Winston Churchill said, “Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”
Slap-dash action based upon vague laws offering half-baked solutions will not avert loss of lives to COVID-19. We stand to perish if the government has no capacity to employ the right resources at the right time.
That is why, without dilly-dallying and shilly-shallying, on the 31st March 2020, after Botswana registered only three cases of coronavirus, President Masisi declared a State of Public Emergency (SOPE). The President is empowered by the Constitution and the Emergency Powers Act to do so. Our Constitution protects our God-given liberties such as the right to life, liberty, speech, movement, association and assembly, amongst others.
By its nature, a declaration of the SOPE is a drastic instrument that gravely curtails these fundamental rights. For that reason, it must only be invoked where the facts clearly and palpably call for it. Our forefathers did not leave this matter to the whims, urges and impulses of one man, and make him a King, and the Republic his Kingdom. He can only extend it when the National Assembly agrees.
When he first declared the SOPE, the President gave a speech justifying his decision to Batswana when he had the option of simply issuing the proclamation. In addition, the President used the democratic apparatus to obtain the SOPE and televised the proceedings. The people of Botswana got to witness first-hand the President and his ministers make their case. Whilst there was a dent on transparency as the public did not get to witness the proceedings, he arranged for his medical team to meet with the members of the National Assembly and make the case before them. All democratic leaders around the globe who are responding to COVID-19 have the backing of their medical teams.
We learnt that our public health system is in a dire state of disrepair. The President honestly and publicly admitted that our public health system is in a dire state of disrepair. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has cited Botswana as one of the countries least prepared to deal with the outbreak of COVID-19. With few ventilators and the entire country’s bed occupancy of 6000, with about a fraction of that being Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds, a full blown spread of the disease spells certain doom for the people of Botswana.
In 2000, at the World Aids Conference held in Durban, the then president of the Republic of Botswana Mr. Festus Mogae announced to the world that the people of Botswana faced a serious existential crisis from HIV/AIDS. From the first discovery of an HIV positive person in Selibe-Phikwe in 1985, the virus had been insidiously spreading amongst the population until the country’s health care system buckled and burst at the seams.
“Saturdays were for funerals,” as Unity Dow would later reflect in one of her books. People died like flies. Two decades later, the seismic ramifications of HIV/AIDS are still felt in this country and the war is still not won. We certainly can’t fight two wars on two fronts. COVID-19 presents a new existential threat to the people of Botswana once again. This time it won’t take 15 years for one’s lungs to stop functioning. Two to three weeks is enough for anyone with an underlying health condition like HIV/AIDS, hypertension or diabetes to succumb to the disease. Botswana is not in short supply of people with underlying health conditions, unfortunately.
On the 16th of March, the Director of the WHO, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, implored nations to “test, test, and test” and noted that countries can’t fight the virus blindly without knowing its extent. Unfortunately, our testing has been woefully slow and extremely limited. Whilst the National Health Laboratory has been capacitated to carry out tests and other testing centres touted as close to fully functioning, the process and progress is still very slow.
Our neighbour, South Africa, has introduced mobile testing centres that are said to be carrying out 60 000 tests per day and that has been said to be too few even. We are said to be able to do about 500 tests per day. At the moment, the extent of local transmission, which is a recipe for disaster, is unknown. Countries like South Korea and Germany have managed to get a grip on the virus early on because of mass testing and flattening the curve early on. We need to apply these lessons quickly.
Above all, we are going to need a concrete, effective and realistic plan to get ourselves out of this.
It is immediately evident that the economy is taking a serious hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. What, however, is not clearly apparent is the scale by which our economy will be battered. It is still increasingly difficult to say when our economy will open for business. Mandatory quarantines and the lockdown/restricted movement of persons have all but decimated household incomes, thus essentially bringing all forms of business to a grounding halt. A cloud of uncertainty continues to wreak havoc on the minds of our entrepreneurs every day.
In an attempt to assure the nervous entrepreneur that there is light at the end of the tunnel, the government has put forward an economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The efforts are somewhat unprecedented but there are still gaps that, if left unaddressed, will worsen economic inequality post-COVID-19 as the measures proposed by the government seem geared towards the formal sector of the economy, leaving the vast majority of our informal sector out in the cold.
In an effort to ensure a strong and quick economic recovery, the government is better off getting money into people’s hands, especially those in the informal sector, as quickly as possible. It is also not inducing much public confidence that the vast majority of the economic response will be administered by the big and slow government bureaucracy that is not known for logistical operations that require urgency and expediency. For a problem whose scale is yet to reveal itself, we are better off preparing for the worst-case scenario.
From the President and his Government, Batswana will expect “blood, sweat, toil and tears.”