Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Mpumelelo Mkhabela | Lesson from coronavirus: the need to stress-test our systems regularly

2020-03-19 10:30
A traveller wears a face mask as a preventive measure at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. (Guillem Sartorio, AFP)

A traveller wears a face mask as a preventive measure at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. (Guillem Sartorio, AFP)

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South Africans fret about the capacity of the under-funded healthcare system to withstand extreme pressure. Which is why another important capability of the state that stands to be tested is in-built capacity for anticipation and foresight, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.


When a video showing China swiftly constructing a hospital for Covid-19 patients went viral, many people wondered whether their countries could do the same if confronted with the deadly outbreak. 

As we normally do when in doubt about our own capacities in South Africa, we resorted to making jokes at our own expense. 

In response to the video, some people made fun of our corruption-prone tender system that would collapse the project at inception or subject it to cost-overruns Medupi/Kusile style. 

Some joked about the slow pace of decision making in government that would prevent a speedy construction.

They cited the dismal record of much-dreaded task teams and ineffectual war rooms.  

Some laughed at how President Cyril Ramaphosa would merely express shock and do nothing. And others referred to our propensity to debate non-stop and do little or nothing in the end. 

If jokes reflected the true state of South Africa’s capabilities, it was that we are not nearly capable as the Chinese to complete a hospital in few days.

Even our lauded record of building world-class stadiums in time in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup left a bitter taste in the mouth after it emerged that there was wide-scale collusion by construction firms.  

But it is during times of crises that confidence about our capabilities has to prevail.

To be precise, it's the state's capabilities that should inspire national confidence.  

Too often the state’s abilities are not in line with huge public expectations.

Yet, there is no shortage of political rhetoric about a capable state or caring state.

Sometimes it's not clear from the perspective of the politicians whether such a state is being built or exists.  

If the caring and capable state has to have any meaning beyond political posture and public administration academic theories, how South Africa tackles Covid-19 will give us an idea.  

Ramaphosa and his administration should understand that the aggregate outcome of our national response is very much dependent on the abilities of the state.  

These range from getting the nation to unite, to the state’s organisational capability to raise resources and foster co-ordination.

It is also about the ability of the healthcare system to withstand extreme pressure that could be exerted onto it.  

Ramaphosa has already shown his ability at a macro level to get the nation behind his declaration of the state of national disaster. Various organisations reacted immediately and cancelled large gatherings.  

He got political parties of sharply different ideological outlooks to pledge support to his plans.

They also made complementary submissions to minimise the harm on the economy.  

He also seems to have got right the coordination within government.

His cabinet ministers have developed a good crisis-response rapport, with no indication yet of territorial jealousies that could hobble the national response.  

But South Africans fret about the capacity of the under-funded healthcare system to withstand extreme pressure.

Which is why another important capability of the state that stands to be tested is in-built capacity for anticipation and foresight.  

No one would have predicted the coronavirus outbreak in China or its contagious effect.

Similarly, no one would have predicted the global financial crisis of 2008, sparked by the United States of America’s woefully inadequate banking regulations.  

But the outcome of that financial crisis was the strengthening of banking systems through stress tests and requirements that banks should keep more reserves than they did in the past.

Regulations were beefed up. 

In the case of coronavirus, some people in our government should be tasked with casting an eye to the future beyond this crisis.

We should develop mechanisms to stress-test our health and economic systems for eventualities such as Covid-19 now that we know they are a reality. 

We were clearly never prepared for the worst, which is why we thought we had the luxury of throwing a lot of money bailing out failing state-owned enterprises and eating some of the funds earmarked for disasters, instead of building state capacity where it matters most for the most vulnerable in our society.  

We never thought there might be a need post-1994 state of emergency.

Regulations for state of emergency are only being revised now.

If there is anything we can learn from Covid-19 so far, while we all battle to contain it, it is that we should stress-test all our systems regularly.  

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

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Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    cyril ramaphosa  |  pandemic  |  health  |  coronavirus
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