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SA’s drastic Covid-19 action PLUS what sets us apart

Dear South Africa

This is not a drill. Your country is in lockdown mode.

Tonight president Cyril Ramaphosa made arguably the most important public announcement in our democratic era. He announced wide-ranging, drastic measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. It was brave and decisive – and necessary. And it was more than a lot of developed countries like the UK, US and parts of Europe are doing. We should be proud. 

Yes, perhaps we could have acted earlier. People from high-risk countries have been allowed into our country. But imposing travel bans and banning mass gatherings just ten days after our first infection isn’t half bad. 

Listen to our update below or scroll down if you’d prefer to read the text.

So here’s what you need to know:

  1. The biggest news: travel bans on travellers from high-risk countries. Yep, that includes the US AND the UK. Shew. The others are Italy, Iran, South Korea, Germany and China and this kicks in on Wednesday. Previously granted visas to people from these countries have been revoked. 
  2. Similarly, South Africans have been asked to refrain from travelling to these high-risk spots. We are not however banned from doing so, but you will be tested and quarantined or asked to self-isolate after coming back from them.
  3. Medium risk country travellers will undergo high-intensity screening. Countries mentioned were Portugal, Hong Kong and Singapore. 
  4. If you travelled previously from a high-risk country any time from February 15, you are required to present yourself for testing. Get in touch with the NICD: 072 621 3805. 
  5. Gatherings of more than 100 people are not allowed. All upcoming large events will be cancelled. 
  6. Schools will be closed from Wednesday till after the Easter weekend. (The minister of higher education is due to meet with university VCs. Our bet is public events will soon be cancelled there too. Wits University has already suspended public lectures after a student tested positive).
  7. SA is now officially in a national state of disaster. This means sophisticated disaster management systems can kick in ACROSS various jurisdictions and local authorities. 
  8. EVERY major municipality will have isolation and quarantine sites. This is big – there are 53 of these across the country. 
  9. 35 of our 53 land ports – access across our borders – will be closed from Monday. Same with two of our 8 seaports. 
  10. We also got an update on infections- up from 51 to 61. And most concerningly: our first local transmission – all previous infections happened to people travelling abroad. But thankfully we still haven’t had a single death. With over 6000 deaths so far globally, this is a blessing.  

There’s no sugar coating the economic impact of all this – even with the interventions, Ramaphosa says cabinet is preparing. He noted SA has already seen “a dramatic decline in economic activity in our major trading partners, a sudden drop in international tourism and severe instability across all global markets.”

It’s easy to panic in these times. So that’s why we have put together:

1. Coronavirus: Five things that sets South Africa apart

  1. We, ironically, are better prepared for this than most Western countries, because of lessons learned from HIV/Aids, TB and listeriosis. Our national institute for communicable diseases (NICD) is world-class and has a solid country-wide testing ability. This is similar to how countries like Thailand and Taiwan have contained the virus best thanks to applying experiences learned from SARS. (Though we’ll come to how we’re not quite achieving the same results they have)
  2. Ironically, again, our class-divided country may be helping things. The virus landing in crowded, informal settlements with limited access to sanitation would be catastrophic. But the previous count* of 51 South African infections all happened while abroad, mostly in Europe. These are all people who are clearly in the upper-middle class and have the resources to self-isolate. We’ll have A LOT to worry about if or when the virus finds its way into poorer communities. Our warm weather may stymie the spread but, then again, winter is coming… 

*we’re still awaiting details of the ten new cases

3. Our authorities have been very transparent and quick to act locally – from isolating cases to tracing secondary contacts. On the other hand, they may have lagged on a travel ban, but have made up for it with this latest decisive announcement. In contrast, the US, UK and European governments have taken too long to make decisions meaning the virus quickly got out of control. 

4. Our current rate of infection compares favourably.

But Italy is probably one of the worst-case scenarios. Taiwan is one of the best-case, with enviable figures even while being on China’s doorstep. Here’s how we compare to them from three confirmed cases to the subsequent growth over a week (Note: we chose these data parameters because that’s all SA has to date). 

Finally; here’s how we compare to both countries. 

*Notes on data: Of course, we must bear in mind that with just ten days since SA’s first infection we may not have enough data. In addition, this data is dependent on sufficient testing being done. However, at 1476 completed tests, SA is not doing too badly here. You can read more about our testing ability here. Also note: Taiwan has only had one death.

For the full graphic, click here

So at this point, you’re probably wondering: What should I do?

If you can afford to do so, self-isolation is best. Besides not going to school and work, cancel all social interactions and hole up with your family for a bit. Remember: we went from 3 to 61 cases in just one week. The worst that could happen is you would have been over-cautious and miss a few events. That’s not a terrible scenario when the alternative is possible death. 

Economic impact

South Africa’s already weak economy is likely to take a hit with the sudden spike in COVID-19 cases both locally and abroad.

The economic impact is dire – for us, and the world. But there’s a potential opportunity in the crisis: everyone is cutting interest rates – both our Reserve Bank and other central banks – to help stimulate their economies by ensuring there’s more cash in your pocket after you pay your loans. And as the Financial Mail noted, the more other central banks cut rates, and the lower global bond yields fall, the more supportive the environment becomes for high-risk emerging markets like South Africa. If all this sounds like gibberish to you, we’ll be doing an explainer soon on how central banks and bonds work 😉

But the rest of the economic picture is pretty gloomy.  The JSE all-share index crashed 9.7% in the past two weeks— reducing the value of South Africans’ pensions by billions. South Africa was well-cushioned when the rest of the world suffered during the 2008 financial crisis. But that was because our economy was thriving back then. Now, our already large debt and low growth mean we can’t protect ourselves as much. However, even if we weren’t in such a bad fiscal space, things would be bad. We’re vulnerable to China’s economic slowdown, as they’re our biggest export destination, with Germany coming in at number 2.

Experts said the global economic impact may be as bad as the 2008 crisis. But the New York University economics professor who predicted that crisis thinks markets are playing games. Nouriel Roubini — nicknamed “Dr Doom” for his previous prediction — warns that global equities could tank by 30%-40% this year and that, if the outbreak hits a place like New York City, “we are totally f*cked”. 

And the funny part is, most of that is because of people’s responses to the virus, rather than the virus itself. According to the IMF, about one-third of the economic losses from the disease will be direct costs from loss of life, workplace closures and quarantines. But the remaining two-thirds will be indirect, due to a fall in consumer confidence and business behaviour, Financial Mail reported.

So that’s your Covid-19 South Africa update from explain.co.za this week. 

Here are some interesting highlights from around the world: 

  • Homebound Italians are pumping music from their balconies to keep their spirits up. For a very social nation, isolation must be awful. Even THE VATICAN is excluding the public from the Pope’s Easter celebrations, which normally draws tens of thousands. This is possibly a first in modern times. ?
  • In Mexico, the Easter holidays have been brought forward. We didn’t even know you could do that ?
  • Donald Trump, who at first downplayed the pandemic, was tested negative for the virus. The US has extended travel bans to most of Europe and the UK. Over 3 000 cases of the virus have been confirmed in the US with a total of 60 deaths. 
  • Wall Street stocks fell in its worst day in over THIRTY years, since the 1987 ‘Black Monday’ crash. Locally, our major energy company Sasol saw its share price decimated, losing nearly half its value thanks to a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, amid virus fears.

Deep breaths everyone. But maybe not when you’re in confined spaces. ? 

Read more on how the world is dealing with the virus here

2. Public protector loses court battle. Again.

Public Protector of the Republic of South Africa, Advocate Joyce Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

You may have missed it amid the Coronavirus news, but inept public protector Busiswe Mkhwebane faced another legal embarrassment this week, and it was a pretty crucial case this time – the funding of Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2017 bid to become ANC president. The Pretoria High Court set aside her findings, calling it confused, inexplicable and irrational. AND she has to pay costs – again.

To recap: Mkhwebane’s report was into a R500 000 donation to Ramaphosa’s ANC presidential campaign received from dodgy company Bosasa back in 2017. He got the facts wrong in a parliamentary reply as he wasn’t directly involved in the campaign funding details (to avoid undue influence on him as President, he says) and wrote to parliament ten days later with a correction. But Mkhwebane still found him in breach of the executive code of ethics for lying in parliament. 

Constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos made the point that Mkhwebane’s appointment was ultimately a blunder on the part of the State Capture and anti-Ramaphosa forces. He points out a marginally competent protector might have caused havoc for Ramaphosa and his allies. Mkhwebane is doing so badly, she’s making Ramaphosa look good. 

To be fair, we SHOULD be concerned as a country about party political funding for all politicians and parties. Thankfully the legitimate fight for political funding transparency continues in other quarters.

3.Dan lied about the PIC’s deals – report

Remember when we were all commissioned-out last year? One of those commissions of inquiry has released its report on Thursday after eight months of hearings.  It’s about the Public Investment Corporation, or the PIC. 

The PIC is a state-controlled investor that is the continent’s LARGEST asset manager. It manages assets not just for government employee pensions, but also the UIF and compensation fund that you and I have to pay every month as salaried employees.

So why was there a report into the PIC?

This crucial investor got into a series of dodgy deals under its former chief executive, Dan Matjila, who has insisted he did nothing wrong.

Turns out he wasn’t as innocent as he claimed to be. Playing with OUR money, the PIC made a series of seriously disturbing investment choices that were influenced by nepotism, political factions and just political interference. 

This includes investing in the dodgiest of companies: including Steinhoff and VBS Bank – the guys that ripped off poor pensioners. Great choice PIC! 

The nearly 1000 page report found that Matjila abused his office and influence and weakened the asset manager’s governance structures.

There’s been a lot of media emphasis on its investments into Iqbal Survé’s companies, which includes the once truly independent, Independent Newspaper which publishes newspapers like The Star and Cape Argus. 

Former PIC chief executive Daniel Matjila (left) who was implicated in a PIC report for dodgy dealings.

As BizNews summarised it: Iqbal Survé is well-known in media circles as the maybe-medical-doctor-to Nelson Mandela turned-businessman who got his hands on Public Investment Corporation funds to buy his own news empire. Survé wasted no time in using his print outlets to further his own interests and push a line that has been pro Jacob Zuma. 

The PIC overpaid vastly for inflated shares in Survé’s companies. 

So where’s the justice? The PIC under new management is going after Surve’s companies to recuperate some of the money owed. Let’s hope they’re successful. 

Inspiring story

In times of crisis, you can see the really crappy sides of people – like elements of the ANC youth league and EFF veiled threats against South Africans returning from Wuhan. 

This despite the returnees posing the least risk of most incoming travellers given they’ve been under quarantine for weeks and screened multiple times a day.

But you also see the best of people. An SAA crew, facing possible retrenchments at the beleaguered airline, put their hands up to volunteer in bringing home 114 of our fellow citizens from Wuhan. 

The flight was captained by veteran pilot, Vusi Khumalo who has been at the airline since 1994. The flight was a military operation manned by SA crew, and left SA on Tuesday and landed at Polokwane airport on Saturday morning. 

They have been quarantined for 21 days at the Ranch resort, where they were met with singing and dancing from staff and officials. 

It was a warm moment in a dark time. Watch it below.

Other interesting news? eThekwini metro police will no longer be using breathalysers at roadblocks. ? Though to be honest, we’re not quite sure why they’d announced something like that…

Vodacom to slash data prices by 30%

In other good news, another finding from one of our endless commissions has materialised. Vodacom said it will cut prices by as much as 34% in April after an agreement with the Competition Commission. Vodacom will now also offer free access to governmental websites, Facebook Flex, and Wikipedia. 

This after the Competition Commission, whose ruling became binding last year, slammed Vodacom and MTN for misusing their local market dominance to maintain “price discrimination strategies”. We all know this as South Africans and it felt like things would never change, so this is a start. 

This will result in Vodacom losing R2.7-billion in revenue, which it said it will recover over the years as more users join the network. 

Week ahead

Whew! That was a lot. To end off, here’s what you can keep an eye out in the week ahead: 

  1. The biggest news this week will be ongoing reaction to Ramaphosa’s major announcement tonight. Our health minister, Zweli Mkhize will flesh things out a bit more at a press conference tomorrow. Plus the health and business communities will provide further plans on how they will be dealing with the spread of the virus. 
  2. South Africa’s inflation rate will be announced on Wednesday. It’s currently within the preferred band. 
  3. On Thursday the Reserve will announce its interest rate decision – there’s probably a cut on the cards to help boost the economy. 
  4. Mkhwebane will on Wednesday challenge the parliamentary process to have her removed as public protector. 

And that’s it from a mammoth edition of Verationality – simple news summaries for busy people, brought to you by explain.co.za. Tell your friends to go to www.explain.co.za/subscribe to sign up. We’ll be bringing you regular updates during this intense time for our country.

By Verashni Pillay and Aarti Bhana