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Balancing health, economy in Covid-19 crisis

If health experts had their way, they would put the entire world in a lockdown to defeat the raging Covid-19 pandemic.
If health experts had their way, they would put the entire world in a lockdown to defeat the raging Covid-19 pandemic. FILE PHOTO | AFP 

If health experts had their way, they would put the entire world in a lockdown to defeat the raging Covid-19 pandemic. Evidence suggests that lockdowns are helping to slow down the spread of the virus.

The decision will, however, lead to another devastating crisis – lack of income and food – with far more ramifications than the disease. The debate everywhere in the world centres around two questions: when is the right time to open up the economy? In other words, how can we strike a balance between saving lives and livelihoods in this very difficult time?

Thousands of people who ordinarily supported their families have lost their jobs and literary become dependent on lucky friends and relatives still hanging on to some income generating activity. This isn’t a sustainable option. We must find some answers.

In a recent article, ‘‘Finding Africa’s path: Shaping bold solutions to save lives and livelihoods through the crisis’’, McKinsey and Company highlights three bold actions urgently required to shield the African continent from further devastation.

The first one is to protect lives by taking quick measures to strengthen Africa’s health-system capacity over the next few months, at a potential cost exceeding $5 billion.

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Commendably, many of the African countries have taken courageous decisions that have delayed the course of the pandemic. There is still need to invest more to cover the cost of critical supplies for hospitals, including tests, masks, gloves, and ventilators.

The article refers to epidemiological projections suggesting that there could be millions of cases in Africa over the next 100 days. In my view, and although we should take this very seriously by preparing our health system for a worst-case scenario, we (our scientists) should for curiosity’s purpose be investigating whether the measles or polio antibodies could be effectively fighting the coronavirus?

The second action McKinsey suggests is to safeguard livelihoods considering the fact that more than 150 million Africans have lost jobs or incomes and that more than one third of the entire workforce could be significantly affected by the crisis.

In order to mitigate against the effects of lost jobs or incomes as a result of the pandemic, African governments must consider additional economic stimulus. They argue that the stimulus measures taken so far amount to between 1 and 1.5 percent of GDP.

McKinsey’s analysis shows that much larger stimulus packages are needed, and should typically be targeted at securing basic incomes and availability of essential products and services; safeguarding SMEs and the jobs of the people who work for them; and at supporting key corporate institutions that are necessary for the long-term health of the economy through a combination of both financial and operational support. To finance such a stimulus, the continent will need to free up between $100 billion and $150 billion by requesting for a two-year standstill on all external-debt repayments, as well as for bilateral creditors to suspend debt payments from Africa. In my view, this should be a collective African effort and not the selfish posturing by local politicians pushing for suspension external-debt payments for political gains.

Thirdly, Africa must find the right path for saving lives and livelihoods in the coming days. In addition to measures already taken, the article says, there is need to consider another dimension which consists of a spectrum of “shielding” measures that afford extra protection for those who are at high risk of severe illness from Covid-19.

Although many African countries have not implemented such measures, Kenya has made an attempt to shield those who are over 58 years and have underlying issues.

Efforts should be made to create awareness include all other people with pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable in fighting the virus.

Under this same strategy, movement restriction between counties with known cases of the virus and those that are not should be intensified to minimie spillovers.

Whilst other countries were swift in providing economic stimulus directly to those who lost jobs or income through their tax authorities, it is virtually impossible for most African countries to emulate that.

Covid-19 provides Africa with the opportunity to provide every citizen with identity as well as formalising the informal sector. The identity should be linked to all government agencies for better service delivery to citizens.

With the existing infrastructure, Africa can still strike a balance between saving lives and livelihoods in the COVID-19 crisis.

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