11 May 2020
Change professionals are trained to look at a social or organisational phenomenon from multiple lenses and at multiple levels, careful always to look for areas of unforeseen risk and outcomes. The key reason for this piece is that I am concerned that we are looking at the COVID-19 crisis primarily through a medical lens. We are not paying enough attention to the social, economic, cultural, psychological and political impact of following a strictly medical set of protocols which has given rise to the lockdown approach to pandemic management.
The key question I would like to ask is why are we quarantining the strong and productive mass instead of the vulnerable?
Instead of letting healthy, productive adults go to work and maintain the South African economy (critical to pay for COVID and the poor and already facing difficulty in many sectors), we are asking these individuals and their children to self-isolate).
This is compounded by the fact that most of these individuals (the vast majority of the South African population) will get the virus anyway, but in a mild form. Most of these individuals will not require hospitalization.
What we need to deeply think about at this time is how we correctly define the current crisis, and then how we practically find a response that balances the need to protect human life from all disease, and the right to the dignity that work and productivity allows, as well as the revenue required to pay for an effective health system.
We should also think about how COVID might be used as an opportunity for good: Thinking about re-building the middle class and reducing class disparity, re-building our public health systems and financial sectors, and building an educational system that builds creative and critical thinking. I would also suggest that we think about the negative impact of increased surveillance of citizens, management of online videos and messaging, and the introduction of new laws that might impact on hard-won human rights.
I don’t believe that most organisations are using the crisis to deliberately impose greater control over their workforce or to impose changes that only a crisis like COVID makes possible, but I do believe that some will. These examples will have an obvious impact on employees, customers, vendors and third party interactions. But critically these interventions will have a direct impact on corporate culture, employee engagement and personal health and wellness.
We have learnt some important lessons from this pandemic to date. One of these is that harsh and long-term lockdowns have certain undesirable negative consequences, including massive impacts on economic activity and the mental health of citizens.
Given the data we have collected on COVID over the past four months and its impact on the South African economy and society, I think we can begin to model 3 possible outcomes (scenarios) for the current crisis:
a. Fall Down: COVID continues to be modelled in medical terms alone, is not understood at a macro level as a socio-economic and political crisis and the medical fraternity continue to manage the message. The economy remains mainly closed, companies increasingly fail, and unemployment reaches catastrophic levels. Tax revenues fall below levels needed to sustain public programmes and social unrest increases.
This scenario sees us continuing to use lockdown in a fruitless effort to suppress the virus (instead of living with and managing it), increasingly severe lockdowns (the only solution provided us under this approach for dealing with the pandemic), and an economy that continues to falter to a halt.
b. Too-Slow Reversal: Over the next 3-6 months, we slowly bring our economy out of lockdown, and gradually move to a managed society where regular hand-washing, social distancing, and managed public spaces is the norm and children are slowly allowed to return to school and workers to the workplace. This approach will invariably lead to an increased infection rate (I believe this is inevitable), but we would have bought time to manage patient intakes and achieve the “flatten the curve” outcome.
The problem with this approach is that certain countries (like South Africa) can’t afford to spend that period of time out of production, and will (or already have) reached a point of bankruptcy.
This approach will prove to be too slow a response in moving out of lockdown.
c. Proactive Realism: This scenario sees immediate (delivered from mid-May to end June 2020) government directives that allow children to return to school and all employees to return to work. This approach will require identification and protection of the population above a level medically defined as vulnerable (usually cited as at or over 62 years of age), those who are immune-compromised (especially important in South Africa where tuberculosis and HIV-AIDS levels are high), or those with co-morbidities (hyper-tension, obesity and diabetes are usually cited here as high risk disease profiles).
This approach would implement strict social management protocols to support personal hygiene, social distancing within the workplace and within public spaces, the encouragement of distributed work (work from home in particular), and the acceptance by citizens that many of us will contract the virus and survive with anti-bodies to protect our lives against future infection.
Proactive Realism is realistic both about the virus, its highly infectious nature, the fact that a safe vaccine is at least 12 months in the making, and that most of our population will not only contract the virus but survive it (in most cases with few if any symptoms). (For a valuable interview with Professor Shabir Madhi on a practical medical approach to lockdown, see here).
There is only a single variable in this model that is contentious: Those of us who subscribe to Proactive Realism accept that in statistically very few cases we or family members might contract the virus and suffer severe consequences.
This notwithstanding, the current lockdown model has run its course and cannot deliver any further positive results. We need to urgently move (within the next week and two and three) to do something different and open the economy with the appropriate medical protocols in place to ensure that the population is medically, socially and economically protected.
If we don’t, the consequences for South Africa are not just dire, but potentially catastrophic as a country.
The opportunity here is to rebuild South Africa as a country with greater equality, safety, financial and physical shelter and security for all, a renewed healthcare system, a more distributed financial system, and a political system that is able to make definitive decisions on behalf of all citizens.
To achieve this goal, the lockdown must be reversed.
If we don’t act urgently, just as the 2008 financial crisis resulted in the 1%, the COVID crisis will result in the 0.01%, and that is hardly a desirable outcome.
Written by Stephen Rothgiesser, Managing Director of The Change Consulting Group, as individual professional analysis.
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