Flexibility in making decisions and discipline in carrying them out will get us through

The outcomes for this pandemic depend on how nations behave

03 May 2020 - 00:00 By COLIN COLEMAN
In Nairobi, Kenya this week, Martha Apisa, left, and Stacy Ayuma get their hair plaited in the 'coronavirus' style as a fashion statement against the pandemic.
In Nairobi, Kenya this week, Martha Apisa, left, and Stacy Ayuma get their hair plaited in the 'coronavirus' style as a fashion statement against the pandemic.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

My former boss, Lloyd Blankfein, taught me the folly of predictions. He would always say to me when I fretted over an upcoming election, a looming seismic economic event or a possible corporate meltdown: "Colin, we are not in the betting game, we are in the business of risk management. No use speculating. As risk managers, we need to assess all risk-weighted probabilities and outcomes, and dynamically plan for each."

I have adopted this simple advice as my golden rule for all things unknown - professional, national and even personal.

Take Covid-19. Commentators argue about what should be done, as if there is definitively only one possible outcome.

They calculate a national infection rate, a death rate, an economic contraction rate, and determine one strategy. And then go all-in, to argue not only in support of their determined bet, but to become inflamed when presented with alternative probability-weighted outcomes.

They sincerely believe that life or death, in the thousands, depends on the acceptance of their one Covid-19 bet, diagnosis and cure.

But take a step back: who would have said, when this all started and we had all the warnings of millions of deaths in Africa, that all of Africa's Covid-19 infections would, by this time, equal those of Switzerland, and that Africa's currently recorded deaths would be a third of theirs?

The world can now see a portfolio of outcomes for this pandemic, the products of how nations behave.

At the good end of the Covid-19 spectrum, South Korea, an early victim of the pandemic's spread from China, this week recorded no new locally transmitted infections.

At the bad end, the US passed the 1-million infections mark, and the death rate of 63,746 by Friday pushed past President Donald Trump's confident prediction that there would be no more than 60,000 deaths.

For SA's emerging-market peers, two shocking cases stand out: Turkey (whose population is 82-million, relative to our 58-million) with an economy twice the size of ours, has recorded 117,500 infections (23 times ours) and more than 3,000 deaths (close on 30 times our 103 deaths); and Peru (whose population is 32-million), with an economy smaller than ours, has almost 34,000 cases, seven times ours, and close on 1,000 deaths, 10 times SA's death rate.

So, yes, SA, so far, is having a "good Covid-19 crisis" on the health pandemic containment front. SA's relative weak spot is the devastating economic effects, with most economists forecasting a 6% contraction in GDP in 2020, with a projected 1.5-million jobs lost.

The recently announced fiscal stimulus plan was a smart mix of measures, designed to offset this economic shock by supporting businesses in a risk-sharing partnership with private sector banks, increased social grants and unemployment relief, to be funded with significant support from international multilateral institutions at low interest rates, and minimal conditionality.

In many ways it was a crowning moment for President Cyril Ramaphosa's signature social compacting strategy.

The announced five-phase lifting of the lockdown, against the backdrop of the Blankfein lesson in risk management, is a smart approach. But it all depends on smart choices and execution.

South Africans, like South Koreans, have to be disciplined in getting behind the national plan. Outbreaks in one or other area, facility, workplace or locality will set us all back.

To this end the security forces need to be the nation's partner in maintaining national discipline; bringing justice, with fairness, to those who transgress lockdown regulations.

We don't know the outcome. Our actions determine it. And it is up to those orchestrating the national Covid command centre to read the data signals to push the accelerator or the brake as required, to open or close the economy in response to its effects on the health pandemic.

The tools they have to use to see how fast or slow to go are: testing, isolating the infected, and tracing and quarantining contacts.

The more data they have the better. Taking the temperature of workers, customers and others and referring those with fevers for testing will help. As the economy opens up, the private sector and society can partner with the government in providing the data on which further risk-management decisions can be taken in fighting this pandemic.

No-one should be playing God here. The authorities should be responsive to what the data tells them. This is the test of an entrepreneurial state: how smart we can be in letting the economic reins slacken, or in tightening them as required, while protecting the lives and health of the nation.

A, so far, is having a 'good Covid-19 crisis' on the health pandemic containment front. SA's relative weak spot is the devastating economic effects

If exporting wine can be done safely and efficiently, that is good for our economy. If opening our mines more doesn't lead to a rise in infections, let's do it. And if infections do rise, the mine or the factory will have to close.

Let's be smart: if technology can deliver food, clothes, toys and other goods and services safely to our homes, let's allow safe online shopping and home deliveries.

Above all, let's show flexibility to respond rationally to the economic and health signals as we progress down this five-phased lockdown strategy.

As we consider the alternatives for SA, let's be thankful for the president's clear leadership of the government's response. The US example demonstrates the risks of an unco-ordinated, messy response.

A nation that is excellent in places but chaotic in others will not defeat the pandemic. It will feed the spread of the virus.

But a nation united in one purpose - with a smart centre of command responding to the risk signals in the economy and in the health of the society - has a chance to defeat this virus with limited casualties. Let's stand together and defeat this pandemic!

Coleman, a senior fellow and lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale, is a former CEO of Goldman Sachs International, Sub-Saharan Africa

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