'Mishaps could have been avoided' – Trevor Manuel on govt's Covid-19 response

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Trevor Manuel.
Trevor Manuel.
Felix Dlangamandla
  • Former minister of finance Trevor Manuel said government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic was imperfect and some mishaps could have been avoided. 
  • He added that it was very difficult to plan for the pandemic as it was something only seen in history books.
  • Manuel said because of vaccine nationalism, poor countries have to battle to secure vaccines

Former minister of finance and current Old Mutual chairperson Trevor Manuel says government's response to the pandemic was imperfect and some mishaps could have been avoided, while others were out of its control.

Manuel addressed the Centre for Development and Enterprise's webinar which was themed "SA and the next five years: How do we resolve our political and economic crises?" on Thursday.

Before he spoke of pertinent issues, Manuel said it was a "pretty daunting task" to answer what the next five years had in store given the current milieu.

"It is important to recognise that the current situation is very bad and know that it can't deteriorate any further. So, the decisions taken over the next five years are fundamentally important," he said.

Asked about the government's response to Covid-19, Manuel said he thought it was very difficult to plan for the pandemic as it was "something only seen in history books".

"The lockdowns were pretty intense ... but I don't think we did particularly well in getting the military and police to engage. I think that they were ill-equipped and that showed and there was, in true South African style, a bit of resistance.

Another point that Manuel touched on is the communication of the virus to the South African population. "I have been concerned about the poor communication, the idea that we have all our communication about Covid-19 in English when that's a minority language in SA is rather disastrous."

Vaccine rollout has been at a snail's pace in South Africa with just 0.8% of the population fully vaccinated.

Manuel said the vaccine rollout is a rather complex situation as he has a particular vantage point on how the matter was unfolding from working as part of the special envoy to mobilise international economic support for continental fight against Covid-19. This placed him very close to the African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the Covax initiative.

Vaccine nationalism

"The issue that has been there from the start is vaccine nationalism. We saw that the two large countries that make up North America had large quantities of vaccines, and this placed them in a position where they could roll it out and none of this was seen as a contradiction a few weeks ago when the G7 met.

"That is still an issue. Poor countries have to battle to secure vaccines," said Manuel.

Moving on to other issues which the pandemic has exposed, such as rampant corruption, South Africa is left as a weak state, Manuel said. 

When asked what President Cyril Ramaphosa should do when there are important tasks at hand, but not the right people in Cabinet, the provinces or metros to deal with them, Manuel proposed the "social compact".

The social compact is a dynamic agreement between the state and society on how to live together, and how to address issues of power and resources.

"The president has touched on it, but it needs a bigger push. I think parts of it were tested, the shell is there but the details need to be worked. It was the essence of the National Development Plan [NDP]," said Manuel.

The National Development Plan adopted by Parliament is the product of the National Planning Commission, which was led by Manuel and now Ramaphosa. Developing an inclusive economy was one of the NDP's cornerstones.

"In a society like ours I think we owe each other the responsibility to know that nobody goes hungry; that we will do our level best to make sure there is employment; and that everybody can aspire to a reasonable quality of life," said Manuel.

Before that, though, Manuel highlighted problems that needed to be fixed, such as public finances, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and policy certainty.  

"The issue that is important right now is to fix public finances. At the moment there are debates about what the fiscal ceiling should be, we are extensively borrowed.

"Among the issues we need to look at there is the cost of the public service. [The] Minister of Health, now on a leave of absence,  Zweli Mkize, spoke recently about 1.25 million health workers in the system and there was a fact check on this and the number … appears to be just under 604 000. Now, how can the minister be that wrong? There is something fundamentally wrong," he said.

"There is something wrong in the system. This has to be right at the front of what needs to be remedied, failing which you are not going to be able to produce quality services.

"The SEOs are an absolute mess and we need policy certainty. Those are the issues that should be raised in the agenda and we need to come back to them, we must not tire," said Manuel. 

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