Covid-19: Knowns, unknowns and opportunities

It’s a year since the first case of Covid-19 was announced in South Africa on 5 March 5 2020  ̶  not long after SARS-COV-2 was identified in Wuhan, China and started on its global journey of destruction. 

To date (3 March 2021), 1 513 393 positive Covid-19 cases have been identified in the country, with 1 430 259 recoveries (93.7% recovery rate) and 49 993 deaths. Despite this recovery rate, evolving research shows that long-Covid has debilitating effects, such as chronic fatigue, post-traumatic distress syndrome, anxiety, cardiac alterations, headaches and memory loss.

During the past year, several governance structures were put in place to deal with the implications of the pandemic. The country experienced different levels of lockdown and stay-at-home orders aimed at flattening the curve and reducing infections. Social gatherings, funerals and religious activities were restricted to 100 or fewer people depending on the lockdown level. Many businesses and other entities closed down and some are still recovering.

The pandemic had an impact on the economy, food security, health, the healthcare system and highlighted many inequalities in our society. According to the Lancet Covid-19 Commission Report (2020), “90% of countries globally are in recession in 2020 – possibly exceeding the economic downturn during the Great Depression in the 1930s.” The World Bank concurs when it states that “the pandemic highlighted the need for urgent action to cushion the economic consequences, protect the vulnerable populations, and set the stage for a lasting recovery.”


Due to the increased unemployment, loss of income, disruptions in domestic food supply chains, economic turmoil and social inequalities, poverty became more profound during the pandemic. The World Bank estimates that at least 132-million people might experience extreme hunger and poverty in 2020 and beyond. Poverty leaves permanent scars — malnutrition, susceptibility to disease and psychological effects, to name a few.


The impact of the pandemic on education cannot be underestimated. During the first and second waves, schools and tertiary institutions were closed, and students’ learning was interrupted as teachers and lecturers had to revert to emergency remote online teaching. However, many children did not have access to devices or the skills and knowledge on how to navigate their way through this new way of learning and teaching. Home schooling became the order of the day, and in many cases parents, siblings or guardians replaced the teacher. The effect of the human capital transfer from parents to children might have a lasting effect on the learning of children. The impact of home schooling on parents’ productivity, and children’s social life and psychosocial wellbeing and growth, is questionable and offers an opportunity for further exploration.


The pandemic also exposed the fragility of healthcare systems, as we witnessed a dearth of essential equipment, the inability to secure oxygen supply, human resources and no or limited bed availability in hospitals, necessitating the erection of field hospitals. We have also lost healthcare workers due to SARS-COV-2. While the impact of the pandemic is surmountable, I believe that we are still going to see the long-lasting effects in the future.

Although there’s some progress regarding the development and roll-out of vaccines, many unknowns remain. Will the different vaccines provide sufficient herd immunity? Will they be effective against the new variant? How will we deal with vaccine hesitancy, uptake and adverse effects? How will monitoring take place and how long do we still have to wear masks, sanitise and maintain social distancing? And when will this pandemic end? Since these unknowns can cause anxiety and discomfort, correct messaging is of utmost importance.

Tech innovation

The pandemic might have disrupted our lives, but it also brought about a need for change and a paradigm shift in our thinking. Opportunities for innovation fuelled by technology, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing, spurted because of a surge for creative and new thinking. Under lockdown, e-commerce increased significantly and working from home contributed to a digital explosion with online meetings becoming part of the reorganisation to life.

Modelling consortiums, scientists, virologists, epidemiologists and researchers were provided ample opportunities for innovation, creativity and new discoveries. Clinical trials to test pharmacological agents for the prevention or management of Covid-19 offered a new platform for research. In South Africa, groundbreaking research in terms of sequencing of genomes of SARS-COV-2 within weeks were recognised and shared with the world. 

The identification of the new variant in our own country highlighted the expertise and skills that are available and should be honed. The extraordinary vaccine development process showed the agility of science. The growth in the knowledge economy over the past year underpinned by research, evidence-based practice and collaborative communities of practice that were formed throughout Africa and beyond is evident of the high quality of knowledge brokers on the continent.

The worldwide crises that the pandemic brought provided us also with an opportunity to rethink our business models and how we strategically do business and paint the canvasses of our strategic plans over the next few years. The way healthcare, public health, education institutions operate has to be revised and a system thinking methodology with a lean management approach might be worth exploring.

It will be worth investing in operational capabilities, in terms of cost management, enterprise agility and resilience to rebuild and rethink the way we do business in various settings. Human resource management in all sectors, including education, healthcare, and small and medium-sized enterprises, has the opportunity to invest in talent acquisition and skills development of their employees. We will have to prioritise campaigns that promote well-being and mental health to combat the effect of the pandemic on employees, families and significant others. The approaches towards the digital world, nested within the fourth industrial revolution, offer unlimited opportunities to create, innovate, build and rethink the impossible.

Although the pandemic has impacted the world in so many ways, it has also offered us an enormous opportunity to reflect, re-examine, rebuild and negotiate a new social contract fit for the 21st century. The pandemic has reminded us that we are all interconnected and that we need to join forces to overcome it. In the midst of this crisis, there’s a world of opportunities that we should capitalise on and use to the best of our ability.

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The piece is a version of a presentation at the opening of the Stellenbosch University Business School

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Portia Jordan
Professor Portia Jordan is the executive head of the department of nursing and midwifery in the faculty of medicine and health sciences at Stellenbosch University

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