures and cleanliness. Individual citizens will also have to take personal responsibility to enforce social distancing, personal infection control and avoid hoarding of food.

Perhaps this crisis could enforce societal behaviour change, so elusive before — getting people to take personal responsibility for their behaviour, or risk falling sick.

Gumede, an associate professor in the school of governance at Wits University, is author of 'Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times' (Tafelberg)

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