My thoughts on the shifts that this pandemic may encourage in South Africa

COVID-19 will change everything. Like a defining moment in history (such as the Great Depression, 1st and 2nd World Wars, 9/11 and the 1994 elections in South Africa), the future will take on a new course.

On the bright side, we will recover as we always do, though it may take several years before things are back on track.

This experience will influence how we behave in the future. This is evident as I finish this article in the first week of April 2020 during South Africa’s ‘lockdown’.

I’ve known the future to be unstable. This is why I’ve emphasized strategic conversation as opposed to long strategic documents. But I didn’t expect an event of this magnitude to erupt.

In this article, I explore ten interesting shifts or trends that are beginning to emerge as a result of this pandemic. While some of these will be positive, others will need to be carefully monitored.

There are big negatives in the short-term

I’m not going to deny this. There is no need to go into detail. There will be lots of suffering over the next year.

On the top of my mind is:

  • Tens of thousands, if not millions of deaths
  • Increase in unemployment
  • Decrease in economic growth
  • Increased anxiety
  • Social isolation and distrust
  • Social unrest

I’m fortunate that my social and financial circumstances enable me to weather this storm. But I’m surrounded by people who are more vulnerable than I am, and I feel a responsibility to support them as best I can.

But some shifts have begun to reveal themselves

I’ve been reflecting on 10 recent shifts in how we do things that I expect to remain after this crisis.

1. We will adopt a different approach to how we work and how we construct organizations

Overnight we’ve seen organizations shift from physical offices to virtual offices. Almost everyone I know is working from home, but then they have good home internet and jobs that can be done remotely.

This shift will remain once organizations have established the systems to enable employees to work remotely.

I also expect organizations to try and reduce their fixed cost by converting ongoing expenses into variable costs. This will enable them to expand/contract with their level of activity.

I’ve written before about why social enterprises and non-profit organizations should strive to a maintain a lean cost structure. It will make them more resilient and able to survive changing circumstances.

It may also become more difficult for employees to retain tenure and security of employment under these conditions. Furthermore, I’m concerned about people who have jobs that cannot be done remotely and what will happen to their income.

2. We will see the value of online education

This pandemic is highlighting the value of online tools to support education, whether this be part of a mixed methodology or an exclusively online training course. I believe this will be very good in the long-term. It will make high-quality education more accessible for students who don’t have the resources or family circumstances to have a traditional school or university experience. All that is required is an affordable internet connection or zero-rated education websites.

For example, I’ve already written about how Siyavula, a local social enterprise in the educational technology field, has helped children from poor communities in South Africa to complete 38 million maths and science exercises.

While the recent student protests to ’decolonize education’ in South Africa have helped universities to shift more of their courses and their support online, this pandemic will take it a step further.

The value of online tools for education will apply not just for tertiary education, but also for children in primary and secondary schools. I know of several children who’ve been given homework and still have assignments to submit during the lockdown period. However, I do recognize that schooling at this level is about more than just academic work, but also about socialization, learning emotional intelligence and how to relate to others. A face-to-face component will always be required.

This pandemic will open teachers’ and parents’ eyes to how online education can supplement a school or university experience. I hope this awareness will remain.

3. We will prepare better for emergencies

The world has recently been confronted with several disasters (e.g. fires, wars, floods). These have reminded us that we live in an uncertain world where we need to prepare for emergencies as best we can.

For example, we’ve all taken steps to stock up on key supplies and medicines. I expect that many of us will maintain a level of emergency supplies for the future. I know that I will.

I’m also fortunate that my career in consulting has required me to live frugally and build up a financial reserve for difficult times. I suspect that the value of emergency funds will be taken more seriously in the future.

With more widespread recognition of how fragile the future is, I expect many organizations to prepare emergency and contingency plans as part of their strategic planning processes. However, while planning is important, it is equally important for organizations to be agile and able to adapt as circumstances change.

I also hope this pandemic will give people the opportunity to realize what’s truly important in their lives, and what we need to be happy. Hint – it’s definitely not the latest car or fashion accessory.

4. We will use technology more efficiently

Most of us have not been using our current technology to its fullest potential. This is because we’ve been stuck in old habits or ways of doing things. We have tended to use technology to make the ‘old way’ more efficient rather than to fundamentally change our approach. This crisis will encourage us to think creatively about how we can use technology to improve our collective circumstances.

For example, only recently have companies realized that the technology to enable many of their employees to work from home is easily accessible.

Similarly, while there are several apps that governments and organizations could use to track and support people’s health, only now are they finding widespread usage. The downside is that they might give governments a taste of authoritarian power.

As a final example, I’ve noticed how widespread online food and delivery services have become in my community. I’m already wondering whether I want to ever step into a supermarket again.

I’m excited to see what new technology or creative use of existing technology emerges.

5. The social security system may improve

This pandemic will help to reveal the gaps in our social security system, and will create an opportunity for us to strengthen it.

Many people are losing their livelihoods as businesses downsize or shut down. This is not because these people did anything foolish, but rather because they went into vulnerable or ‘non-essential’ industries.

In South Africa we have a social security system which includes child grants, disability grants, state pensions and unemployment insurance. While these tools are being adapted during the lockdown, they are unlikely to provide coverage to everyone who lost their income or ability to work, or who are simply marginalized like the homeless. While the fortunate (such as myself) have access to savings and affordable credit, the vast majority of South Africans don’t.

This pandemic builds a strong case for a Basic Income Grant – a method of ensuring that every citizen receives the same fixed amount every month, regardless of how much they earn. This is a very effective tool for putting money in people’s hands in an emergency such as this where poorer families are already struggling to put food on the table.

A form of ‘social security’ for employers may also emerge. I’ve already been reading about initiatives such as tax relief, salary subsidies and suspending loan and rental payments. More measures will no doubt emerge.

6. Health-care systems will change

This pandemic has proven that it can overwhelm the capacity of health systems to provide people with the necessary treatment. It shows how fragile our health-care systems are. Thousands of people are dying as a consequence, but I don’t want to dwell on that. We can all read the news.

I rather want to highlight some positive shifts that we have an opportunity to make.

First, this pandemic has shown the limited capacity of private health care providers to serve a broader population in a crisis like this, when all private and public resources need to be used in a strategic manner. Governments of countries like Ireland and Spain have therefore chosen to ‘nationalize’ their private hospitals for the common benefit of their citizens for the duration of this pandemic.

Second, it has shown that with a pandemic, everyone who is sick needs access to appropriate treatment. Otherwise, the virus will keep on spreading and a greater catastrophe will emerge. This requires a very different health care strategy from the one used to treat non-communicable disease like diabetes. It also means that health care can’t only focus on the privileged.

Third, this pandemic has reminded us of the importance of primary health care: providing medical services in people’s communities and homes. A decentralized system like this is better at handling a high burden of disease. The same applies to the value of social marketing, which is constructive messaging aimed at changing people’s behaviours. Even in first world countries, the burden of this virus has meant that the vast majority of infected people are being told to stay away from hospitals. Fortunately, South Africa’s health system uses primary health care and social marketing.

Our experience with this pandemic will strengthen the case for National Health Insurance and increased investment in public health care in South Africa. It will also reveal the deep flaws in the health care systems of other countries, and I hope they make significant changes hereafter.

Finally, health workers (e.g. doctors, nurses, community workers, support staff) are the forefront of this battle. Some of my neighbours are paramedics and nurses. My heart goes out to them whenever I see them leave for work. They are also most at risk given their constant exposure to the virus. I hope all health workers are granted and retain the recognition they deserve.

7. We may socialize differently, and more with people who live elsewhere

‘Social distancing’, ‘quarantine’, ‘self-isolation’ and ‘lockdown’ are the new words of 2020. They will become embedded in our vocabulary.

Everyone I know has taken appropriate steps to self-isolate and reduce their physical interactions with other people. All my clients have closed their physical offices. As an extrovert, I had foreseen that this would cause me immense frustration.

Yet, despite my physical isolation, I’ve had ‘coffee chats’, ‘drinks’, ‘meetings’ and my weekly role-playing games via Skype. As I write this section, my wife has hijacked my study for a live yoga class via Zoom. I’ve managed to be closer to my friends who live in other cities than I have been for some time.

I wonder how many of these new habits we will keep once this pandemic is over. The upside is it enhances social interaction, cooperation and support between people in different locations. However, human beings benefit from physical closeness and intimate conversations. We will be lessened if these should decrease.

8. Countries may continue to cooperate at this level

Viruses and diseases don’t stick to national borders. Neither do things like terrorism, criminal syndicates, poverty and climate change. Countries need to cooperate and coordinate their activities in order to solve these issues.

I’ve read many stories about how countries are cooperating on vaccines, and sharing data and medical supplies with each other. This reminds me of the level of cooperation during the world wars.

We clearly can’t win this ‘world war’ without working together. And once this is over, I hope this level of global cooperation will continue.

9. Some sectors of our economy will grow rapidly

While some types of businesses, such as those in the tourism and hospitality sectors, are likely to take a big knock, others will emerge or strengthen during this year. There are five types of organizations that I’ve been thinking about recently.

The first are biotechnology businesses which make products out of living organisms. Biotech products range from vaccines and cancer treatments through to vat-grown meat. This pandemic will shine a spotlight on the power of living organisms.

The second are online retail and service businesses. These range from food delivery services through to online yoga classes and doctors appointments. I’m sure that movie streaming services like Netflix and the online gaming industry have been growing.

Businesses that supply the technology required to run virtual organizations are also likely to do extremely well. This includes communication, productivity, content and performance management apps. We will all be comfortable using these apps within a couple of months. By the time our offices ‘reopen’, many of us will continue to work from home.

The third are labour brokers and freelancers. I can see businesses wanting to ‘employ’ fewer staff and reduce their legal burden in a crisis such as this. While this will make employees less secure, it will provide opportunities for freelancers and consultants.

The fourth are insurance companies, once they have recovered from the knock that this pandemic has caused. I expect them to launch new ranges of risk insurance products sometime soon.

I have not forgotten the valuable work of nonprofit organizations and social enterprises. I’ve left the best and fifth type of organization till last. This is where I will be investing my time. These organizations are integral to the fight against poverty, and I hope they are not sidelined in the rush to subsidize and bail-out businesses. I wish that this pandemic broadens the conversation about how society can support the less fortunate, and I pray that philanthropic and charitable organizations receive the support and appreciation they deserve.

10. We will hopefully become more discerning about how we consume news

I suspect we have all been glued to the news recently, watching for daily updates on the pandemic and what means for us. I hope that this experience will teach us to be more mindful about how we consume news and the impact of news on our well-being.

I withdrew from reading online news at the beginning of 2020, though I’ve slipped a bit recently. I found it distressing, untrustworthy, biased and full of agendas and opinions. It was creating a false sense of urgency in my life.

It feels sometimes that we’re living in a ‘post-truth’ era where ‘objective truth’ has ceased to matter. Rather all that appears to matter is the perceived credibility of the messenger.

I realized that I needed a more informative and trustworthy news source since it’s important for me to stay informed. I ended up replacing my online news with The Economist magazine. I’ve become much more informed and less anxious as a result.

I’ve also read about how some media and governments have recognized the danger of ‘fake news’, especially with regards to this pandemic. The South African government has made it illegal to distribute misleading information on the virus, and I totally agree with this. I hope that the truth about important things such as people’s health becomes more valued and that the requirement to base assertions on facts and scientific evidence is more strictly monitored.

The opportunity over the next couple months

To state the obvious, we need to get over this short-term disaster with as much resilience and empathy as possible. There will be damage to the South African economy, but rather that than millions of deaths.

Crises tend to shrink our minds and make us focus on our immediate survival. But when we’ve come to terms with a crisis and develop a method of coping, we can begin to use our time more constructively.

For example, after a frantic and stressful adjustment period, I’ve started to use this lockdown to:

  • Develop more content (e.g. articles and tools) for non-profit organizations and social enterprises.
  • Work on one of the internet business ideas I’ve been trying to allocate time to.
  • Help my clients to find encouragement, revise their strategies and develop contingency plans. I’ve been able to do much of this work online without the physical interactions I’m used to.
  • Find ways to be of service and provide leadership in my sphere of influence. I expect there to be many opportunities for me to do this in the next couple months.
  • Spend much more quality time with my wife (and cat) at home.
  • Simply slow down, rest, catch up on my reading, and recover my grounding.

It’s unlikely that I’ll have such an opportunity again over the next couple years.

Conclusion

I hope the human race will derive some long-term insight or benefit from this pandemic. Otherwise, all the death and suffering will be for nothing.

I would like to see humans acting with empathy towards other people, animals and the environment. I hope to see greater cooperation between communities and nations, and a sense of our interdependence with planet Earth.

I’m very happy with the leadership that President Ramaphosa is providing during these times. I hope this quality of leadership will continue. I’m glad I’m living in South Africa right now.

I hope you stay healthy and take appropriate precautions in the next few months. We should also contemplate how fortunate we are with the life and opportunities we have.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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