IT IS now clear that some countries in southern African are experiencing a second wave of COVID-19 cases which has triggered the tightening of prevention measures.
However, this is a happening at a wrong time when most families are broke from the festive season or have not yet recovered from the economic impact of COVID-19 in 2020. The haphazard responses to COVID-19 by countries demonstrates a missed opportunity by the Southern Africa regional body to take leadership and co-ordinate a regional response.
In Namibia, on December 23, the government imposed a 9pm to 4am curfew until January 13 to respond to the second wave of COVID-19 infections. The government expressed concern that the number of cases in the week leading to Christmas had reached levels never seen before, cautioning that the situation was rapidly deteriorating. Harsh penalties were also imposed for breaching the regulations.
On the same day, the government of Malawi shut down its borders for 14 days after cases of the virus spiked by 75% in just two weeks. The Malawi government blamed the spike on eased preventive measures and increased cross-border traffic. Like most countries, Malawi had relaxed restrictions following a reduction in cases in October last year.
As the curtain came down on 2020, Zambia was witnessing a surge in dead-on-arrival cases at its main referral hospital, the University Teaching Hospital (UTH). The spike in cases was reportedly linked to residents’ failure to follow COVID-19 guidelines, including myths and misconceptions about how the virus is transmitted.
On December 28, South Africa retracted to Level 3 following a second wave of infections characterised by a new COVID-19 variant. The “adjusted” Level 3 lockdown took effect on December 28 and will be reviewed on January 15, 2021. They too had moved to Level 1 in October creating an impression that the virus was getting under control.
The adjusted raft of measures include a ban on alcohol sales and on gatherings at recreational places such as beaches, dams, lakes, rivers, public parks, and public swimming pools. The government also introduced earlier curfews, compulsory mask wearing, revised limitations on social gatherings. On January 2, Zimbabwe also tightened its COVID-19 prevention measures in response to an increase in cases attributed to events, travels and gatherings during the festive season.
While these measures are critical in ensuring lives are saved, they beg answers on why most governments had not anticipated activities associated with the festive season and why they did not impose lockdowns earlier to minimise gatherings and movements which are major drivers of the virus.
The festive season does not come as an emergency. It is an annual feature on the calendar. It was, therefore, a known fact that given that people were restricted the whole year due to several lockdowns, they would use the festive season to travel, gather and party. And these are known spreaders that could have been easily anticipated ahead of the festive season. But sadly, governments took a sabbatical only to react when it was too late and the people were having to bear the brunt of their governments’ lackadaisical approach to the pandemic.
Early lockdowns were not only going to help minimise the spread of the virus and to co-ordinate travels, movements and gatherings, but also reduce household spending associated with the festive season.
Now families have spent the little they saved with the hope that, come January, they would return to work and earn January salaries, only to be confronted by another lockdown. Perhaps, as countries impose these lockdowns, they also need to balance between the impact of exposing people to hunger that comes with lockdowns against government efforts to save lives from COVID-19.
It is one of the lessons drawn from last year when families opted to risk contracting the virus than watch their children die of hunger. Maybe, governments can provide the people with some form of a basic income to help them cater for life-saving needs this January.
Meanwhile, the individual country lockdowns have demonstrated another critical loophole within Sadc. For more than two decades, there has been million dollar efforts to strengthen a regionally co-ordinated disaster management and emergency response system whose objective it to spearhead a regional response in situations such as the current pandemic.
Policies and strategies have been developed and capacity building, including simulation exercises have been conducted but we still continue to see unco-ordinated approaches to addressing a pandemic of this nature. There is a regional dimension to this pandemic which Sadc is supposed to take care of.
The crises at various border crossings, mainly at Beitbridge, are a typical example of where Sadc approach would have helped to anticipate border-crossing traffic and develop a regional response strategy to be implemented by all Sadc member States and their partners. Maybe they too are on quarantine.
It took loss of lives for senior government officials to realise that crises at border crossings do not solve themselves and that it is no longer business as usual. It also seems no one is paying attention to the effects of abrupt border closures and that there are families and individuals who are likely caught in between on their way to countries that have shut down their borders. More lives will be lost not due to non-COVID-19 related causes, but poor planning and co-ordination among Sadc countries.