Coronavirus – Is it Really a Breaking News at This Stage?

Despite the fact that we had prior warnings or knew that the issue of the coronavirus in the country is inevitable, some South Africans were still shocked by the news of its presence in the country.

Instead of calmly discussing and agreeing on an action plan to deal with the issue at hand, some politicians on the quest for cheap political scores screamed at each other as observed in parliament yesterday. For businesses, especially big corporates, it is business as usual with a bit of PR exercise here and there to appear concerned while back in ranch they have not implemented any plans to guide or assist their own stakeholders. Government departments, on the other hand, stay paralyzed while waiting for word from the political desk.

In the interim, citizens are all over the place with panic and no one to provide clear answers. Some have turned to comic relief on social media to deal with the fear. Fake stories run wild as some media houses try to get their stories out first and accept any comment from anyone who cares to says anything sensational about the matter, regardless of facts.

This is the state SA is in since the minister of health and the Institute of Communicable Disease confirmed the first case of Coronavirus in the country.

What is surprising about all this, however, is that we knew it was bound to happen but did very little to plan ahead, we knew the continent was already at risk when we heard about Egypt, Algeria, and Nigeria but did not look at our risk management plans to ensure we have adequate plans to prevent, manage and recover should it materialize in SA. We had warnings from people in countries that were already going through this but we remained unfazed as if we are clear on a plan of action.

Now that we have an incident, parliamentarians want to revisit the ‘inadequate plans’ that the department of health has put in place. They are now pointing out the ‘inefficiencies’ in the mitigating action plan and highlighting the failures in the health system that, according to them, will make it difficult to address this issue. My question is, is this the time to be playing blame games or time to be taking decisive action based on the agreed preparation/risk management plan and come up with suggestions that are helpful to improve what is already on the table?

The thing about risk management is that, for it to be effective, it has to be proactive while taking into consideration the internal and external factors. The action plan has to include the current risk assessment results and output of internal controls assessment. Together with input from relevant stakeholders, agreement on measures required to ensure adequacy and effectiveness has to be reached beforehand (preferably when doing impact assessment) to ensure successful implementation. This requires strong leadership that supports the process and willingness to act by the people entrusted with that task, it has to be done timely to minimize the exposure.

Yes, it is usually difficult to manage a risk that has already materialized, especially one with possibly fatal consequences, but it is not impossible. Preventing the spread of the Coronavirus is an issue that requires a concerted effort to deal with and cannot be dismissed as ‘only 1 out 57 million people ‘, as some people have responded when the news broke. It is currently one out of potential 57 million cases that will turn into a catastrophe if not managed well.

Africa as a continent has done well so far in terms of prevention by being the least impacted continent to date despite its poor resources and health system, but we are here now, we can do more. Yesterday I happened to be at one of the local hospitals and they were already putting measures in place to minimize the spread. They had started with hand sanitizers at all the entrances with some personnel covered in masks at the emergency rooms, today I went there again and this has been beefed up with porters and security guards at most entrances making sure that everyone who enters and exits is hand sanitized. The staff at the pharmacy in the same hospital were spraying customers’ hands before helping them and wiping the counters after every customer/patient has been helped. How sustainable is this though?

I asked a question to my WhatsApp contacts yesterday about their readiness to invoke their Business Continuity Management plans in their organizations and whether they have recently updated their risk profiles, the answers I got where very concerning.

Some asked/said:

  • What is Business continuity management?
  • I don’t know where it is.
  • I can’t remember the last time it was updated, let alone tested.
  • We do not have epidemic diseases /catastrophic events featuring in our risk profile.
  • We tried but we were told we are being paranoid, despite warning from the second line or public reports.

This was not surprising for me though, as I have heard most of it as a risk manager before but it is concerning because it mostly comes from people in leadership positions. We have all these resources but the willingness to act or use them and do timely is not there.

Is this the ideal leadership for Africa? The leadership that is not willing to act? The AU 2063 agenda on Capacity Development Plan Framework talks about “Risk management and anticipating exigencies of the future” as one of the three strategic dimensions in building resilience’. It goes on to talk about the willingness for Africans to act and setting our own agenda in addressing emerging issues and challenges as a requirement.

This, in my view, cannot be left to chance. If we can’t be proactive and act swiftly when issues like these arise, rise as leaders and provide assurance to our people in times of panic, then we have no hope of implementing this agenda as intended and realizing Africa that we envisage.

We might be able to contain and deal with coronavirus but what about the next incident, and the one after that?

Here are some of the simple risk management actions that you can start with if you have not yet done so:

Review your risk profile and ensure it includes key risks for your organization (considering external and internal factors),

Update your Issues log with relevant action plans in consultation with the subject matter experts,

Update, test your business continuity and disaster recovery plans in line with the business impact assessment, based on your updated risk profile.

Monitor and communicate continuously.

If you do not know how to do this, get help. Your risk officer is the right person to start with. It might not be easy to start but try it, it might save your life and that of your loved ones (in this case)and ensure your business continues to serve its clients as intended.

As Geoffrey James says in his article about open-plan Fads “if you really want no try to change things, you’ll need to deal with denial and cognitive dissonance”. As a corollary to this Upton Sinclair assert, “It is difficult to get people o understand something when their salary depends on their not understanding it.”.

Whilst we are at it, let’s take precautionary measures shared by the health experts and be safe in this period. We still have a long way to go and an unstable economy to deal with among other challenges in the continent!


Brenda Ramokopelwa is a senior Risk Manager with a demonstrated history of working in the financial services industry. She is skilled in Process Management and Enterprise Risk Management. She is a strong Risk Management professional graduated fromUniversity of Pretoria. Managing Director at Daleo Consulting Services. Speaker. Member of the 4IR Advisory Committee at Media, Information, Communication & Technology Sector Education & Training Authority ((MICT SETA). Risk and Governance Professional.