Bonang Mohale | Recovering from a pandemic, we'll never be the same. Perhaps we shouldn't

Bonang Mohale (Supplied)
Bonang Mohale (Supplied)

"The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones. It ended when alternative options opened for humanity."  

- Steven Chu & Arun Majumdar, (energy experts, in a 2012 article in Nature)

For me there are two eerie past incidents worthy of revisiting. The first is the 1988 Japanese science fiction manga (graphic novel) called Akira by Japanese artist, Katsuhiro Otomo, released on ‘anime’ film, about the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. In the novel he describes the 147 days countdown before the Olympics and graffiti on the walls, demanding “just cancel it” in protest.

The second is the 2011 movie titled Contagion, about a virus similar to Covid-19. It is hard to comprehend that it was in December 2019 when the world really woke up to the coronavirus. In just over four months, we now have over 1.4 million people infected and over 85 000 dead.

South Africa’s first patient emerged on early in March and in just one month, we have over 1 800 people infected and 18 dead. This has already affected logistics, availability of raw materials, tourism, petrol prices, airlines, textiles, etc. around the world in 193 countries. With the global population of almost eight billion people, about half are now in lockdown. 

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has fundamentally changed everything! Allow me to think with you about just three.

First, is how the world will start thinking about the health and wellbeing of their people in good times, in order to build the necessary resilience to cope with the increasing frequency of occurrence and virulence of these successive viruses.

People will demand more

Resilience, especially in Africa, is much more than the ‘food-energy-water’ nexus. Health is not just the absence of disease and infirmity. It is physical, emotional, social and psychological well-being.

The countries of South East Asia are demonstrating that they have internalised the learnings extracted from previous viral attacks like SARS, H1N1, etc. epidemics by rapidly and widely deploying these learnings to good effect.

South Korea’s learnings have mostly been about speed, intensity, transparency and coorperation. From now on, electorates are just not going to demand houses, electricity, roads and bridges but hospitals, good healthcare, water, education and social justice. Gone are the days when leaders neglected provision of good healthcare to their own citizens in the comfort that when they and their nuclear families need healthcare, that they can obtain this overseas, at the expense of their own taxpayers. 

Economic carnage

Second, is the direct financial impact of those infected and affected as well as the direct economic devastation as a result of the ubiquitous lockdown at a time of global income disparity and attendant social unrest; extreme weather and precarious government finances!

The price of crude oil has plummeted from the highs of yesteryear at $147 per barrel to $20 per barrel, where no country nor company is breaking even below the $60 - 80 per barrel band. At these bargain prices, China is frenetically buying to replenish its strategic stock pile. The world GDP is approximately $90 trillion. Almost $20 trillion dollars is the European GDP, which represents 23%+ of the global GDP.

This world cannot have a healthy global economy without a healthy European economy. The EU is more important to the global GDP than China, because of its maturity of markets and a strong financial system based on hundreds of years of foundations. China lacks both these qualities.

In the first three months, we have lost $3.2 trillion in global GDP.

World capital markets have lost double that amount. Apple is facing a revenue loss of $1 billion a day because of its stores closure around the world. Asia airlines alone have recorded a $129 billion loss. United Airlines is losing a $100 million a day! USA experienced 10 million unemployment claims in a week and 6.6 million in one day. Some 100 million barrels a day of world crude oil consumption has already dropped to 89 million barrels a day. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that it will increase its daily production from 9.7 million barrels a day to 12.8 million barrels a day. John Menzies has been forced to reduce its global workforce by 17 500 jobs as it tries to stay afloat amid the fallout. 

What about SA?

Here at home, both SAA and SAX are in business rescue. Comair has posted its very first loss since inception. South African companies have responded by, among others, increasing operational efficiencies; changing product specifications, launching new products and increasing customer experience; adopting even better technologies and growing e-commerce; increasing ICT equipment procurement; increasing Research & Development spend; selling non-core businesses and consolidating some businesses.

The most recent example is Massmart’s announced reduction of mega-warehouses, demanding reduced rentals for Game stores and agitating for an end to big annual increases in rental. Labour market adjustments are now in full swing as evidenced by reductions in employment, remuneration, hours worked per employees.

In the first six weeks of this year, the announced planned layoffs are much more than ten thousand with Samancor’s 3 000, Telkom’s 3 000, Massmart’s 1 440, ArcelorMittal’s 1 400, Sibanye’s 1 142, Glencore’s 665, Aspen’s 219, etc.

This excludes SAA, SAX, Eskom, etc. The Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme, by December 2019, had 47 applications with about 4 799 affected employees. Without any government assistance, South Africa will have no aviation industry to speak of.

Other changes

Third, is how human behaviour, relations and interactions are going to change both at a personal level and the world of work.

This has changed the way we greet, visit, gather, entertain, bury our dead, pray and worship, etc. In exactly the same way that it now feels so archaic that we used to write letters, lick a postage stamp and stick it onto an envelope and walk to the post office to throw it into a red bin and then wait for six weeks to be delivered AND still wait another six weeks for a reply, our children find it quite funny that we used telegrams, telex machines, faxes, and photocopiers.

Our grandchildren will laugh when they learn that we used to book our flights a year in advance in order to benefit from a cheaper fare, that we used to book a hotel room at about the same time, depart home in our own cars to drive to the airport, in order to check in an hour before departure - land an hour or two later and hire a car to go to a meeting and then retire at the hotel overnight. They will be surprised that we actually owned our own cars and holiday homes in era of Uber and Airbnb. 

The last three weeks have demonstrated beyond any shadow of doubt that technology like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams and Skype is extremely effective and efficient. Covid-19 has accelerated the digital economy (4IR), the fourth industrial revolution (after ‘water and steam’; ‘electricity’ and ‘electronics & information’ revolutions respectively).

Just like the JSE trading platform has migrated from on the floor to online, so too has the education system migrated from bricks and mortar to an online distance learning platform. With the price of crude oil pegged to the USA dollar, and now with the collapse of the crude oil, are we likely to see the emergence of a new currency - and with it, the creation of a new trading bloc/s. With the re-emergence of China and Russia forcefully inserting itself back on to the global agenda, does this mean the displacement of the USA as a global police force and an honest arbiter of global conflicts?

With the global lockdown, what about the incomplete project of globalisation? One thing is certain, past assumptions are no longer accepted, like the stabilising power of economic globalisation, job security, political liberalisation, environmental protection and technological innovation. All of these will have to be both reimagined and repurposed into creating a shared future in a fractured world by, among others, driving sustained economic progress; navigating a multipolar and multiconceptual world; overcoming divisions in society and shaping the agile governance of technology. 

Looking forward

We need to balance, on the one hand, the medical imperative of trying to slow down the spread of Covid-19, with, on the other hand, the economic imperative of trying to keep our businesses running and maintaining sufficient levels of trade, commerce and payments - the lifeblood of economic activity AND fundamentally change our own human behaviour in recognising and accepting our inter-dependencies and inter-connectedness by demonstrating more gratitude, care and kindness.

To overcome the spread of Covid-19, we have already addressed the three pillars of physical distancing, self-quarantine and working from home. The huge inequality has been laid bare for all to witness. Some hurdles that are uniquely South African include practising social distance and preventative hygiene in a lived reality of the majority of our people find themselves in crowded dwellings; with no access to flush toilets; no access to piped water; no access to electronic communication; relying on public transport and the use of public health facilities. Many have already heightened health and socio-economic vulnerabilities; many more face hunger and poor health; have pre-existing health conditions; have no medical aid nor insurance; have previously failed to find healthcare and find it difficult to save.

In trying to effect the required working from home, with our public transport not yet safe, accessible and affordable, anyone getting into a taxi with a laptop and a smartphone is likely to have these confiscated. 

Even with these seemingly insurmountable challenges, President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa must be hugely congratulated for demonstrating uncommon leadership and bravery in declaring the urgently needed national lockdown in order to radically control the pandemic’s contagion through draconian quarantine and now to continue on massive fiscal stimulus.

Bonang Mohale is Chancellor of the University of the Free State, effective 4 June 2020.

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