A balance between COVID-19 and economic concern is priority

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IT is now over seven months since the coronavirus (COVID-19) was discovered in China with most countries introducing suppression measures in the first quarter of the year. Zimbabwe, like most countries in Africa, introduced a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus in March.

Nonetheless the virus continues to spread, albeit at a steady rate, but more people are becoming poorer faster with some starving due to the disruption of the economic activities caused by premature measures that were not informed by local context. Given that only more than 560 cases have been reported in roughly four months of lockdown shows that there is a greater chance of more people dying of COVID-19-induced hunger than the virus.

While these measures, largely copy and paste from other countries, seemed the most appropriate thing to do, they lacked strategic thinking to align them to local context. For this thoughtless approach, the majority of the people have been pushed into tough situations where they are caught between staying at home and starving or risk catching the virus while bringing food on the table.

Balancing between public health and economic concern is the major headache facing most governments and a burning issue for Zimbabwe as well. While searching for answers to escape this trap is urgent, it may be necessary to look back and draw lessons on what could have been done better.

Zimbabwe recorded its first COVID-19 case on March 21, a male resident of Victoria Falls who travelled back from the United Kingdom via South Africa on March 15. Two more cases were confirmed on March 21, both in Harare. On March 23, the country confirmed its first COVID-19-related death.

All these cases were imported and it was clear then that by mid-March the country was still COVID-19 free. We had a good chance early March to close the borders and permit cargo only to enter the country, and that way there was no need to impose the premature nationwide lockdown as early as March 30. It means whatever remained in terms of the economy could have been preserved and continued unimpeded by premature lockdowns possibly until today while adjustments were being made.

Even after the cases were announced, the question still remains: was a nationwide lockdown necessary? The first cases had shown that only border areas and major cities such as Harare and Bulawayo were exposed at the time with the rest of the country still COVID-free. The ideal first step was to either lockdown these places or restrict unnecessary intercity movements.

This would have ensured that unaffected areas were shielded while allowing their economic activities to continue. Why did the rural folks have to endure a nationwide lockdown when most of them live in a naturally social-distanced environment? The lack of strategic thought meant that economic activity in areas of less COVID-19 concern were crippled by premature nationwide lockdown.

This is why we are at the point where social distancing and stay-at-home regulations are becoming more damaging than COVID-19 itself, forcing the government to relax some regulations at a time they should be tightened.

There are so many examples that can be cited where things would have been done better, but what is critical to highlight is that the majority of our people go out of their houses for their economic activities. It is not a luxury. Locking them up is simply pushing them to the verge, even more locking them up prematurely when the threat was not yet in the “house”.

Due to high unemployment rates, our people survive from hand-to-mouth informal trading, which means if they do not go out, there is no food on the table. We are an under-developed country and the work-from-home modality does not apply to those traders at Mbare Musika or those in the streets. Going out is our major means of survival. That basic fact simply required a right-thinking government to balance between responding to the pandemic without necessarily harming the formal and informal economy. This is possible because it is linked to the wellbeing and livelihood of the majority.

People were not going to protest purchasing or wearing masks or practicing social distancing as long they were assured that their businesses would remain open and they can still feed their families. Sweden is a test case of countries that did not rush to impose a lockdown while emphasising preventive measures. Businesses and workplaces did their part to mitigate the spread of the virus. They implemented workplace safety measures to limit spread of the virus and to keep their operations running, some by adjusting leave plans or adjusted shifts to decongest spaces including the public transport system.

At a time where the pandemic in worsening, it will be hard to effectively keep people indoors when they have endured hunger since March because of a premature nationwide lockdown. Perhaps a nationwide lockdown was more relevant now than in March and yet that is the time when the government is relaxing lockdown measures.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa. He writes here in his personal capacity.

NEWSDAY

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