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Of lockdowns, extensions and phases

TITUS MBUYA
President Masisi PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES
Today, Thursday, April 30th, was supposed to mark the end of the four-week period of "extreme social distancing" declared by President Mokgweetsi Masisi at the end of March.  On Monday the President extended the period of the lockdown by one week. He said the decision to extend the length of the lockdown was based on advice from the experts on the Covid-19 Presidential Task Force.

The President explained that it was necessary to extend the lockdown so that work underway in Metsimotlhabe, Molepolole, Ramotswa, Mahalapye, Bobonong and Siviya, where contact tracing and testing is being done could be completed. Giving justification for the extension Masisi said: “It is now evident that Covid-19 has taken hold in our communities and in this regard more effort and time needs to be directed to breaking the local transmission of the virus”.

To me what was profound about the president’s address to the nation on Monday was not what he said, but what he did not say. The first thing that President Masisi should have done was to remind the nation why the lockdown was declared in the first place. After his speech the nation is left wondering why they are in a lockdown except that it was meant to contain and slow down the spread of Covid-19. 

In actual fact all the measures and interventions that have been put in place by government, even before the lockdown, for instance social distancing, washing of hands and sanitizing, quarantining, isolation, etc were all meant to contain and stop the spread of the virus. So the President was stating the obvious by saying the lockdown was meant to contain and slow down the spread of Covid-19. 

Lockdowns around the world are imposed for two specific reasons within the broader context of containing infections. First, a lockdown is imposed to buy time in order to prepare so that the healthcare facilities are not overwhelmed in case of a surge in the number of cases that require hospitalization. If the healthcare system is stretched to the point it cannot cope, fatalities increase. This is what the cliché “flattening the curve” is all about. Flattening the curve involves reducing the number of new Covid-19 cases from one day to the next. When a country has fewer new Covid-19 cases emerging today than it did on a previous day that is a sign that the country is flattening the curve. A flattened curve will show a downward trend in the number of daily new cases. A lockdown gives a country time to train health workers, invest in healthcare facilities like isolation and quarantine centres, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE’s) for frontline workers, ventilators, additional hospital beds and makeshift hospitals, as well as additional intensive care unit facilities. 

Second, a lockdown is meant to ramp up community screening and testing because the majority of the population is home and movement across the country is limited. So countries take advantage of lockdowns to reduce the number of community transmissions through aggressive testing and isolation. Lockdowns facilitate the roll out of mass surveillance programme, and it is during this time that contact tracking and tracing is intensified. Without scaling up testing we will never know how widespread the community transmission is. This is what countries that have succeeded in containing the disease like New Zealand, China, Taiwan and South Korea did.

Before the economy is reopened an aggressive testing campaign should have been undertaken first. During his address to the nation when he declared the State of National Emergency end of March, the President rightly said,
“The other challenge is the low rate of testing of suspected cases in Botswana and cumbersome health protocols”. The President should have reported to the nation how the situation regarding testing has fundamentally changed during lockdown.

If the lockdown is lifted without mass testing the State is exposing people to danger. Fact of the matter is that if you do not test you will not find cases. And you cannot treat what you don’t find. If symptomatic cases are the only ones who are being diagnosed and tested we could be missing a large proportion of the spread of the virus. We have to find the asymptomatic cases through testing. Failing which there is the real risk that another lockdown in the not too distant future may be declared due to a surge in the number of confirmed cases. At least that much the President acknowledged, when he pointed out that, “In the event that the threat of COVID-19 outbreak and transmission, exceeds the current level at any point, a return to the original twenty eight (28) day national lockdown rules or stricter rules will be put in place”.

The President missed an opportunity to tell the nation how the country is doing in terms of all the markers mentioned above. Failure by the President to do so may leave some people wondering why they are being inconvenienced with a lockdown in the first place. In his speech Masisi should have pointed out milestones that have been realized during the last four weeks of the lockdown regarding the abovementioned deliverables, thank the nation for their cooperation - which thing he did to his credit, and ask for their indulgence for one more week. As things stand the nation is none-the-wiser as to what purpose the lockdown served.

Which begs the question, was it necessary to declare the lockdown in view of the disruption it has caused in the life of the ordinary person and the damage to the national economy. There is no gainsaying that in pursuit of preserving the lives of the people, especially after seeing what is happening in other countries where people are dying like flies from Covid-19, it was good judgment on the part of the authorities to err on the side of caution. And perhaps to that extent government must be commended for having made the decision to impose a lockdown when it did. 

However, after four weeks of lockdown, based on the analysis of the pattern of transmission, and taking into account what the authorities have managed to achieve so far, one wonders if it really was necessary to extend the lockdown? Granted, health authorities needed more time to contain the situation relating to Metsimotlhabe and the other five villages. But did this warrant another week of tight lockdown especially taking into consideration that the cases referred to appear anecdotal as opposed to being a pattern or trend? Mass screening would have led our teams to more cases to be able to discern a pattern of pockets of infections around the country. In my own estimation work associated with the Metsimotlhabe case, and others, could still have been done during Phase 2 (two) of the exit plan even if it kicked in tomorrow in which case an extension was not necessary. From what the President said the relaxation of the lockdown rules is going to be gradual, staggered and phased. So why extend?

Countries like Zambia, Kenya, Senegal, Singapore and Sweden never really imposed tight lockdowns and they have done as well, if not better than their peers who had lockdowns. Instead these countries declared dusk-to-dawn curfews or closed off certain parts of the country, which were hotspots, from the rest of the population. Most importantly they enforced social distancing which included closure of non-essential services. Others did not even

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close schools but still managed to flatten the curve.

Policy response must be commensurate with the challenge at hand. At the time the lockdown started on April 2, 2020, we only had seven cases and one death. We are now at 23 confirmed cases and one death. The jury is still out on whether the apparent gentle gradient of the curve is due to the lockdown or the fact that testing is not being done aggressively. It would also be interesting to know what would have happened to the curve if we had taken full advantage of the lockdown period to do all the things mentioned above. We may have to wait until the next lockdown to get a reliable answer to that question.

What we know for sure though is that the lockdown has messed up the lives of many people. But most importantly the lockdown has ravaged the national economy. Thousands of people, both in the informal and formal sectors are not going back to work at the end of the lockdown on May 7. Tens of thousands more people are starving right now without food. And many others are living with excruciating pain because they could not be operated on as theatres were ostensibly reserved for Covid-19.

In his speech on Monday the President said they had assessed over 300,000 households for food handouts, adding that already over 47,000 households have received food parcels. This is despite the fact that the outcry around the country for food, both in urban centres and rural areas, is deafening. What is even more disturbing is that in the midst of this crisis it is not only the indigent and vulnerable or destitute, who are starving, but also the “hustlers” who rely on daily income in exchange for their goods and services. These people do not have an alternative source of income and cannot afford to buy food, so they too need help.

It is rather curious that, in his speech, the President only recognized business for their contribution to the Covdi-19 Relief Fund. Nowhere in his speech does he acknowledge the sacrifices they have made during the duration of the lockdown without commercial activity, which directly adversely impacts, not only on the viability of their businesses, but also on the economy, all for the common good. This is a President who ran on the “job creation and investment” ticket only last year. He has just gutted thousands of jobs through the lockdown. In particular many small and micro businesses cannot survive the lockdown because they do not have cash reserves to carry them through these troubled times. They are either going to retrench workers or close shop and thus swell the army of the unemployed which is already a tragedy for the nation.

The economy is on its knees. And the President is yet to tell Batswana what his government will do to get the economy out of the abyss going forward. The current Covid-19 crisis has shattered the commanding heights of our economy by accelerating some negative trends. These include worsening the fragility of the global diamond market. Any plan to expand and diversify the tourism industry has been dashed by the ban on long distance travel. And SACU revenues are down, while BURS will not be able to collect projected tax income for the year as a result of the tax holidays and deferrals that form part of the relief package announced by the President last month.

No wonder, the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Dr Thapelo Matsheka, speaking on television last week, painted a grim picture of the country’s economy post Covid-19. He said the economy was expected to contract by 13 percent this year as opposed to a 4 percent growth projected in the budget. He said the government’s projected revenue of P62.4 billion has since been revised to P48 billion.  Each day of the lockdown costs the economy millions of Pula. The President has added another seven days to the ordeal. 

The biggest omission, however, from the President’s speech on Monday was his failure to articulate a clear exit strategy from lockdown. It was not enough for the President to say their “exit plan which is based on the success we anticipate to achieve as a country” would be phased over the three weeks from May 8. Covid-19 is a national disaster. He should have told the nation how, going forward, his government plans to kick-start recovery of the economy. What fiscal and monetary policy measures to support business, and palliatives for the poor are going to be put in place, because the pain of the Covid-19 fallout on the economy is going to be with us for a long time.

Needless to say that the P2 billion that has been budgeted for relief is a pittance compared to the scale of the economic crisis that the country is facing. To put the country on the path of recovery would require at least 15 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a stimulus package. That is over P30 billion pula. Anything less would plunge the country into the worst protracted depression it has ever seen. As Matsheka said last week they are going to have to reprioritize the budget, but also borrow from multilateral global lenders like the (African Development Bank (AfDB), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to raise money.

The nation needs certainty. The President ought to announce his economic “war plan”. After consultation with the health authorities who advise him, the President and his economic team should tell Batswana with specificity, simplicity and clarity his economic plan. That blueprint would go a long way in reassuring households and business who are right now afraid and anxious.

In conclusion, as we adjust to the new post Covid-19 normal, we should accept the fact that the novel coronavirus will be with us for a long time. It’s threat to the human race will only subside when a vaccine or cure for it has been found. However, we now know a few things about the disease that can help contain and slow its spread. The measures may appear mundane but they can save lives. These include washing hands regularly; not touching one’s face; coughing or sneezing into a clenched elbow; social distancing, and wearing a face mask in public spaces. If the State reinforced that behaviour, going forward, with mass screening and testing, or random testing for that matter, quarantining, as well as isolating and treating confirmed cases, then the disease reproduction rate would be arrested and there will be no need for another lockdown. To all the hustlers out there remember the late Ray Phiri’s mantra “Singa Jindi Majita”, which is Tsotsi taal for “Let’s not quit guys”. Yes, don’t quit, lockdown or no lockdown, extension or no extension, phases or no phases. It does not matter.

*Titus Mbuya is the Managing Director of Dikgang Publishing Company. He writes in his personal capacity.



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