Coronavirus outbreak – how will it affect my rights and the economy?

Man working from home

There are now at least 61 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country just a week after a KwaZulu-Natal man became the first person on home soil to test positive. South Africa has declared a national state of disaster to contain the coronavirus with President Ramaphosa announcing a raft of measures aimed at containing the outbreak. In his newsletter released on Monday morning, the president said the outbreak was a “threat to our people, to our society and to our economy”.

In a crisis with more questions than answers, many worry how they’ll cope. We look at the personal finance issues.

People across the world may soon find themselves out of office for lengthy periods of time, whether they like it or not. It has been estimated that one fifth of the world’s workforce could be absent during the weeks when the coronavirus is at its peak while millions more will find themselves working from home or even without anywhere to work.

With the disruption to the normal working week comes a myriad of questions for employees, employers, contractors and casual workers about what their rights are at such an unprecedented time – and how to ensure that any money problems stay short term and don’t stretch into the future.

Working from home

Google was one of the first companies to direct that employees from its European headquarters in Dublin work from home, a move which has been replicated many times in the last few weeks. Employers and companies have been told to talk to their staff as soon as possible and ensure that they have ways to work from home – via laptops and mobile phones. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) said anyone who is worried about going into the office should have their concerns listened to by their boss – but employers are not obliged to allow for time off nor unpaid leave. But if employees refuse to attend work or any other reasonable request, they could face disciplinary action.

If any employee is placed under quarantine by the employer, should the employee be required to take sick leave?

If a medical doctor places an employee in quarantine, the employee should receive a medical certificate and in such circumstances, the employee will be on sick leave.

In the case of compulsory quarantine (ie quarantine required and enforced by the employer), the employee will not be on sick leave unless a medical certificate has been issued to the employee placing the employee in quarantine. An employer may require an employee to be quarantined if the employee recently traveled to an affected country or if the employee displays symptoms of the illness whilst at work. The employer could consider such an employee to be on special paid leave away from the office (depending on the nature of the work performed by such an employee). As an alternative to placing the employee on any type of leave, the employer could make it possible for the employee to work from home. The employer may need to put certain measures in place or assist such an employee to work from home if that is the arrangement. If it is not possible for the employee to work from home, the employer will not be able to deduct the period of quarantine as sick leave or annual leave as it was made compulsory by the employer. This will be a form of special paid leave that is over and above any other type of leave.

What if an employee requests self-quarantine?

In the case of voluntary quarantine (ie quarantine at the request of the employee for precautionary purposes), the employee is not sick and therefore, sick leave should not be imposed. If employees are forced to take unpaid leave or annual leave in these circumstances, they may opt not to self-quarantine. We therefore recommend that this should also be treated as special paid leave. However, to the extent that the employee who requests self-quarantine can work from home, no leave will need to be awarded.

The employer must carefully consider the circumstances under which special paid leave will be awarded to employees. These circumstances must be made clear to employees. It should be an option of last resort as it may be open to abuse by employees.

If the illness spreads across South Africa, the reality for employers is that employees may request to be placed in quarantine to minimise their risk of infection. In this instance, the employer will need to consider implementing remote working for employees who can work from home. The guidelines above need to be applied to determine which form of leave will apply.

What happens after the quarantine period?

After the quarantine period and even if an employee does not display any symptoms, the employer may nevertheless require the employee to be tested by a medical practitioner and to provide the employer with a medical certificate confirming that the employee can return to work.

What is a reasonable period of quarantine?

The WHO has indicated that a person should be in quarantine for a period of at least 14 days.

What if an employee contracts Covid-19?

In such an instance, the employer should apply its sick leave policy to such an employee. The employee must obtain a medical certificate and any time out of the office will be considered as sick leave. Due to the nature of the illness, an employee with Covid-19 should not be permitted to return to work until that employee is cleared to do so by a medical practitioner.

The affect on our economy

Although there is not much information on how long the travel bans, restrictions and other limitations might last in order to be effective, one thing is clear: Ramaphosa said the impact of the disease on the country would be lasting.

“In the last few weeks, we have seen a dramatic decline in economic activity in our major trading partners, a sudden drop in international tourism and severe instability across all global markets.”

He anticipated effects of the decline in exports and tourist arrivals will be exacerbated by both an increase in infections and the measures we’re required to take to contain the spread of the disease.

Ramaphosa said with companies now taking on the impact of limited movement and contact of workers, jobs would most likely be cut.

“This will have a potentially severe impact on production, the viability of businesses, job retention and job creation. Cabinet is therefore in the process of finalising a comprehensive package of interventions to mitigate the expected impact of COVID-19 on our economy. This package, which will consist of various fiscal and other measures, will be concluded following consultation with business, labour and other relevant institutions.”

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Economists are warning about the extreme effect COVID-19 will have on an already vulnerable economy.

While the number of confirmed cases in South Africa is relatively low compared to other countries, the knock-on effect on the nation’s economy of the global virus scare is likely to be profound.

There will be a briefing on Monday morning in Pretoria at 10 am by various ministers including from the home affairs and international relations departments.

The global spread of COVID-19 and the general advice to socially distance yourself to avoid contracting and spreading the virus have already led to several major event cancellations.

Over the weekend, the Two Oceans Marathon was cancelled and before that, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival was put on hold.

Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s head of economics Maarten van Doesburgh said it was not just the events that suffered but all the sectors that stood to benefit from them.

“It really has a ripple effect right through the economy – the entertainment sector, restaurants…”

Nedbank chief economist Nicky Weimar said in countries with high infection rates, the loss of income caused by containment measures, fear of contagion and increasing uncertainty would hurt consumer confidence and reduce spending; and South Africa would be spared.

“We’ll be hit in mining, in manufacturing… we are already literally reeling in the airline industry, in the shipping industry, in the cruise liner industry and our tourism industry will suffer. Over 40% of our overseas tourists actually come from Europe.”

The knock-on effects from COVID-19 are a shock the South African economy cannot afford; it officially tipped into recession last quarter after growing at less than 1% last year.


In order to manage the risk of contamination effectively, employers should consider appointing an internal committee of professionals. The committee will be responsible for issues such as monitoring the spread of Covid-19, assessing the risk of contamination and taking measures to ensure that the workplace is healthy and safe. The committee should include representatives from the health & safety, human resources and risk and compliance departments of the employer.

Employers should act proactively within the context of Covid-19. Employers who are proactive will ensure that employees are protected and that business can continue to function as efficiently as possible.​


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