In December 2020 the DepartCovid-19 country reportment of Planning Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME), in partnership with Government Technical Advisory Centre (GTAC) and the National Research Foundation (NRF), hosted three workshops to share early findings from the Covid-19 Country Report. During the three stakeholder workshops, 12 of the chapter teams presented their analysis.  The chapters were produced by teams of researchers, experts and leading academics, and while the research is on-going, the findings already reflect critically on the measures and interventions adopted by Government and provide early recommendations for addressing the on-going health crises.

The Covid-19 Country report was initiated by the late Minister Jackson Mthembu, the Minister in the Presidency, who felt that the country is facing an unprecedented catastrophic pandemic, and that our response had to be properly documented and assessed. The main aim of the Country Report is to record measures and interventions adopted by government in partnership with social partners to manage, respond to and combat the spread of the Covid-19, as well as its socio-economic impacts on all of us, but especially on vulnerable groups.

WhatsUp shared chapter highlights from selected chapters in the 8 December 2020 edition, and this week we highlight findings from the chapters on communication, economic sectors and agriculture and food security. The nature of the Covid-19 pandemic is increasingly highlighting the value of behavioural interventions. Does South Africa’s Covid-19 communications strategy instil behavioural change, and increase awareness and compliance? Does the Government’s communication strategy allay fears, communicate government’s response and manage disinformation, while also being open to hearing citizens’ concerns? Chapter 4 of the Country Report indicates that, while the strategy sought to convey the necessity of the lockdown and compliance therewith, the level of civic protest suggests it was not entirely successful in this regard. The chapter also assess the extent to which the South African context of multilingualism, the rural/urban digital divide, and prohibitive data costs were considered in the implementation of the communication strategy.

The response to Covid-19 has amplified existing economic challenges, especially unemployment, poverty and inequality. Chapter 5.2.1 illustrates how consumption and production were sharply reduced in sectors such as mining, tourism, transport, tobacco, alcohol and various manufacturing subsectors. The negative effect on public sector and essential workers was much more modest, but, overall, there was a significant cost in the form of lost livelihoods, a massive demand shock, and a loss of business and consumer confidence. With hindsight it is clear that the resources required to implement lockdown regulations were not properly estimated. It was assumed, for example, that operators in different sectors would finance the implementation of the regulations; however, the operators had structural cash flow constraints. It appears, for example, that the financial impact of the lockdown has been especially severe on the minibus taxi industry, which carries the majority of commuters. Conflicting medical advice on the risk posed by public transport created uncertainties about the use of public transport services. Evidence suggests that the sales ban of cigarettes reversed much of the progress made through the establishment of the Illicit Economy Unit in the SA Revenue Service (SARS) in 2019, which assisted in the control of illicit trade. It is therefore, recommended that once the situation is normalised, government should impose sustainable tobacco control policies that discourage young people from smoking and encourage smokers to quit.

From an agricultural point of view, the regulations to contain the virus had a minimal impact on the food supply chain in terms of production, manufacturing and retail. Chapter 5.2.2 addresses the direct and indirect impact of the regulations on food supply chains and assesses the impact of the Covid-19 regulations on ports, production and trade, and employment in the sector. It shows that South Africa did not experience a shortage of food, though it did have difficulty in ensuring food security among vulnerable groups as a result of trade restrictions for informal traders, which had an effect on the accessibility and affordability of food during the first days of the initial lockdown. The restaurant industry and the informal sector were severely affected by the lockdown.  The formal and informal food sector and food industry forms an essential part of the health and well-being of a nation and must be regarded as such. There is, therefore, a need for a clear understanding of the contribution it makes to the economy, including informal markets, the alcohol industry and the restaurant sector to prevent catastrophic outcomes. Government should review the classification of essential services to avoid similar mistakes in the event of future crises. It also needs to broaden the criteria for appointing experts to the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) to provide for a broad spectrum of experts, including in the food supply chain sector.

All papers, presentations and recordings are available on GTAC’s website.