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It is the lockdown stupid

TITUS MBUYA
Trying times: The lockdown lasted from April 2 to May 21, saving lives but costing the economy PIC: PHATSHIMO KAPENG
Over the last eight months, lockdowns, occasioned by COVID-19, have ravaged the economies of many countries right across the globe.

Our own economy is on its knees following the April nation-wide lockdown. Many small-scale companies have gone under, while other companies are retrenching, and workers are subjected to pay cuts.

The situation is going to get worse before it gets better following the latest lockdown imposed on Greater Gaborone because it came just when some companies were beginning to find their feet again financially.

Although traumatized by it, many Batswana appreciated the first nation-wide lockdown for two reasons. Firstly, they were given a few days to prepare for it and those who could, managed to stock up supplies like food and other essentials.

Secondly, and most importantly, many Batswana believed that their government was acting in their best interest by protecting them from what appeared to be a marauding invisible enemy whom they did not know about.

Whether or not the April national lockdown was necessary, in the first place, is debatable. However, there is no gainsaying that, as a country, Botswana has done relatively better than many countries on the continent despite her physical proximity to Africa’s COVID-19 epicentre, South Africa. While local transmissions are on the increase, clearly the Covid case load in Botswana is inflated by cases originating from South Africa.

When the first nation-wide lockdown was imposed there was only one reported death due to Covid and five cases. The authorities were commended for being proactive and not wasting time to take such radical action to mitigate the risk.

Of course the situation has drastically changed, four months later, which confirms the need for vigilance because the virus is unrelenting. As per the Task Force’s latest report there are two (2) deaths and 1,066 confirmed cases of which 815 have since been transferred out.

A load of 172 new cases during the first week of August alone is not only alarming, but unparalleled since the first case was reported in March. The most worrying factor is that the rate of local transmissions is not only increasing but more widespread around the country. It is even more troubling that the virus has reared its ugly head in schools.

It is therefore understandable that government is concerned, as much as everybody else is about these developments. While at this point, it is in order to commend the government and the Task Force on the sterling work they are doing with respect to dealing with the truck operators especially along the borders with South Africa. Had the authorities not acted swiftly enough this country would have been in deeper trouble with COVID-19.

Granted the recent surge in infections should be a source of grave concern. But was it really necessary to impose a hard lockdown on Greater Gaborone? The answer is no. The authorities’ obsession with lockdowns, which are becoming a common feature in Greater Gaborone zone, which has the largest economic activity in the country, is ill advised. It is now conventional wisdom that COVID-19 will be with us for decades if not generations to come. Corona is going nowhere. Even after the discovery of a vaccine, which seems to be in the horizon, COVID-19 will still be there.

Because Covid is here to stay nations across the globe have to learn to coexist with it with minimal disruption to the economy, and by extension, people’s livelihoods. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that hard lockdowns are not sustainable and therefore they cannot be the pivot of a nation’s strategy to fight the spread of Covid. 

Hard lockdowns may have been viable in the richest countries of the West, because their economies could support them.  But to replicate such lockdowns in the least developed countries the way Botswana is doing is irresponsible, to say the least. Although even those countries on the continent that imposed partial lockdowns like Kenya and Egypt were adversely affected, the damage, especially on the informal sector, such lockdowns have not been as devastating.

Lockdowns are a blunt instrument. While they help in slowing the spread of the disease the collateral damage caused is humongous. If the authorities continue on this trajectory with lockdowns, the economy is going to collapse resulting in more lives being lost due to hunger, disease, suicide, etc than to COVID-19. What is even more disconcerting about these lockdowns is that even the basic things which were supposed to be done to prepare for a possible surge in COVID-19 cases, so that our health facilities are not overwhelmed, are not done.

Proponents of lockdowns are usually quick to say life

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is more valuable than livelihoods (the economy). They argue that lockdowns are meant to save lives. This kind of reductionism is dangerous. Contrasting lives and livelihoods is a false dichotomy. Life and livelihoods are inextricably intertwined. They are not mutually exclusive. It is not ‘either or’. It is both. It is a balancing act between life and livelihoods. One cannot be divorced from the other.

There is a lot of hypocrisy in the articulation by the authorities regarding the lockdown. While on the one hand they pontificate about saving lives they disregard the welfare of the same people for whom lockdowns are meant to protect. For instance, yesterday marked the end of the second week of the latest lockdown, and government has not made any provision to cushion the people who are suffering at home because they cannot engage in economic activity. Unlike the first lockdown, there are no food rations, and there is no wage subsidy for workers this time around. It defies logic that the authorities felt obliged to assist those adversely affected by the lockdown the first time around and cannot do the same now. Even a fraction of what was given during the first lockdown would go a long way to cushion those who are in need. There is a sense in which the authorities do not seem to care about the ordinary man and woman in the street because they and others on the government payroll would still receive their full salaries at the end of the month whether they were at work or not.

Using lockdowns to fight COVID-19 going forward is untenable. The nations who will tame this virus, before a vaccine is discovered, are those that, through public awareness and education, instill in their citizenry the use of non-pharmaceutical measures like washing of hands frequently, use of face masks and social distancing. In other words defeating Covid needs a collective concerted effort by all, young and old, to take responsibility and ensuring that those simple protocols and the regulations put in place by the State are followed.

The State should stop punishing law-abiding hard working people who are doing their best to comply by denying them to earn a living to feed their families. Law enforcement officers should do their part to deal with those who do not comply with the guidelines because they put the lives of others in danger.

But there is a sense in which the policy makers are also culpable in some of these transgressions. It is common knowledge that transportation facilitates the spread of COVID-19. Packing up school children like sardines in the public transport system, to go to school and back, does not only expose them to the virus but also poses a danger to their peers at school, where it is not easy to social distance.

It is inconceivable that the authorities can allow this to happen in the midst of the pandemic.

Also, the scenes of patients overflowing into passages of the wards they occupy lying on the floor in public hospitals are despicable. Instead of hospitals being seen as havens of safety they could now become breeding grounds for Corona. Conditions in public hospitals have always been deplorable. But as is the case with other public health matters, Corona has put into sharp focus the gravity of the problem. Something has to be done immediately before more lives are lost.  

Most importantly, those who are on the frontline of this war, health-care workers and first responders ought to have sufficient personal protective equipment at all times. The increasing rate of infections and deaths from COVID-19 amongst frontline workers that we are witnessing in neighbouring countries can demoralize our healthcare workers. And hence, it is important to secure their safety as they put their lives in harms-way when they go to work every day.

COVID-19 is not going to disappear because of lockdowns. Certainly lockdowns are collapsing the economy and destroying lives and livelihoods. Before a vaccine or cure is found to treat COVID-19 the only effective strategy to slow down the spread of the disease is strict adherence to the health protocols by all and sundry. But also for the authorities to do their part in terms of testing, contact tracing, quarantining, as well as isolating those who are sick and treating them. In that way the rate of infection will most likely subside. That can be done without any need for lockdown. And it is sustainable.



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