OPINION | Pitting health against economy is a road to disaster

Deidre Samson (supplied)
Deidre Samson (supplied)
  • There have been calls to governments and other decisionmakers citing primarily either health concerns, or concerns for the economy. 
  • Polarised thinking means we think of Covid-19 as a battle between two fronts instead of a battle on two fronts. 
  • Changing this perspective can benefit us all. 

Across Africa there have been strident, apparently contradictory Covid-19 calls made to governments by concerned citizens, health care workers, economists and businesspeople.

On the one hand, we hear the call to maintain a lockdown until the pandemic has passed, citing concerns for the health and safety of the most vulnerable of our people. On the other hand, we hear calls for a return to work and opening up of economies based on the fears that, in an unequal world, the economic harm caused by a lockdown will simply exacerbate poverty.

So, who is right and who is wrong? Is it an ethical issue or simply another contestation between the haves and have-nots in society? Dr Barry Johnson, father of Polarity Thinking, believes it’s a set-up in our way of thinking that will doom us to failure if we choose to base our response on either of these two imperatives.

Two fronts

He argues that we can’t afford to have this become a battle between two fronts instead of a battle on two fronts. If our leaders can leverage the tension between these two seemingly intractable positions, there is an opportunity to benefit us all.

It all comes down to a relatively simple shift in the way we think based around the power of the and instead of the tyranny of the either / or.

Health and Economy, he argues, are simply an interdependent pair or polarity and both need each other for success. We need a healthy public to build a strong economy, benefiting both big business as well as the person in the street. We also need a strong economy to care for a healthy public, so that the resources required to fight the pandemic are in place.

The reality is that and thinking is required to leverage this polarity in the best interests of all. After all, what’s the higher purpose that we are all striving towards – could it be a healthy population and a thriving economy where both ultimately serve to reduce the inequality that bedevils this continent?

Either/ or thinking creates a false choice between Health or Economy. As Barry confirms: 

"If we focus on Health to the neglect of Economy, we make the inevitable recession even worse. If we focus on the Economy to the neglect of Health, we make the pandemic worse. Paradoxically therefore, a focus on Health alone will ultimately undermine our health and a focus on the economy alone will eventually undermine our economy."

The harsh reality is that this apparent dichotomy is not a new one and is unlikely to go away any time soon. We’ve been attempting to manage this tension for some time now as companies try to utilise contingent employees without health benefits or to contribute less to employees’ medical aids and health plans, as they cut costs to remain competitive. In government, the tension revolves around increasing taxes to fund the seemingly ever-increasing costs of public healthcare.

In South Africa, this debate is made even more strident by the impending advent of National Health Insurance (NHI). It’s also not going to go away any time soon – this polarity is indestructible. We have no choice but to support a dual strategy that benefits both Health and Economy, now and into the future.

Presidents around Africa have benefited from reliance on the counsel of professionals in dealing with the pandemic. In South Africa in particular, President Ramaphosa has been praised for his use of a scientific, evidence-based approach.

But, in doing so, we need to rely on the expertise of both economists/ businesspeople and health care professionals, working together to build a common plan. This plan should also reflect the political judgement that politicians need to bring to bear. Building the plan together allows for each group to inform the other’s thinking as the dual strategy is created. The process is also faster and will deliver more sustainable results, if done collaboratively rather than in isolation from one another.

Maybe its time we started to think differently about these inevitable and inescapable tensions. The use of tools such as Johnson’s Polarity Map certainly helps us to make sense of the issues while simultaneously planning to leverage the power of the AND for common good. Let’s embrace it now so that we don’t set ourselves up for continent-wide failure.

Deidre Samson is a futures consultant and new knowledge market executive at the Institute for Futures Research (IFR) at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

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