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South African businesses need to prepare and brace themselves for a highly challenging period ahead as the coronavirus pandemic disrupts day-to-day life and commerce.

This follows President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent announcement of a set of bold measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus in South Africa, including travel bans, school closures and limits to the size of public gatherings.

“While these actions are necessary and commendable, they are steering businesses into uncharted territory,” says Craig Polkinghorne, Head of Commercial Banking at Standard Bank Group. “The operating environment, already difficult following years of lacklustre growth, will become even more challenging in the weeks ahead.”

As this health and economic crisis unfolds, large organisations will have to contend with the challenge of managing complex operations across multiple entities and geographies – each with its own set of measures in place to tackle the pandemic.

“There is now a pressing need for effective risk mitigation and business continuity measures, and these must include partner firms, suppliers and other stakeholders,” says Polkinghorne.

In numerous industries, supply chains and cash flows are being severely disrupted, particularly for those businesses involved in cross-border trade. This makes planning more crucial than ever.

With this in mind, organisations should consider the early loading and planning of payments, as well as intensive cash-flow management and liquidity planning. Those businesses that have lending facilities in place should assess whether these have capacity to cope with changed or disrupted cash flows.

In addition, businesses involved in cross-border trade can consider measures that reduce the impact on cash flows. Letters of credit, for instance, have a lesser impact on cash flows than upfront deposits. And the disruption of physical trade flows might require an alignment of the associated cash flows.

Meanwhile, the health and safety of employees, clients and other stakeholders needs to be top of mind. Companies should consider separating teams and allowing employees to work remotely, where possible, although the persistence of load-shedding does complicate remote work.

As more employees work from home, connectivity will be key. To enable this, teams could be provided with larger data bundles and afforded remote and secure access to internal systems. And with employees working in new environments, communication will be crucial to ensure that staff are well-informed and reassured, as well as productive.

Comprehensive policies and protocols applicable to both staff and clients are essential. Naturally, hygiene within the workplace and externally is of paramount importance – access to hand sanitisers, for instance, could prevent the spread of the virus.

“It is extremely important that companies remain calm and keep working effectively. Standard Bank recognises that it has a responsibility to do everything we can to help our clients keep their businesses and their lives on track.

“As we have come to grips with this new reality that is facing us, we have all made the necessary plans in our different environments and prioritised our individual requirements so that we can continue to work, interact, and contribute to the society in which we live.

We do acknowledge that our business customers are facing challenges in dealing with the disruption to their businesses. We also understand that in any business or personal financial cycle there can be challenges in meeting financial obligations. These challenges may be heightened especially in times of economic downturns and crisis.  Customers who are in financial distress should contact the bank as soon as possible. The sooner the bank is informed, the sooner both parties can find a workable solution to address or resolve issues of financial distress.  It is not in Standard Bank’s interest to see a business fail, or a home lost. It is in both parties’ interest to find a workable solution. We do urge customers to contact the bank should they experience difficulties. We have no doubt that the impact of the Corona-19 virus has been extremely disruptive,” Polkinghorne says.

Standard Bank relationship managers are in contact with our customers and are there to provide all the support necessary. Our customers all have individual needs and requirements and we will provide all the assistance necessary on a case by case basis.

“We are encouraging clients to make use of digital channels when transacting and engaging with the bank, where possible, and to contact the bank if financial strain is foreseen. By planning ahead, working together and remaining vigilant, we can limit the strain on South Africa’s businesses in the weeks and months ahead,” Polkinghorne adds.