‘The silent road outside my house was the sound of a coming recession’

The world is a strange place at the moment. And by strange, I mean terrifying. The world has (as everyone keeps saying) changed. We all know this, but it is not yet clear exactly how it has changed.

Many things seem the same. The sun is still shining. The birds still sing. And men in 4×4 twin-cabs (decorated with special after-purchase extras and stickers that seem to indicate they belong to an elite special forces unit) still do not stop at stop streets. 

But other things are different.

There seems to be a constant anxiety in the air. And it is because we are afraid for a good reason. Pandemics are scary things. Historically they have a nasty habit of killing large numbers of people for no particular reason, and this can be quite upsetting, because we generally aren’t that keen on dying. 

But while I was shut up in my study during lockdown and worrying about worrisome things, it occurred to me that while I was indeed worried about catching this virus, I was more worried about the fact that the global economy had slowed dramatically. 

Until very recently, complaining about traffic noise in the road that I live on had been one of my favourite pastimes — right up there with complaining about men in twin-cab 4×4’s decorated with special after-purchase extras and stickers that seem to indicate they belong to an elite special forces unit — but now I missed that noise.

Because the silence outside my house was scary. The silence was the sound of a coming recession. 

To distract myself from my worrying, I did a quick Google survey about how scared people were of contracting Covid-19 in comparison to their fear of the economic consequences of the pandemic. 

This simple cost-effective tool gave me a result a day later: South Africans are roughly twice as scared of the economic consequences of Covid-19 than they are of catching it. 

Of the 500 South Africans who responded to my Google survey, 71% said they were more scared of the economic effect of the virus than they were of catching it.

This is remarkable. 

Of course, this could be because the lockdown has been so effective in halting the spread of the virus. This may have created a situation where the virus itself has been experienced by only a tiny percentage of the population, whereas everyone has been affected by the lockdown.

This represents a real danger that South Africans might start to behave in an unsafe manner because of economic fears. The relative success of the lockdown has resulted in the coronavirus spreading in relatively manageable numbers. But failure to continue these measures could very well accelerate the spread.

The reality is that the effectiveness of the lockdown may mean that we are less afraid of the virus than we should be. 

Should the virus spread rapidly, we could well see these numbers changing. But that hasn’t happened yet, and my research is showing people are paralysed by the fear of a corona recession or depression. 

A survey by All Told shows that 80% of South Africans are spending less because they are under financial pressure. On average they are spending about R5 500 less. That represents a huge contraction of consumer spending that will have an enormous effect on gross domestic product. Another question by them showed that more than a quarter of South Africans didn’t think they had the savings to survive a three-month lockdown.

All of which shows that our society is one gripped by fear. On the one hand, fear of a terrifying virus, and on the other hand, fear of the measures taken to combat it. Strange times indeed. 

John Davenport is the chief creative officer at Havas advertising agency in Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity

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John Davenport
John Davenport is the chief creative officer of Havas Southern Africa.

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