Eighteen months of SoE: Necessary or erroneous advice?

Tough times: The April/May lockdown cost the economy heavily PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Tough times: The April/May lockdown cost the economy heavily PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

The advent of COVID-19 at the start of the year 2020 gave rise to the President declaring a State of Emergency (SOE) to take the necessary measures to address the risks posed by COVID-19.

This was on account of a presentation that the COVID-19 Task Force had made to Parliament. It was their strongest opinion and recommendation that a State of Emergency was necessary to fight the invisible and rising tide of COVID-19.

According to the government, the Public Health Act was inadequate to fully equip the government to fight the pandemic. The Presidential Task Force was mandated to be the tip of the spear in the fight against COVID-19, effectively abdicating that responsibility from the Ministry of Health and Wellness, who by popular opinion should have been leading the fight but due to political interference were denied of their aim.

Yet now, from October 1, 2021, and after the longest State of Emergency has come to an end, the government has since reverted to equip the Public Health Act to combat COVID-19. All the COVID-19 protocols that were employed during the SOE have since been included in the Public Health Act. This new development comes against the backdrop of a deteriorated health system that has been battered and overwhelmed by the growing numbers of new COVID 19 cases.

This article seeks to juxtapose a few of the critical issues that stood out during the 18 months of SOE and the outlook of the economy post-SOE. Was the SOE necessary? Did it have to last this long? Did it achieve its intended objective? What were the effects of the measures that were employed using this instrument of the law?

We review the first lockdown and the impact it had on the economy. To understand the State of Emergency, we have to start from the beginning. The Presidential Task Force takes responsibility for the State of Emergency seeing the light of day and having lasted for 18 months.

The narrative pushed by government by the time the first case was confirmed last year, was that we are prepared. The government sought to move from prevention to containment of the flu-like virus. In order to effectively prepare and contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the Task Force led by Dr Kereng Masupu and deputised by Professor Mosepele was set up. Dr Kereng Masupu’s background includes a degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Tuskegee, USA and a Master of Science Epidemiology from the University of California, USA. Most of his experience relates to providing technical and strategic expertise in the fight against HIV/AIDS and the closest experience he has to being a Coordinator was when he was appointed Coordinator of the Task Force that contained the Cattle Lung Disease outbreak in Ngamiland.

The Deputy Coordinator was plucked from the University of Botswana where he was acting deputy Dean, Research and Graduate Education in the Faculty of Medicine. Professor Mosepele Mosepele is also an Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and Infectious Disease and Head Medicine in the Faculty. He also served as a senior lecturer in internal medicine, Infectious Disease and Clinical Epidemiology for four years.

While epidemiologists study and investigate the causes and sources of diseases in the same way as medical doctors, they are not considered actual physicians. These two men along with a group of advisors had the President’s ear during the entirety of the SOE in the fight against COVID-19. Though their accolades are to be admired, the truth is that their experience was inadequate in the fight against the flu-like virus called COVID-19. They were indirectly responsible for the heavy-handed decisions that would be made by the President who is chair of the Task Force using the legal tool enshrined in the constitution known as SOE.

As soon as Parliament voted in favour of the State of Emergency, the first order of business, through the advice of the Presidential Task Force, was to declare extreme social distancing colloquially known as a lockdown for six weeks beginning in April 2020. This lockdown was intended to achieve the containment of the virus by restricting the movement of people across the country. All non-essential businesses were shut down. The sale of alcohol was banned and this would not be the last time that alcohol would pay the price in the fight against COVID-19. Movement was restricted save for essential services only and everyone else needed a permit in order to do anything as simple as going shopping.

By the time the lockdown was declared, government was far from appraising the public on the process of applying for permits. Panic and pandemonium were let loose and people went on a frenzy to panic buy while some sought to gallop using the fasted route out of the city to their villages. The first week of lockdown was an absolute disaster that descended into more chaos and confusion. Permits were to be issued depending on the cause of movement from various government offices. However, from the District Commissioner’s office, Ministry of Trade to the Ministry of Agriculture, by the time the lockdown was declared, none had sufficient time to apply for permits and therefore people had to travel during the lockdown to pursue a paper-based permit long distances away.

The first day of the lockdown saw commuters stranded and set upon by police officers who demanded to see permits that by all counts could only have been acquired that same day. Transport operators were to operate at half their capacity or less. Bus operators, especially long-distance operators, were told to operate at 70% capacity, an idea that only resulted in the bus operators going on strike as their operational costs were too heavy to sustain.

Perhaps the most shocking part was that by the time the lockdown was declared, the government had not committed resources towards an online-based platform for the application of permits even though there are institutions of government that are a burden to the taxpayer with annual budgets of millions including Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH) and Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (BITRI). All the years of investment in these institutions proved to be futile at a time when the nation needed them the most and the idea only came later and after great inconvenience and frustration to the public.

As for the informal sector, it bore the biggest brunt as the livelihood of hundreds of thousands came to an abrupt halt without the possibility of generating any meaningful income in the foreseeable future. In addition, non-essential companies also had to contend with the burden of not generating revenue due to the extreme social distancing that was declared. Hotels including Avani and Grand Plan were the first to contend with employees who resorted to striking due to non-payment of the salaries even though by law a public strike was illegal.

A few other establishments including the employees of a security company that was guarding at the University Botswana also resorted to strike due to non-payment of their monthly salaries. Just when the dust was about to settle, employees for local manufacturing behemoth company Kromberg & Schubert Botswana also entered the fray to strike for non-payment of salaries. These employees were later arrested for contravening the SOE laws.

Another group of local musicians took to the streets buckling under the pressure of the cost of living has given up on CosBots. The state responded by using the Botswana Defence Force to clamp them down and quell the potential rise of unrest that could have been caused by the musicians.

To relieve the burden of this worsening situation, the government proceeded to offer relief in the form of an industry-wide wage subsidy and food hampers. The wage subsidy was disbursed through the Botswana Unified Revenue Services while food hampers were disbursed through local government and the various district councils that fall under it. The wage subsidy lasted from April to June while the food hampers were only disbursed for April.

However, there were alleged reports of impropriety by companies applying for the wage subsidy, while some government officials and contractors were also accused of corruption in the food hampers programme.

To afford this large-scale undertaking, government put in P2 billion and solicited contributions from the public. The use of these funds was premised on the promise that an audit report would later be availed to reflect how much was spent and on what.

That report is yet to be brought forward even though the State of Emergency expired at the end of September 2021. As for the food hampers, there were reports that some if not most ended up being thrown away even though the expenditure reached hundreds of millions of pula.

While the objective of the lockdown was to contain the spread of the virus, the outcome is far removed from the objective and came at grave cost to the economy. It has been estimated that the first lockdown cost the economy of Botswana P10 billion. While this is a large sum of money, there are some that say it pales in comparison to the cost of living and that the economy can and will recover and that the preservation of life should always come first even before the economy.

It was not long until government realised that it could not sustain the burden of a lockdown and on the third week of May 2020, restrictions were slowly lifted allowing trade to take place in phases.

Was the task force right in advising the President to declare a lockdown in the hindsight of the outcome of this heavy-handed course of action?

While the economy was reeling from being pummelled by the six weeks of lockdown, the Task Force upon realising that lockdown was no longer an instrument to employ, advised the use of the next best instrument being a curfew.

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