Monday, January 24

Omicron dealt SA’s tourism industry ‘another blow to the body’ – Mavuso

The Omicron variant couldn’t have come at a worse time. Just as our tourism industry was preparing for a suitable December season, the shutters have been resolutely closed at unprecedented speed. This is absolutely devastating for the industry, as well as for our economy in general.

Foreign governments acted hastily, and I support President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call last night for those countries to immediately reverse the restrictions they imposed. Our diplomatic corps has a lot of work to do to ensure it works closely with foreign governments to rethink. The behavior of other countries is largely beyond our control, but it is within our control to decide what to do at the national level: protect the economy and vaccinate everyone. That is why I was pleased that the President last night pointed out the importance of the vaccine mandates and a task force to explore the vaccine mandate for specific activities. I applaud these steps, including in the discussions at Nedlac with business, civil society and workers, about making vaccination mandatory when appropriate.

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The president urged that existing restrictions be respected, but did not impose any additional measures that could harm the economy. The existing protocols must be absolutely respected. But we have learned from the last 20 months that restrictions on national economic activity have a serious impact on the economy, leading to job losses, poverty, and ultimately worse health outcomes. It would have been a mistake to impose more restrictions on the economy when we simply do not know what the effects of the variant will be. Any assumed health gains from restrictions must be weighed against losses from reduced economic activity. And the best way to achieve health goals is through the immunization program. The president put the focus where it should be: vaccinating as many South Africans as possible as soon as possible.

Our tourism industry has received another blow to the body. We can’t compound that by adding alcohol restrictions or movement restrictions locally. Tourism employs a disproportionate number of women and less skilled workers. It is particularly important in the fight against poverty. While tourism has been the epicenter of the economic consequences of the pandemic, our official efforts to support the industry have been lacking. The only fund created by the tourism department to support the industry ended up paralyzed by litigation. We must do better. There are also more companies that can do and I will be working with colleagues in organized companies in the coming days to find ways that we can support the industry.

As we continue to fight this pandemic, I call on the government not to score any goals on its own with its own efforts to manage the pandemic. The key to avoiding those own goals is consultation. Unfortunately, in previous measures, the business has been taken by surprise and regulations have caused unnecessary damage. The government must understand the consequences of different policy options and companies must be fully informed in order to plan and minimize the consequences.

Alcohol restrictions are an obvious example. Comprehensive bans have strongly stimulated the illegal alcohol industry, giving resources to criminal networks that allow for much broader criminality. It will take years to undo this. We have also unnecessarily harmed the export trade by restricting the transport of alcohol and harmed industrial uses of alcohol, all unintended consequences that could have been foreseen after consultation. There really is no health benefit to banning the safe use of alcohol in homes and places of hospitality, as long as other measures such as social distancing are strictly adhered to. It is unacceptable to make the alcohol industry the scapegoat after the government failed to fully implement measures that target what matters: the transmission of the virus.

The true objective of all our efforts must be the vaccination of our population. Early indications are that the Omicron variant shows higher infection rates among our young adult population. That reinforces the obvious point that not only do we need to be concerned about the elderly and other vulnerable groups, but all adults need to get vaccinated if we want to limit waves of infection.

Our vaccination rate has slowed as we deplete the number of people who are willing and able to access vaccines. Introducing coupons for certain segments is a positive intervention to drive wider acceptance; we must recognize that many of our people live from day to day and do not have the time or resources to seek a vaccine. We need to make sure that vaccines are readily available and that people are compensated for the costs of accessing vaccines.

I support the introduction of vaccination mandates by employers, both to keep those vaccinated safe at work and to increase pressure on others to get vaccinated. We must also enforce vaccine mandates at key points of transmission, including public transportation and large-scale events.

Clearly, the fight against this pandemic is far from over. We need to combat it on the health front, but we must also combat the economic consequences it inflicts. We urgently need to address the economic impact of the new variant. I will work with organized businesses and our social partners to do so and I implore you to join the effort.

The effects of rising world inflation hit our shores with a major shock through the rise of R1.21 / liter in the price of gasoline earlier this month, taking it to an all-time high. Combined with the jarring 15% rise in electricity prices this year, consumers are being hit hard, I wrote in Business Day.

We are facing a water and sanitation crisis with poor wastewater treatment and consequent contamination of the country’s water resources as a particular problem, I write in my end24 column. A comprehensive set of measures has been put in place to address this in time; now we need to make sure the notorious SA issues with implementation don’t trip us up again.

Busi Mavuso is Executive Director of Business Leadership South Africa.

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