TIPS Tracker: The economy and the pandemic Week 15-21 June 2020

This TIPS tracker highlights important trends in the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa, and how they affect the economy. It analyses publically available data, research and media reports to identify current developments and reflect on the prognosis for the contagion, the economy, and policy responses.


On the pandemic

  • Transmission in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape continued on the accelerated path that kicked off with the move to Level 4 and escalated in Level 3. In Gauteng, the number of cases nearly doubled over the week to reach 137 per 100 000 residents; in the Eastern Cape, the figure topped 200; and in the Western Cape, it was over 700. In the other provinces, the incidence remained under 30. Differences in provincial testing strategies make comparisons increasingly difficult, however.
  • Government effectively reopened nearly all economic activity but continued to ban family gatherings except for funerals. It argued that relaxing restrictions on economic activity means individuals become responsible for limiting transmission. Government announced a new Ministerial Advisory Committee comprising religious and civil society representatives to promote behavioural change.
  • Government accelerated economic reopening largely in response to intense lobbying by businesses, often backed by the relevant Ministers (notably for mining, tourism and small enterprise). But it also reflects a conceptual contradiction: is COVID-19 like the flu, with an inevitable winter spike that equally predictably dissipates, or like HIV or TB, where behavioural changes can prevent transmission for long periods? If it is like flu, government should focus on bolstering the health system to deal with the surge in cases; if it is like HIV or TB, it should focus on changing behaviour plus tracing and isolating new cases.

On the economy

  • The economic bounce from Level 3 largely levelled out by mid-June. The banks now expect up to 10% impaired loans, compared to 6% in 2008/9. They have deferred payments for business and individuals on a large scale, but mostly only through June.
  • National Treasury will announce the supplementary budget on Wednesday, promising fundamental restructuring to address the COVID-19 depression. It expects the GDP to return to 2019 levels only around 2023.
  • Given South Africa’s unusual inequalities, the economic-policy response to the pandemic imposes tough choices. Hotspots have emerged almost exclusively in the metros’ dense townships and informal settlements, while workplace clusters mostly affect manual workers in mining, manufacturing, retail and public and private services. In contrast, higher-income professionals and managers can largely maintain physical distancing at work and while commuting, or even work from home. The state has effectively agreed to encourage businesses to reopen to boost incomes despite accelerating transmission, rather than extending the grants and UIF payments that enabled low-income households to avoid infections at work and in public transport.

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