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A nasty Independence gift

As Batswana celebrated a restrained and almost unrecognisable Independence Day this week, news filtered through that the country had officially entered a recession.

On the eve of Independence Day, Statistics Botswana released numbers showing that the economy shrank by a record 24% in the second quarter, with nearly all sectors showing considerable contraction. Mining, the country’s economic mainstay, dropped 60.2% in terms of real value added while the non-mining sector, which has increasingly supported the economy, fell 20.7%. None of this was unexpected. Economists and other analysts have long forecast a deep contraction due to the impact of COVID-19 which closed borders, reduced demand and prices for the country’s key commodities and inhibited productive activity through movement restrictions. In fact, government expects the economy to contract by 8.9% this year, the deepest recession in the country’s history since Independence, worse, even, than the 2009 global financial crisis-induced collapse. Behind these numbers are real human beings facing real challenges to simply put food on the table. Behind the numbers are rising national tensions over economic opportunities, increasing frustrations with the political leadership and growing disillusionment with long held aspirations.

As in many other countries, the pandemic has brought two crises to Botswana; health and the economy.  At its onset with the first case on March 31, authorities targeted the health crisis through interventions such as border closures and the lockdown.

A P4 billion COVID-19 Relief Fund was set up to tackle the economic threat these interventions inevitably created and on paper, the tricky business of balancing the two crises appeared to be resolved.

The trouble, however, is that the economic crisis deepened

perhaps beyond authorities’ forecasts due to repeated lockdowns, continuous interruption of trade, collapse in international demand for key local commodities and the weakening of government’s ability to intervene. The health crisis, meanwhile, has not let up, and in fact cases have risen dramatically from July to date, requiring additional healthcare resources and frequent workplace disruptions.

In the midst of these challenges, government has struggled with policy consistency and procurement efficiency, the former best indicated by the introduction and then suspension of community testing and the latter clear from the well-publicised issues around PPE purchases. What has become obvious is that as deathly serious as the health crisis is, the economic crisis is emerging as a bigger threat to the lives of Batswana and even the stability of the Republic. Employment has come to a standstill and companies, unable to shed jobs due to the State of Emergency, have simply shut down, while most other workers are on half or quarter salaries. Meanwhile, unscrupulous actors are bilking the system, particularly the Covid Relief initiatives, while equally immoral retailers are hiking their prices despite regulations to the contrary.

It has been a dour Independence indeed with little cause for celebration, but the Day does provide an opportunity to take a breath as a nation and redouble our efforts in a more focussed manner.

Today’s thought

“This is the time for us to redefine our response to COVID-19 to ensure that it is more agile and targeted”

– Pres Mokgweetsi Masisi




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