Despite the risk of a third wave of COVID infections, there are reasons for vaccine optimism as South Africa inches closer to a mass public vaccination programme which should be in full swing by July this year.
Mass vaccination rollouts are expected to launch on May 17th.
“We have lagged many countries in getting our people vaccinated. However, we are now accumulating vaccines and we are hopeful that through ongoing government and private sector collaboration, large-scale public vaccinations will start soon,” said RMB CEO James Formby.
He noted that a third wave of infections was imminent in South Africa but that the magnitude of the wave was difficult to estimate.
“What does give us optimism is that we are stocking up on Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer vaccines and that systems are currently being put in place to roll out the vaccination process nation-wide.
“By year end, substantial numbers of people could be vaccinated. This will help shift the narrative of the country as a place to be avoided while its people face severe ‘red list’ travel restrictions.”
Formby added that rolling out vaccinations as soon as possible was important to truly restart the South African economy, particularly for industries like tourism and hospitality which have been very hard hit.
The tourism sector accounts for about 5% of South Africa’s workforce.
Jessica Spira, Sector Head for Healthcare and Hospitality at RMB, said that at the moment things were ‘incredibly tough’ for the hospitality industry in South Africa.
“Hotels for example are running on average at 20% occupancy, which is clearly not sustainable. For many their strategy is to just try and hang on until the second half of 2022 when we expect international tourists to start to return to South Africa.”
Spira added that as difficult as the current situation is, South Africa could ultimately benefit from a shift in demand towards outdoor and experiential tourism when travel properly reopens.
“Globally we expect tourists to avoid the popular cultural city trips like Paris and London for example, and instead favour experiences like safaris, beaches and adventure sports. South Africa is very well placed for this. As long as a large proportion of the population is vaccinated by next year, we could see a revival in international tourism as confidence is restored.”
Spira added that while things were moving in the right direction for vaccine rollout in South Africa, there were challenges ahead.
“While we are certainly increasing the number of vaccines in the country, we need to ensure the logistics of the vaccinations process works too. That means the National Department of Health’s Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS) needs to be stable and functional.
“We also have to trust that most people ‘follow the science’ and opt for vaccination. Like all countries, there will be a portion of the population who won’t want to be vaccinated. It’s the role of public health and also employers to ensure people know the benefits of vaccines and help them get to vaccination centres.
“Getting vaccinated is a no brainer.”
She noted that vaccinations were unlikely to become mandatory in South Africa.
Formby added that provided Covid numbers are low, there is merit in a gradual return to the office. This is vital for skills development and will also provide a fillip to the South African economy.
“While the Work from Home model has proved a distributed workforce can be productive, there is a growing sense of isolation among employees as social connectedness declines and people lose familiarity with a wider network in organisations.
“We favour a blended approach which mixes time in the office with remote working. When all interactions are through screens, much is lost in ideas, collaboration, creativity and of course the nuanced learning and development of more junior employees. People in services companies should think of office time as ‘time to work less and engage more’,” Formby concluded.