Kigali — Everything feels different. No one in their right minds could have imagined the level of stillness we see today, in every aspect, a mere few weeks ago.
This all happened at an unprecedented speed, level, and scale; which makes synthesis of this experience, which is seemingly even grander than historical pandemics, all the more difficult. The streets are shut down, and so are the market places, and public spaces. Everyone is in confinement, in some places even those with no residence.
Income flows are constrained both domestically and across borders, and so is the mobility of goods and services. At the extreme, mass bankruptcy within household, financial and business sectors threatens, as do government-level bankrupcies (including in most African nations) in countries whose fiscal maneuver is limited. What is even more felt is the level of uncertainty from current suspensions and uncertainties imposed, as no one has an idea of what comes next.
Everyone cares about nothing but his or her own circle, household, county, or state – at best country. It is interesting to observe the behavior of humans during this time: we seem to be first and foremost generous to ourselves. Strangely no country or sect is different in this.
While it is natural, if not impulsive, to react in an Adlerian manner when confronting such calamities, it is also alarming how fragile and incapable our civilization is to protect the common good of all people.
Sadly, we have put all our eggs in the same basket and bet the marketplace will solve our issues. We failed the world again, as we arrogantly rejected learning from the recent lesson of 2008 global recession that proved the inherent inefficiency of the market to protect itself. Interestingly, similar to what had happened then, this time too (even more compellingly), with the prevailing economic war, governments must spend freely.
Governments must inject in an unprecedented amount of resources as a post mortem to when they could have acted upon previous experct advise for preparation for a fraction of the cost. Certainly, the poor will be hard hit this time – again – and the majority remain without any form of social safety net or protection (e.g. only 18% of Africans have at least one form of social protection cash transfer). Low-income countries (the majority being in Africa) who are struggling to run a decent economy under normal circumstances will be exceptionally disadvantaged in coping with this earth-shaking situation.
Can our public system seize this opportunity and change itself?
They are far from prepared to provide the kind of self-bailout actions (no matter how panic driven they may be) seen suggested by developed economies. They cannot mobilize the private sector and military industries or approve record level amounts in economic stimulant packages for people and small businesses. However, even though the figures may not be close and the speed may not be the same, they can act in their own accord, and must do so immediately. As precarious as the situation may be, there are plenty of other tangible and non-tangible assets Africans have over their peers elsewhere.
Africans have a deep-rooted culture of caring and sharing. Our generosity is aggressive and especially extended during such bad days. This has been seen repeatedly during such natural calamities including the recent fights against Ebola. It becomes easier to face our reactions when done with strong communities.
Let us not only look for millions and billions of dollars from a few generous donors; tends and hundreds are as good as billions when billions of people become donors. Every coin counts. Can we be smart and systematic and collect the tens from billions?
Can our public system seize this opportunity and change itself? What level of human tragedy will force us to reevaluate and change our business styles in the public sector if not this one?
Luckily and with some miracle, the spread of the COVID19 virus in Africa is not overwhelming so far. In a way, nature has given a heads up to Africa knowing how much work Africa has to do. Shouldn't we use that to draw from other experiences and organize better? Isn't it also wise to think a slow start doesn't necessarily mean smooth finishing? The level of preparedness of the health sector remains suspect and insufficient to the meet gravity of the virus if it spreads.
Africa should have a quick action-oriented plan that goes in three phases: immediate, intermediate and post-Corona, and aftermath. I believe given the urgency of the matter it may not be appropriate to talk about the other two now. The counterargument may be that the other parts will be half done if we do the first right. Or there is no intermediate and long term before doing the immediate.
The objectives of the immediate and instant responses are curbing the spread of the virus and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of people in the process. Given the level of obstinate poverty and expected increase in unemployment, this stage takes a high toll on millions and on the public sector as it has to provide for all supplies of basic Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other essential logistics such as finding decent shelter, food, and eessential utilities for all . Governments must act as buyers of last resort.
The following are some initiatives that I would suggest African governments should immediately embark upon and respond to as a proactive measure:
Communication for results
- Let the professionals speak on their respective areas – transparently and openly. Avoid and demystify terms and conditions. Be as direct as possible, as much as possible, and leave no space for ambiguity and misinterpretation. Use all media outlets extensively for quick outreach to serve different target groups.
- Contextualize messages and recommendations. For instance, more than simply defining the term quarantine, explain that the purpose of quarantining is to isolate someone for 14+ days until proven negative so as to take no chance of spreading the virus to others. This could be done anywhere. If it is being done in the house, at the airport, in hotels, schools, and churches elsewhere – why can't it be on the truck? Can't the drivers from foreign countries with no symptom ride the cargo from the port as long as they will not be out of their truck and maintain the social distancing while in the truck?
Reprioritizing national and local projectobjectives
No wonder, in such an emergency situation, development tasks are delayed. Thus, projects of intensive resources planned in the year may need to be revisited. While activities, such as census, elections that require a high level of stability and mobility arguably could wait, there are civil projects that might be suited for revisitation.
- Take stock of all logistics and physical capacities as the demand for hospital beds and retention areas will increase unimaginably. The need for sheltering and feeding the homeless is also necessary and will exacerbate the situation.
- Increase and re-direct all safety net and related social security resources to feed people who will be most affected by the lockdown and stay home measures. For the delivery of safety nets and social, digital payments have proven more effective and transparent. We should also aim to minimize the amount of waste and leakage of food throughout the value chain (field to plate).
Urgency is the new language. Staying safe is the mother tongue.
Utilities and other supply
- Ensuring an uninterrupted supply of utilities such as water, electricity, and the internet is second to none. Failure to do so is gravely consequential to the effectiveness of the safety measures and recommendations that are now so intricately bounded up with techonology. Water and sanitation, electricity, and now the internet, are the bloodline for keeping people home and not in limited public facilities that offer these necessities. This also reiterates the call for continuous action (with heightened intermediate attention) in line with SDG targets for an increase in our investment into the universal access of these resources.
- Ensuring availability and timely supply of goods is critical at all times more, and so when people are in confinement and have limited freedom to choose. The situation is more precarious as the entire supply chain is out of touch and reach. The public-private sector partnership to foster multifaceted intervention and engagement is second to none under such condition. In such circumstances, pure laws of supply and demand order are not feasible as shortage is imminent.
All the measures are reliant on government swift action and judicious mobilization of resources, but also important is the need for inward government efficacy (from resource mobilization to delivery of last resort buyer buffer and social services).
Urgency is the new language. Staying safe is the mother tongue. Thus, everyone needs to pick it fast and speak fluentely.
Last but not least, as complex as it could be, this mission requires a substantial amount of cooperation for the law – from all of us, for all of us – with limited use of law enforcement.
Dr. Belay Begashaw is Director General of the Sustainable Development Goals Center for Africa (SDGC/A)