Taking the Covid-19 stress-test

William Saunderson-Meyer says the self-congratulatory back-slapping in SA is premature


The strain test. The stress test.

Call it what you wish. Technologists, doctors, accountants, psychologists, process engineers and tyrannical bosses, among others, regularly apply some variant of the stressing principle. Does it bend or does it break?

While an absence of pressure is to be desired and embraced, it tells one nothing about resilience. Until one loads extreme pressure onto a steel bar, or a financial institution, or a human heart, or a government, one knows next to nothing about its real strength.

Not since 1939 has the world been put to such an extreme test as the Covid-19 pandemic. Some unexpected failures, as well as surprising successes, show up the limitations of indexed number crunching.

There are myriad health performance indexes, all differing in their weighting of factors. Despite the variation in criteria, France, Italy and Spain regularly feature in the top ten.

Yet all three have performed poorly in coping with the pandemic. In contrast, Germany, which ranks a sluggish 25 in the World Health Organisation’s health efficiency index, has done far better.

That’s probably because dealing with a national medical emergency is not the stuff of routine annual assessment for an index. A black-swan event, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, is when systemic flexibility political agility and — dare one say it? — national character come into play.

China’s response of initial secrecy and punishing the bearer of ill tidings was entirely in accord with its government-induced authoritarian national character. So, too, the brutally clinical efficiency of successful lockdown. The Europeans, in contrast, are treating their citizens as fairly intelligent and responsible adults, with the British further gee-ing up theirs with invocations of the Blitz spirit that dates back to its greatest national test.

Back home, in a society as diverse as ours, it’s difficult to define a national character. Nevertheless, South Africans like to think of themselves as resilient and resourceful, qualities that have been noticeable in the response to the pandemic.

On the international health indices, SA is more a never-was than an also-ran, slotting in at 175 out of 191 on the WHO index. Despite this, Covid-19 has been, so far, a relatively pleasing stress test for the African National Congress government. President Cyril Ramaphosa, and every South African, should be delighted at how well the health sectors— both state and private — have performed

The ability of the two sectors to co-operate fluently, as well as the state’s dependence on private finance, facilities and expertise, runs contrary to the National Health Insurance programme’s conceit that the state should and can control everything. The contemplated evisceration of private healthcare, had the NHI already been implemented, would have been disastrous.

But the self-congratulations and back-patting, already rife among government politicians and officials, are premature. The health system stress test has some way to run. And in the equally critical economic sphere, Covid has already ground out a large assortment of cracked, snapped and shattered components.

Here SA’s indexed inadequacies are proving to be only too accurate. An economy that already under strain is about to break. Whether those key success factors mentioned earlier — systemic flexibility and political agility — can avoid the economic crankshaft throwing a rod through the national engine block, is not clear. The signals are mixed.

On the upside, the government appears to have at last come to terms with tossing overboard the maggot-ridden carcass of the national airline. This week Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan rejected the business rescue practitioners’ request for an extra R10bn, to tide them over while they pretend to work at a solution for the insoluble. There simply isn’t the money, Gordhan said.

Nor is there money, more surprising, for a loyal ANC constituency, that of the public servants. On Wednesday, they awoke to find that the latest of the annual above-inflation wage increases that they had negotiated had not been implemented. The government had reneged on the three-year pay deal because, again, there simply isn’t the money.

On the downside, there’s still a pervasive failure within the tripartite alliance, as well as among its social allies, to face reality unfettered by antiquated beliefs.

Just the thought of accessing any International Monetary Fund assistance, even if it is specifically to deal with the soaring costs of the pandemic, has sent many within the governing alliance into a mental meltdown. Such a move, they insist, would destroy national sovereignty, our right to self-determination, and independence. It is quaint, but delusional and worrying, that they think bail-outs from the Bric nations, should these countries mobilise the massive injections of capital that SA requires, would come with any less onerous conditions than those imposed by the IMF or the World Bank.

There has been a similarly irrational and emotional response to Moody’s downgrading SA to sub-investment status. The general tenor has been that the rating agency was kicking SA in the teeth at the moment when the country most needed its help. This is apparently proof of the perfidious nature of international capital, which is innately hostile to the socialist Utopia that the ANC is creating.

There is a lot of self-inflicted economic ignorance at work here. The rating agencies exist to provide a rational, reasoned assessment of investment risk. If they consistently fail to do this, their advice will become irrelevant and will be ignored.

Those who like wounded beasts are snapping at the IMF and the World Bank, should take a reality check. Whatever its political objectives, no government, including those that the ANC ideologically identifies with, will entirely ignore financial criteria when investing or giving loans.

Last year, Lin Songtian, the Chinese ambassador to SA, hailed Ramaphosa in a Reuters interview as the country’s “last hope”. But he then went on to explain that China had no appetite for joint venture infrastructural projects in SA because those proposed by the government lacked basic feasibility studies “capable of reassuring the Chinese government and banks of their profitability and sustainability”. Similarly, China would advance no further loans to state-owned enterprises like Eskom, which he described as a “debt trap”.

One can hear the anguished cry from massed ANC ranks: “Viability? Sustainability? Profitability? You’re our comrades but you sound like the heartless capitalists.”

Whether SA survives the stress test depends on the next couple of weeks (and possibly more) of lockdown and then how efficiently the economic engine can be powered up.

Ramaphosa acted with admirable decisiveness with the lockdown, the authoritarian part. He has been dangerously hesitant about the second part — trusting South Africans to responsibly implement eased lockdown regulations.

To pass the Covid stress test, SA has to manage both parts.

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