News analysis

A coronavirus.

  • Various groups are trying to figure out what rules should be in place when the South African economy restarts, but while the risk of Covid-19 still looms.
  • Current recommendations – which could become rules – include taking staff temperatures, and developing a plan for what to do if someone shows symptoms while at work.
  • Here is what businesses and other organisations may be required to do once SA's hard Covid-19 lockdown ends.
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Regulators and industry bodies in South Africa are trying to figure out what the future will look like after South Africa's hard Covid-19 lockdown ends – whether that is in the form or a softer lockdown, or as a full restart of the economy.

Life will not go back to normal immediately, everyone agrees, not while there is a risk of a big second wave of infections. Businesses, and organisations such as schools and universities, will have to operate under different rules for at least the duration of South Africa's winter (when seasonal influenza could be mistaken for Covid-19, and burden the health system) and likely until a vaccine is available for SARS-CoV-2.

Controversial and debatable measures being discussed around the world include sending young people back to work first, as they seem far less likely to develop serious cases of Covid-19, and "immunity passports" to allow those who have recovered from the virus to move around more freely.

See also: Petrol stations ask South Africans to wear masks in stores

Other measures have broader consensus – outside the industry sectors that will be hard hit, such as keeping theatres and sporting venues, and other areas where people gather in large groups for leisure, shut for longer than other businesses.

South Africa's state of national disaster can remain in force as long as Parliament is willing to renew it, and under it the executive branch of the government has the power to make such rules as it deems necessary to save lives. But even after the state of disaster ends, existing laws and regulations on workplace safety, preventing communicable disease, and issuing business licences can be used to enforce measures to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

These are some of the rules and recommendations expected for businesses and other organisations in South Africa after the hard Covid-19 lockdown ends.

Taking staff temperatures, and keeping a log of visitors.

Businesses without a big flow of customers, such as retailers, may be required to check every person who enters premises, staff and visitors alike, for fever. (An elevated temperature is one of the early signs of Covid-19.)

Such businesses may also be required to keep a log detailing when everyone comes and goes, to make for easier tracing of contacts in the event that one of those people tests positive for SARS-CoV-2 later.

Such rules could also be enforced for schools and universities.

At least 1.5 metres of space between each workstation – and everywhere else.

After some discussion within various industries, the standard for the distance between people seems to have settled down to 1.5 metres. That is the distance likely to be required between workstations in offices and factories, and also in settings such as meeting rooms.

Some sectors have argued they simply can not maintain such distances, for instance on complex assembly lines, but they may have to explain that to labour inspectors empowered to investigate unsafe working conditions.

A clear plan on what to do if someone shows symptoms while at work.

Workplace safety policies and procedures may have to be updated on what happens if someone starts showing symptoms of Covid-19, such as a cough or fever, including:

  • The responsibility of managers to detect such symptoms and take appropriate action.
  • Where personal protective equipment is kept, for use by colleagues assisting the ill person.
  • Where an ill person can be isolated from everyone else.
  • How the immediate workspace used by an ill person will be sanitised.

See also: South Africa is getting a special three-digit phone number for Covid-19 emergencies

Stopping the sharing of hardware, or sanitising protocols between users.

Shared computer keyboards or phones in offices, and shared tools in a light-engineering context alike will probably be strongly discouraged.

Where equipment is unavoidably in common use, that hardware will have to be sanitised between uses, with one school of thought arguing employees should be held responsible for sanitising both and and before each use.

Education on coughing, hand washing, and other personal measures.

Companies are expected to have a specific obligation to educate workers on measures to slow the spread of viral infection, including coughing into the crook of the elbow and washing hands regularly for at least 20 seconds.

Lots and lots and lots of disinfectant.

Because environments differ, insiders do not expect hard, specific rules on how businesses will have to disinfect – only broad but firm guidelines. Depending on their setup, businesses may be expected to:

  • Provide hand-sanitising stations, or better yet soap and water, at entry points.
  • Ensure the constant and uninterrupted availability of soap and running water in bathrooms.
  • Add sanitising agents to cleaning routines, using the likes of bleach or alcohol to clean everything from desks to handrails, often.

See also: Bill Gates believes travel for work will never be the same after coronavirus

Cloth masks – but not gloves.

South Africa's policy of encouraging the wearing of masks (reusable cloth ones rather than the medical equipment in desperate short supply in the health care environment) may have a firmer incarnation in workplace rules after the hard lockdown ends.

By some suggestions, all retailers (and, possibly, other customer-facing businesses) would be required to have visors, masks, or plastic partitions between staff and customers. There is also some debate on requiring mask wearing in office environments, for the duration of South Africa's traditional winter flu season.

Gloves, however, do not feature prominently in current thinking; other than keeping gloves around for special use, such as in dealing with an ill colleague, it does not appear that businesses will be required to stock up on hand protection.

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