THE POLEMIC CORNER
Lekgowe, Mogapi & Kgosi
It is a season of darkness, despair and desolation – we live in grim circumstances. We find ourselves hunkered down in our homesteads sitting out the devastation of COVID-19, we watch as the whole world collapses under a novel virus without cure or vaccine, daily, we get up to count the dead, and await the authorities to tell us how many of ours are infected, how may will ride the pendulum that swings between life, recovery and death. HIV/AIDS taught us death, but not on this speed and scale. With no muscle to cook up a vaccine, and those with the muscle saying a vaccine is still a long way off, COVID-19 presents a grave threat to Botswana’s public health and its economy for the foreseeable future.
In truth, we truly are yet to suffer.
Our economy – that struggles to diversify – that is in the hands of non-citizens – that is hugely dependent on South Africa, is in ruins. The two main GDP contributors to our economy, tourism and mining, have taken a serious bludgeoning and pounding from COVID-19. Beds in hotels and lodges are vacant, and our diamonds are not being sold. It is going to take time for these sectors to regain their strength. As long as a vaccine is not found, COVID-19 will hover over our necks like a guillotine. In a landlocked country such as ours, with near porous borders, even if we eliminate or contain the disease, it is likely to be re-introduced. It will be introduced into Botswana by citizens and non-citizens, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Yes, knowingly, because now the current standard and accepted management of the virus is a regional lockdown and serious contact tracing. Non-citizens can now cripple each other’s economies. An outbreak in the Okavango delta diverts tourists to the Kruger.
Life as we know it has, at the drop of a hat, changed. Globalisation has completely undergone regressive transmutation. Since Covid-19 is a global phenomenon, measures taken by individual countries to limit and manage the movement of people into and out of its country are going to be simply accepted by other nations (and courts), regardless of how draconian they are. Self-preservation and self-protectionism will supersede global integration and inclusivity for the foreseeable future. As developed countries fight for the lives of their own citizens, and impose protectionist trade measures, the supply of critical COVID-19 products to developing countries will become hampered, and their prices will go high. In its 2020 World Economic Outlook, the IMF forecasts that the global economy is set to shrink by about 3% in 2020 and a recovery a long way off in the latter part of 2021 – a lot of suffering and gloom is still ahead.
There will be more suffering in developing countries like ours. In a matter of days, the country turned into a welfare state, and the government was forced to hand out food baskets to those facing extreme hunger. The reality is probably that more than half the country will face hunger in the next coming days as most people lived hand to mouth as informal traders as the sector was decimated in an instant with the instigation of extreme social distancing. Many of our people will survive the COVID-19 pandemic both out of a combination of sheer accident, the grace of God and measures put in place by the government.
What, however, an ordinary Motswana out there is grappling with alone is the psychological turmoil effected by the economic and social anxiety arising from the societal exclusion, imprisonment and the uncertainty of the moment and the future. We still do not know how COVID-19 will ravage us. That, in itself, is a disease on its own. What will happen to those who have been infected? Will they recover? If they recover, does that mean they will not be able to infect others? How many will be infected? The grief over what is lost (which may never be gained), and the massive sea of uncertainty over what is looming beyond the current dark cloud, are the pathogens consuming anyone’s mind. Questions that harbour both hopelessness and fear.
What is next after this chaos and havoc?
That many ordinary folk do not have a sure-fire answer to this question rather ratchets the fear of uncertainty into plain paranoia. Many who have been locked out of toiling daily to put food on the table, now sleep, get-up to do nothing and watch daily as their little savings get depleted one meal at a time. And perhaps to put salt to the wounds, the helplessness with which they feel knowing the pain and agony of putting their children to bed on empty stomachs. When asked about them, about the percentage they contribute to the GDP, the Minister of Finance and Development, could not answer the question. These are people whom the majority of have gone unaccounted for, unnoticed or even forgotten, and have long written-off the viability of their social contract with the government – they do not know what it exists for and they have lost faith in it. The minority, out of choice, have been held hostage to undying optimism of prayer where only the toughest strains of hope survive, praying diligently for their leaders to be wiser today than ever. The paths available to ordinary folks are narrowing every day. The future, long promised and available for summon daily filled with hope is rather gloomy. It is this level of uncertainty that makes many tremble, the kind no one can ever prepare for.
These are truly difficult times we face as a nation. The path for hope remains narrow and foggy for many ordinary people. The broader swath of the forgotten class of peasants, blue collar workers and the working poor are at war for survival. And just like any war, it will not take time before the body bags start arriving.
President Masisi will need a concrete plan to rescue the nation from these grim times. It is now, more than ever, that his leadership credentials will be tested.