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A South African perspective on dealing with COVID-19

Every country has had a different approach to managing COVID-19 but South Africa’s approach has been different to many. This article provides an overview and looks at some implications and learning points from a business continuity point of view.

The South Africa government published a five-level lockdown strategy in March and implemented Level 5, the most draconian, on 26th March.  The numbers attending funerals were severely restricted and only a single, designated, member of each household was allowed out once a week to buy groceries.  The household member nominated could not change.  Identified groups of essential workers, including health professionals, grocery shop workers and bank staff, were allowed to go to work but only with the appropriate permits obtained by their employers.  The police frequently ignored the permits, particularly in townships, forcing some essential workers to turn back home.  All non-food retail was closed.

The lockdown level was eased after 21 days when an overnight curfew was introduced and, unlike anywhere else, the sale of alcohol and tobacco products was banned.  The official reasoning for the bans was to protect the health system by reducing the number of alcohol-related cases taking up hospital beds potentially needed for COVID-19 patients and to reduce comorbidities in a country where, uniquely in the world, more than half the population have underlying health conditions.  More cynical commentators noted an alignment between the commercial interests or religious beliefs of some of the ministers behind the policy and the bans.  The alcohol ban was partially lifted in June but re-imposed in mid-July as pressure on hospital beds increased due to drink-related accidents and injuries. 

The bans have led to an increase in illegal alcohol sales and illicit cigarette trading.  After a seemingly promising start, there are probably few in the country, outside of government ranks, who would rate the management of the pandemic response as a success.  Part of this is down to allegations of corruption relating to the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) and theft by local authority officials of food parcels meant for poor families.

By the start of August, South Africa had had 500,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases with over 8,000 related deaths.  By mid-August, there were over 600,000 confirmed cases.  This placed South Africa seventh in the world for the number of cases and first in Africa, although the latter could simply be a consequence of more widespread testing.

The organization for which I work started following global COVID-19 trends in late February.  In early March, we invoked the Crisis Management Team and made an early decision to move as many people to home working as possible.  This included some traders.  A limited number of critical staff who couldn't work from home, such as contact centre / center operatives, some traders and building maintenance and security staff, remained in the office, split across two sites and different floors where practical. 

We have deliberately taken a conservative approach to keeping on-site staff safe and the environment sanitized.  Our measures include taking people's temperature as they enter the building, providing hand sanitisers everywhere, closing the canteens but accepting ready-made food deliveries with the necessary protocols, social distancing and mask-wearing, and introducing regular deep cleaning and fogging of buildings every second week.  We have also developed a step-by-step toolkit for managing COVID-19 cases, including isolation protocols and mini-fogging for affected areas, as and when they occur.  This toolkit is used on a daily basis to log the infection rate as well being utilized for the track-and-trace process.   

One important step was the creation of weekly communication to all staff with tips for working from home and reassurances of organizational support.  Many staff initially found the new ways of operating to be a challenge, whether working from home surrounded by smaller children while schools were closed or childcare inaccessible, or in the socially distanced office. To understand how our people are coping with this, regular organizational ‘pulse checks’ were conducted and wellbeing issues addressed.

Over time, people have found a rhythm of work which hopefully gives them a better work/life balance.  The ‘new norm’ has led to questions about the need for big corporate buildings if home working is to remain a core part of how we are organized in the future.

Many business continuity practitioners went into the pandemic in a slightly jaded state following the water crisis in Cape Town in 2018 and ongoing power shortages.  Amidst the tragedies and the soaring unemployment caused by the pandemic, there have been considerable implications for business continuity practitioners.

For me and my team, these have included:

  • All staff now understand the importance of business continuity and crisis management and the need for effective and consistent communication internally and with clients and other stakeholders.  This has enhanced our ability to engage with staff now and in the future, but it has also convinced the organization of the value of a single crisis response, rather than different parts having separate processes.
  • Providing a sense of calm, particularly when elements of panic presented itself at the outset.
  • Senior management has come to rely on us as a source of guidance and knowledge.  This has enhanced our roles, improved job satisfaction, and provides the opportunity for us to influence the executives in the future.  In common with our peers, we are not yet part of the conversation on what client services will look like going forward, but we hope to be.
  • We are now seen as the glue that brings the organization together at a time of crisis.  We have become more valued as a source of information and as an important conduit to facilitate decision-making.  This has allowed us to improve co-ordination and communication between business continuity and other functional areas as we are more in the loop.  This will also help in our longer-term quest to improve the resilience of the organization by breaking down functional silos.
  • Adapting existing recovery strategies to the changing situation; for example, using our own work area recovery site to facilitate split site working of the contact centre, rather than purely for the loss of our main building, as originally intended.  Ironically, the pandemic has also partially challenged the need for alternate sites as many people, including some traders, have demonstrated they can work from home.
  • Improved collaboration with peers.  We now have a weekly industry call that allows us to share concerns and best practice on non-commercially sensitive matters and provides greater insight than we had before on the likely regulatory response.

The author is a Business Continuity Manager based in South Africa who wishes to remain anonymous.



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