/ 10 December 2021

2022 must be a year of action

India Health Virus
Funeral pyres: We were just starting to hope for a post-pandemic future at the beginning of 2021, says the author, when the highly transmissible Delta variant of Covid-19 was discovered and news images of public cremations in India shocked the world. Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP

A year ago, at the beginning of December, many people were making preparations for travelling. Some were to meet relatives they had not seen for a year, and some were taking a much-needed holiday break abroad. An air of optimism suggested we were finally getting out of the frightening shadows of the pandemic. We did not know at the time how much of our lives would be consumed and disrupted by the Delta variant, which Western countries dubbed an “Indian variant”. 

India’s harrowing images of death and public cremations felt surreal and seemed too distant from us. Yet as soon as Delta hit our shores, it shook our public health system and economy. A third wave had arrived before the end of December, and the tide of Delta infections kept rising. It was no longer an “Indian variant”, but a common foe humanity would confront. 

We were back to where we started. Economic recovery was elusive. Compounding the widespread anxiety caused by the hospitalisation rates was the intensifying socio-economic hardship that faced the most vulnerable in society, with many people losing jobs and small businesses closing shop. Reprieve came in the form of the Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme and the Covid-19 Social Relief for Distress grant, but this was not nearly enough to soften the economic blows faced by those on the margins of the economy. 

The year 2021 that we will soon be bidding farewell to has proven harsher than the previous year, 2020, when Covid-19 cohabited with us for the first time. Many countries had their economies brought to an abrupt halt by the spread of the Covid-19 virus, especially after the emergence of the highly transmissible Delta variant. In the wake of this variant, supply chains were disrupted, causing a severe shortage of supply to manufacturers and retailers and raising the spectre of inflation. 

Wealthy countries were able to ameliorate the severity of the pandemic through a combination of vaccine roll-out at a brisk pace and vigorous implementation of economic recovery measures under the build back better theme. Meanwhile, many developing countries lacked the fiscal resources to achieve economic recovery and procure vaccines at a similar scale as wealthy ones. 

The slow pace of vaccination has been the Achilles’ heel of many low-income and developing countries. Whereas wealthy countries had 60% of their populations vaccinated by the third quarter of 2021, low-income countries still had 95% of their population unvaccinated, according to the October edition of the IMF’s World Economic Outlook. And the longer the pandemic endures, mainly due to large numbers of unvaccinated people, the less fiscal space developing countries will have to support economic dynamism and cushion the most vulnerable in society.

South Africa’s problem is less of supply constraints but more of vaccine hesitancy fuelled by pseudo-science and conspiracy theories peddled by online gurus with no credentials. In the absence of fiscal levers to undertake large-scale recovery initiatives, more so with the prolonged conditions of the pandemic and the emergence of a new variant, Omicron, the South African government will need to focus on taking quick actions along the following lines. 

First, the government must accelerate its vaccination drive and boost the uptake significantly. Such an effort will need to be accompanied by heightened awareness and compelling messaging that counter pseudo-science and conspiracy theorists who spread fears about vaccines. At the time of writing, only over a quarter of the South African population was vaccinated, a less comforting figure that raises the risk of mutations, which could undermine efforts to get the economy back on its feet. 

Given the danger the unvaccinated pose to society, the economy, and the public health system, it makes moral sense that some of their privileges are taken away. The country will not win this battle without implementing a vaccine mandate, making it easier for employers and other commercial establishments to enforce it. 

Second, the government must double its efforts on implementing economic recovery measures beyond rhetoric. While it will take a while to get the economy back to pre-Covid times and fire on all cylinders, confidence-building steps can build momentum. Some of the tools needed to build confidence are in the government’s hands. These include attending to regulations that hamper economic activity. Further, the government must accelerate regulatory approvals for water licensing for agriculture, overcome bottlenecks on rail and capacity deficiencies at the ports, which choke mining and agricultural exports and remove legislative impediments in the agricultural sector which hinder the adoption of critical technologies that are essential for improving productivity. 

For many years, the government has discussed overcoming red-tape for small and medium-sized businesses. It has also promised to enable them to have greater access to capital, enforce the 30-day payment for government procurement, and simplify municipal regulations that stifle micro-enterprises. When many small businesses have suffered significant financial losses in the pandemic era, the government needs to inject more support into this sector. 

Third, the rule of law is a critical pillar for building confidence. Since 2007 when the ANC elective conference decided to disband the Scorpions, thereby crippling an institution that was pivotal in fighting organised crime and defending constitutional democracy, the rule of law grew weaker. During that period, factional tensions and failures of leadership at the National Prosecuting Authority gave room for corruption to take a firm grip in critical state institutions, including state-owned enterprises. 

Those that were hellbent on profiting from corruption destroyed values such as integrity and commitment to clean governance in various law enforcement agencies. Since the arrival of President Cyril Ramaphosa, it has been a languorous journey for the government to heal these battered institutions, rebuild confidence in them, and restore the rule of law in the country. 

The recent departure of the head of the Investigating Directorate at the National Prosecution Authority, Hermione Cronje, does not bode well for confidence in crucial law enforcement agencies. The slow grind of prosecution of apparently very important persons that have been implicated in various acts of corruption and the continuing financial mismanagement in state-owned enterprises stand as a monument of how far the rule of law has collapsed. This inertia of law enforcement agencies is also a sign of paralysis at the apex of political leadership in the country, more so because the rule of law is a nerve center of any country’s political and economic system, and its erosion could cripple the entire institutional edifice. 

As we look to 2022, our biggest hope must be that we are about to step into a year of action. If in 2022 we still have more of the same, it will be too late to arrest governance failures and economic decline. Failure to take bold action could result in more of the July 2021 riots, assuming a more virulent and anarchic shape. 

The year 2022 will be another crunch time for Ramaphosa, following massive losses for his party during the 2021 local government elections. Ramaphosa will face another stern test at the elective conference of the ANC at the end of that year, and with less than two years left before the general elections. 

None of the country’s challenges is insurmountable. But the window is narrowing fast for the political leadership, and drastic measures are urgently needed to turn both the political and economic tide for the better.