President Cyril Ramaphosa’s radical and decisive response to the coronavirus threat on Sunday evening – and the clear and comprehensive ministerial briefing that followed on Monday morning – amount to a profound and well-workshopped act of collective leadership by a functional and united team.
It is a great tribute to Ramaphosa and every member of the ministerial team who knew their role and articulated their messages in as calm and joined-up a way as their leader had set the scene the night before.
What it shows is that behind the scenes Ramaphosa, despite the growing criticism that has been directed at him for moving too slowly on anti-corruption steps and economic reforms, has been working inexorably to build a team that can meet the huge challenges facing the country.
As Ramaphosa told a recent press conference: “I build consensus….I do not give in to screaming and shouting”.
He is a leader who works through process and institution-building.
The response to the coronavirus pandemic showed in a dramatic way that his strategy is working and suddenly those trying to undermine him from within and without are pushed onto the margins and look less threatening than they do when leadership is in short supply.
There were impressive people around that table on Monday morning at the Union Buildings but even more impressive was that they spoke with one voice and that they not only knew their lines but believed in them and had clearly taken ownership of the collective plan.
Perhaps more importantly, they had been convinced by Ramaphosa to see this crisis as an opportunity to forge unity in a divided country by getting people to work together as a community against a common enemy and rediscover acts of kindness towards each other.
The contrast between Ramaphosa’s decisive action and the vacillation and initial trivialisation of the threat in London and Washington could not be starker.
It is only yesterday that major Western nations got serious about drastic measures to curb the virus amid predictions of deaths running into hundreds of thousands.
It does not take a brain surgeon to realise that the only way you flatten the curve is to act preemptively and drastically to limit human contact and travel. A compulsory lock-down in France, a voluntary one in the US and UK indicated that infections and deaths are beginning to spiral out of control and health systems could soon be overwhelmed.
Those phoning the helpline in the UK have been told to self-isolate for seven days and phone again if they still have symptoms. Tracking and tracing is carried out but estimates are that the number of infected people are five to ten times the official figures.
As scientists have pointed out, the time to talk about “herd immunity” is when you have a vaccine in place which is at least a year, possibly 18 months away.
Advocates of the “herd immunity” theory have gone on television and argued that it was inevitable that many 70+-year-olds would die because the National Health System did not have enough beds and was drastically short of respirators for victims who were not able to breathe normally.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did his “your loved ones will die” speech only days ago and it went down like a lead balloon. Last night Monday he warned of a “drastic escalation” of infections and deaths and appealed for social distancing and no non-essential travel for the next 12 weeks.
It is only when the media pointed out that this “herd” strategy” amounted to an incremental genocide of people over 70, that Johnson suddenly changed track and started to contemplate closure of schools and a ban on public gatherings.
Now there are belated attempts to get the production of respirators fast-tracked on British production lines.
Finally, on Monday night it was announced that pubs, clubs, theatres and restaurants would close with immediate effect, non-essential contact and travel should cease and people should work from home where possible. But that finally came after 55 deaths and more than 1500 officially recorded infections, of which more than 400 are in London.
On the latest modelling scientists are predicting up to 250, 000 deaths with no certainty about when or how the virus will end.
The situation in the United States is even worse where a narcissistic President Donald Trump first down-played the pandemic, then blamed the media and opposition Democrats for making political capital to prevent him getting a second term in office.
When the financial markets went into meltdown he threatened to fire the head of the Federal Reserve and then got a shock when he himself had to be tested.
Only then did he ban all flights from Europe initially excluding the UK, where he owns five golf courses, and the Republic of Ireland but both countries were included in the ban within a few days.
The US is drastically short of test kits and given the health insurance system many are unable to afford private medicine and have no unemployment benefits.
Last night he finally succumbed to a lockdown and along the lines of the UK last night but did not make it compulsory as President Emmanuel Macron of France did last night.
It is remarkable how the world has changed overnight. The global economy could well go into recession before the end of the year. The world leaders in combating the virus are Taiwan and South Korea. China and Italy did the right thing after a bad start.
And South Africa has set a shining example of how to learn from the mistakes of others and then calmly put together a radical plan to stop the spread of the virus in a country with a relatively weak health system for the majority of the population who are highly vulnerable due to their living conditions.
And those countries that have taken the longest to act are the United States, Britain, France, Spain and Iran. Europe is now the epicentre of the virus and there are more new infections outside China than inside.
The details of the South African plan are now imprinted on the minds of most South Africans but let us dwell for a moment on why this was such a powerful response.
The world is caught in the grip of the most serious pandemic – they used to be called plagues before the advent of vaccinations and modern medicine – since the Spanish flu 100 years ago which killed 50 million people.
The coronavirus does not seek to compete on the number of people who will die – although some estimates run into millions – but it is far and away the most easily transmitted of viruses in modern times when compared with Sars, Mers and Ebola.
And nothing spreads it quicker than flying around the world on budget airlines and obscene cruise ships that house up to 4000 people. This is a world gone mad and one which has completely lost touch with the meaning of being human and contributing to healing and sustaining an abused planet.
It is also abundantly clear from the experience of China, South Korea and Italy that swift pre-emptive action to prevent travel and physical contact is the only effective way to contain the virus in the short-term and reduce its tentacles which thrive on travel and places of human contact such as pubs, large gatherings, concerts church services etc.
China got off to a slow start with the outbreak in Wuhan and then did the right thing by imposing drastic lockdowns involving 60-million people with the advantage of having a centrally-controlled political system which is light on human rights.
South Korea acted swiftly in response to the outbreak in Daegu and has been successful in slowing the rate of infections through tracking, tracing and testing and disinfecting public places.
Perhaps the most successful of all thus far has been Taiwan which unlike China has an open society and has meticulously tracked, traced and tested every one of the 50 or so recorded cases and thus drastically slowed and contained the virus.
What is less known is what happens after the lock-downs are lifted and what happens to the virus, how it mutates and what other viruses lurk in the urban undergrowth.
Ramaphosa’s swift and decisive action has shown what can be achieved with a team that works together.
Allow us to dream as to what might be achieved through this kind of leadership in the face of the country’s huge challenges including corruption, poverty, unemployment and economic decline.
- John Battersby is an author and independent consultant. He was the UK Country Manager of Brand South Africa from 2004 to 2015.
OPINION: John Battersby