Definition of 'essential services' a very subjective issue

Pubs, taverns and even pizza parlours claimed to be providing 'essential services' and received permits which will now be revoked. Stock photo.
Pubs, taverns and even pizza parlours claimed to be providing 'essential services' and received permits which will now be revoked. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Mr.Smith Chetanachan

So the government’s promised “risk-adjusted” lockdown relaxation measures include allowing emergency repairs at homes, and the sale of the necessary parts, as well as the sale of parts needed for emergency repairs to the cars of those doing essential services.

But it’s still a “no” to booze and ciggie sales, and don’t even think about selling prepared, ready-to-eat meals   — and that includes delivered ones too, fresh or frozen. That clearly came as a bit of a shock to many on Thursday — both buyers and sellers. What? No supermarket roast chickens? No hot pies? No ready-to-eat meals deliveries?

The day before, a local chef had posted on Twitter photos of the meals she was preparing to deliver to clients. “Food production is an essential service,” he said.

There followed a swift, severe response from the Twitter account of the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC).

“Prepared food is not an essential service, delivery is only allowed for essential products and services. We will be revoking your application. All revoked applications are handed to the DTI to proceed with litigation.”

Many meal delivery operators had applied for their essential services’ permit on the CIPC site at the start of lockdown, got it immediately, and assumed that they were legitimate. Food is essential, right?

Well, not prepared food, in the context of a lockdown, apparently.

The health worker or supermarket cashier who doesn’t have the time or inclination to cook after a long shift would likely disagree. Ditto anyone living alone who can’t cook for themselves. But for now, requiring employees to take public transport in order to produce and package meals in a manufacturing facility and then deliver them to homes is not considered essential.

So how did the all those “non essentials” get their permits? They were automatically produced by the CIPC via that hastily created online portal. There was no assessment. As the CIPC explained in a tweet last week: “Companies must go through the regulations to find out if they qualify (as an essential service), before they apply. Applying while you don’t qualify is a criminal offence.”

I daresay a lot of unnecessary drama could have been avoided if the initial list of essential services was fleshed out better at the start of lockdown. By the evening of the first full day of lockdown, March 27, 50,000 companies had registered their businesses as providers of essential services and goods through the lockdown period.

It seems many of them are non-essential business owners who misinterpreted or defied the regulations, and their competitors are not enchanted. Some are outing the transgressors publicly. As I was writing this, I got an e-mail from the owner of a wool shop in Cape Town.

“Nowhere on the list of essential trade or non-essential trade does a haberdashery feature,” she said. “But another wool shop in the Cape has obtained a letter to trade. I’ve tried to contact the owner to inquire how, but she is not answering.”

What we think about this lockdown — its restrictions and the distinction between what’s essential and what is not — is, to a large extent, coloured by who we are: how we feed ourselves, our drinking, smoking and exercise habits, whether or not we’re still able to earn an income during lockdown, how comfortable we are in our own homes for days on end, and how exposed we are to the medical impact of the pandemic.

Last week a medical professional wrote to tell me how disappointed she was in my column about the need to relax some of the lockdown prohibitions.

“I risk my life every day so that people of my country get the proper medical care they need,” she began. “Day in and day out, I see people whose lives have been turned upside down after contracting the coronavirus due to ‘one mistake’.

“One wrong touch, one wrong location and one wrong person.

“I come home every night with my thoughts haunted by the people I might have to see die within the next couple of days because of the virus, such as a seven-year-old girl infected because her father was an ‘essential worker’.

“And then I read the news and social media, and I see: ‘We need cigarettes, repair technicians, restaurants ... our conditions are home are challenging ...’

“Every one of these requests requires one more human being out there who has to risk their lives and leave their families, so everyone else can have ‘comfort while at home’.

“As citizens of this country we should ... encourage as few people working outside their homes as possible.

“Yes, it’s tough and not what we are accustomed to but we need to be disciplined. We need to be patient and most importantly we need to consider everyone’s lives and not just our own.”

With that in mind, spare a thought for the hundreds of people who are continuing to travel to call centres in order to phone you about your cellphone contract “upgrade”.

Yes, some are working from home, but many are still commuting to a call centre in order to offer you a deal, and try to meet their commission-linked targets. Surely the upgrade call can wait, given that contracts don’t expire at then end of the “initial period” — they roll over to month-to-month?

Apparently not. MTN’s corporate affairs executive Jacqui O’Sullivan explained: “Quite often, people are struggling with old phones or broken screens but they choose to wait for the upgrade before taking any action.

“Many people come into stores for this and, with our stores currently being closed, we want customers who are eligible for upgrades to know that they can still get what is contractually available to them,” she said.

And post-lockdown, they are trying to avoid a rush on stores. So this is the time to be kind to call centre agents, too.


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