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SAsCovid19ResponseWhat follows the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be a much more challenging economic and geopolitical environment, one that will see countries able to bridge scientific and policy processes, adapting better and working more cohesively than countries not capable of carrying out their development priorities. Tough decisions will have to be taken and carried out by the state, yet with the same type of broad consultation, communication, and decisiveness seen in the COVID-19 response, writes Philani Mthembu, Executive Director at the Institute for Global Dialogue (South Africa).

The COVID-19 global pandemic has highlighted the importance of a capable state, which is able to respond effectively and in a coordinated manner to various traditional and non-traditional threats in an interconnected geopolitical and geo-economic landscape. Nation-states around the world are responding to the pandemic in varying ways, and at times countries with more resources are, to some extent, being outdone by countries with greater resource constraints. This is particularly the case with some nation states of the global South, that are applying their previous experiences fighting pandemics and epidemics in their countries and regions to the fight against COVID-19. The responses to the pandemic across the world hold some important hints of what a post-pandemic or post-lockdown global landscape may look like. While the pandemic may accelerate the socio-economic contradictions and divides in some countries, it will also act as a catalyst for others to enact wide-ranging restructuring and reforms in order to prepare for a post-pandemic geopolitical and geo-economic landscape. As countries seek to tackle the health crisis created by COVID-19, they are simultaneously confronting a worsening economic environment, only overshadowed by an even greater climate and ecological crisis. In such a landscape, the gap between science and evidence-based policymaking will need to be reduced.

In a recent address to the country, President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged that South Africa and the world will never be the same again, calling for a new social compact between business, labour, communities, and government. He also outlined the need to build a new economy in a new global reality, an aspiration that most would agree to, even though the exact details of that economy will no doubt be fiercely contested. Building on the responses of various social actors during the initial stages of the pandemic, the state will likely seek to accelerate much-needed structural reforms through promoting localisation and the industrialisation of the economy, overhauling state-owned enterprises, and strengthening the informal sector.  

Faced with a novel virus with no existing blueprint on how to react, the response from the South African government to enforce a strict lockdown was largely decisive, well-coordinated, widely communicated, and backed by a close working relationship with the scientific community. Mistakes have been made and will continue to be made in implementing and enforcing what has been referred to as one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. This is especially the case in poorer communities, which have faced a disproportionate amount of heavy-handed enforcement. Where mistakes have been identified, the state has largely responded in a timely fashion, even changing course where it was deemed necessary with respect to some initial regulations. While the state has been leading the response, it has also appealed to the broader society to support on-going efforts, thus mobilising the private sector, civil society, and other socio-political stakeholders. 


The President and his Cabinet have also agreed to donate a third of their salaries towards the Solidarity Response Fund, which has been established to deal with the impact of COVID-19, prompting members of the opposition and other sectors of society to also follow suit in varying ways. However, as opposition parties also seek to remain visible and relevant amid the lockdown, elements of the initial non-partisan response are now eroding as various interest groups seek to advance their positions on the pace of re-opening the economy, and which products should or should not be sold during the various stages of the country’s lockdown. The policy dynamics between officials and the scientific community will thus be tested to an even greater extent, with the country now re-opening most sectors, places of worship, schools, and places of work. This is especially the case because the scientific community does not necessarily make the same assumptions or arrive at the same conclusions, showing that even where a close working relationship exists with the expert community, elected officials ultimately have to make the contentious decisions.

If the country is to navigate what will be a challenging economic and geopolitical post-COVID-19 landscape, it will need to demonstrate that the type of leadership being shown is not a once-off phenomenon triggered by the worst global pandemic in 100 years, but that it can be sustained to tackle the other socio-economic challenges confronting the country. Indeed poverty, unemployment, and inequality pose as much of an existential threat to the aspirations of the country as COVID-19 and will need to be tackled with the same sense of urgency, coordination, and evidence-based policy-making. 

South Africa’s decisive response to COVID-19 gained the country valuable time in efforts to contain the communal spread of the virus in order to ensure that the health system is not overwhelmed. The country has also been fortunate that the Minister of Health, Dr. Zweli Mkhize, is a qualified medical doctor not at all out of his depth when addressing the challenges of pandemics and epidemics. This has stood the country in good stead in coordinating a ‘whole of government’ and ‘whole of society’ approach to the fight against COVID-19, where the intersection between evidence and the scientific approach to policy making has found fertile soil, an approach that will also benefit other government Ministries. While experts such as the renowned epidemiologist Prof. Salim Karim have been entrusted to lead various processes, decisions and accountability ultimately take place at the political level. 

What follows this pandemic is likely to be a much more challenging economic and geopolitical environment, one that will see countries able to bridge scientific and policy processes, adapting better and working more cohesively than countries not capable of carrying out their development priorities. Working cohesively does not at all mean all internal contradictions will be erased. Tough decisions will have to be taken and carried out by the state, yet with the same type of broad consultation, communication, and decisiveness seen in the COVID-19 response. The same ‘whole of government’ and ‘whole of society’ approach applied to COVID-19 will also need to be carried into the post-pandemic order in addressing the challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality. Think tanks, universities, and research organisations in the various sectors must get involved, and must already be analysing South Africa’s opportunities and challenges in a post-pandemic order. This is particularly important as the country utilises digital diplomacy to continue coordination efforts on the African continent as Chair of the African Union, and in the United Nations as it completes its final year on the Security Council.

Dr Philani Mthembu is co-editor of the recent MISTRA book on Africa and the World: Navigating Shifting Geopolitics, where his chapter focused on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and opportunities for Africa. He is also executive director at the Institute for Global Dialogue.

This article was first published in the Valdai Discussion Club, 15 June 2020

https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/south-africa-s-covid-19-response-bridging-science/?fbclid=IwAR1ABz34udaAHZklFysnTudBdUe3Ogld2ey3PCpfWwZxbPkIgaQiKH-pC9o

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