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BALANCING LIVES WITH LIVELIHOOD: THE HORRID REALITY OF THE COVID – 19 PANDEMIC

May 8, 2020

By Sulaiman Banja Tejan-Sie

The enduring corona virus epidemic which is bound to change the global socio-economic configuration already has some grisly statistics. This disease which was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province in China has since spread globally, resulting in the 2019 – 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

This ongoing global scourge has infected more than 3.39 million people as of 2nd May 2020 and have been reported in 187 countries and territories resulting in more than 241,000 deaths. A welcome consolation is that more than 1.06 million people have recovered making it comparatively less lethal to previous pandemics.

Today, the world is locked in containment mode with few of the early infected countries gradually relaxing their lock down measures and regulations as the rate of infection and death toll lessens. Discounting lifestyle ailments, perhaps no other disease or infection has afflicted every corner of our contemporary world like COVID 19; affecting over 150 countries with more than 3 million cases spread out in every continent except the Antarctica.

Infectious diseases are currently as important as economic crisis, wars and revolutions in understanding societal development and evolution. It is therefore rational to suggest that COVID- 19 will not only harm our physical and economic wellbeing, but it will also change our societies in an unimaginable manner.

This pandemic is also indicative of the lack of support and funding the global community has had with public health.  In the case of the United States, the US Center for Disease Control was not prepared with adequate testing and was slow to conduct “community-based surveillance,” which is the standard screening practice to monitor the virus’s reach. Now, the nation is the current epicenter of COVID-19 with the world’s highest number of confirmed cases.

Mankind now faces varying degrees of self-isolation, quarantine, lockdown, curfew, social distancing and other rigid measures aimed at mitigating the uncontrollable spread of this deadly virus. This unusual cessation of societal interaction has led to unconventional and incongruous images around the world – Pope Francis blessing a deserted and rainy St. Peter’s Square, Taraweeh  prayers in the holy month of Ramadan done to an empty Al Masjid al Haram mosque in Mecca, no pedestrian or vehicular traffic in the usually busy streets of New York (the “City that never sleeps” ) and an empty Trafalgar  Square London’s premier tourist attraction. The new images of 2020 are cars queuing up for drive through COVID – 19 testing in make shift centres, Westerners especially in Europe singing from their balconies and British citizens acknowledging the immense and risky job undertaken by their health care workers with their Thursdays’ acclamation of them. Working from home, virtual meetings, conferences and musical concerts are becoming the contemporary way of life.

The current disruption to the established social order is evidence that we are indeed social creatures that will now more than ever before appreciate community, the commitment and selflessness of our health care workers and the basic freedoms and rights to movement, association, life and work which we had taken for granted for a very long time.

As the global corona virus toll reach a cumulative total of 3.63 million cases and 251 thousand deaths, the economic implications of the pandemic continue to distract and complicate efforts to contain the virus. With the ongoing spread in Africa, Asia and Latin America, countries scramble to contain the fallout and ease the burden. A recurring theme in all existing analysis across both Africa and Asia is potential disruptions to the food chain, future employment and private sector investment.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that global growth will shrink to –3% a downgrade of 6.3 percentage points from projections in January 2020. Global growth is also gauged to rebound to 5.8 percent in 2021, “assuming the pandemic fades in the second half of 2020 and that policy actions taken around the world are effective”. It is further projected that cumulative output loss from the pandemic over the next two years could reach 9 trillion dollars.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that COVID-19 will erase “6.7 percent of working hours globally in the second quarter of 2020 – equivalent to 195 million full-time workers.”  “Large reductions are seen in the Arab States (8.1 per cent, equivalent to 5 million full-time workers), Europe (7.8 per cent, or 12 million full-time workers) and Asia and the Pacific (7.2 per cent, 125 million full-time workers).”

The World Bank estimates that sub Saharan Africa’s economic growth will “decline from 2.4 percent in 2019 to 2.1 to -5.1 percent in 2020, the first recession in the region in 25 years.” “The crisis will be particularly hard for Nigeria, South Africa and Angola (the region’s largest economies) as well as other countries dependent on oil and mining exports. Their model predicts that “the COVID-19 crisis has the potential to create severe food security crisis in Africa. Agricultural production is likely to contract between 2.6 percent in the optimistic scenario and 7 percent in the scenario with trade blockages. Food imports will also decline substantially (from 25 to 13 percent) due to a combination of higher transaction costs and reduced domestic demand.”

The African Union estimates a loss of up to 20 million African jobs in both formal and informal sectors and potential GDP loss of up to 4.5 percentage points due to disruptions from COVID-19.

This bleak socio-economic forecast and the ever-growing death toll of COVID-19 has left Governments the world over with the huge and increasingly challenging task of striking the right balance between protecting our health / saving lives and safeguarding our livelihoods.

In the case of Africa, the number of recorded COVID-19 cases now stands at 34,610 affecting 52 nations, with 1,517 reported deaths and 11,180 reported recoveries. South Africa remains the most affected country with 4, 996 cases. These statistics are relatively small but growing fast lately. The challenges are huge as the continent has far fewer doctors, hospital beds and ventilators per capita than any other region. Therefore, a health emergency of inconceivable proportion looms unless containment measures succeed and urgent action is taken to bolster health system resources.

On the economic front as stated above the crisis in jobs and livelihood could be even greater with as many as one-third of all jobs in Africa affected. Africa’s high degree of private sector informality and the relatively low level of social protection will further exacerbate the existing risk.

I therefore wholeheartedly endorse and subscribe to the three imperatives of tackling COVID-19 in Africa contained in the April 2020 article titled “ Finding Africa’s path: Shaping bold solutions to save lives and livelihoods in the COVID-19 crisis’ by Katrick Jayaram, Acha Leke, Amandla Ooko – Ombaka and Ying Sunny Sun; namely: “protecting lives”, “safeguarding livelihood” and “finding the right path in making optimal decisions on lockdowns, shutdowns, curfews and shielding of people at the highest risk of contracting the virus thereby achieving the best possible outcomes in protecting lives and safeguarding livelihoods.”

In protecting lives in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, Africa needs $5 Billion in 100 days to build and strengthen its health system capacity to handle any possible surge in the infection rate and death toll that is expected if the experience in Europe and the United States is our logical guide.

Although the continent has fewer known COVID-19 cases than other regions, the number is now gradually growing. Even though present epidemiological projections vary and are sensitive to assumptions they do shine some amount of light on the scale of the health risks facing Africa which according to the experts estimate over a million new infections over the next 100 days if the spread of the virus is not contained.

In such a scenario, it is estimated that more than $5 billion in additional funding will be needed to cover the cost of critical supplies for hospitals, including tests, masks, gloves and ventilators. However, African countries have acted fast to contain the spread of this virus, and this has helped delay the course of the pandemic on the continent. There is also much uncertainty about how the outbreak will progress; case growth and severity will depend on policy adherence and efficacy. For example, robust isolation and physical distancing may be less implementable in the context of dense urban environments with high poverty rates. Case severity in Africa could be positively influenced and mitigated by her youthful population with the median age at 20 years; but negatively affected by higher rates of comorbidities with diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis and malnutrition.

In totality, it is critical that efforts are intensified to contain the virus. Bold measures are therefore needed including scaling up of testing, to prepare health systems for a scenario in which infection rates increase rapidly.

In safeguarding livelihoods, large – scale targeted stimulus to protect 150 million jobs is much needed. Therefore, alongside the urgent steps needed to strengthen health systems and protect lives, rapid far-reaching action is needed to safe guard livelihoods. In designing their stimulus package in response to the COVID-19 crisis, African countries must have three objectives in mind: 1) ensuring basic incomes and the availability of essential products and services to individuals and households in need; 2) safeguarding small and medium -size enterprises (SMEs) and the jobs of the people who work for them ; and 3) supporting key corporate institutions that are necessary for the survival of the economy

In the coming days and weeks governments across Africa will be considering critical, difficult decisions on whether and how to implement lockdowns, curfews and other restrictions. Every government, though will face the same dual imperative in this decision – making process: how best to protect lives and safeguard livelihoods.

The hardship from the current crisis would disproportionately befall the poorest and most vulnerable households in Africa. Many of our rural folks depend on farming while the majority of urban dwellers are self employed wage earners. Protecting their earnings or providing social cushion through cash transfers to households remains a considerable challenge for the available fledgling social safety nets. It is therefore also critical for African countries to scale up available social assistance programs to provide food, water and other basic supplies for poor households to cope with the crisis.

We need to modify existing COVID-19 spread containment measures to reflect local context and peculiar constraints faced by African governments such as limited fiscal space and far much less operational capacity to respond to the needs of households and firms to weather the lingering crisis.

In conclusion, our short – term goal in this regard is to continue to strengthen our health care systems and testing capacity; support firms and protect the most vulnerable households to cope with the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.