If government orders a lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we hope that newspaper, radio and television journalists will be included in exempt occupations and treated as essential workers as is the case in South Africa and the UK where lockdown policies are being implemented.
However, if this should be the last printed edition of The Botswana Gazette for some time, we want to assure our treasured readers and invaluable advertisers that we will continue to keep Batswana informed through our online edition and Facebook page.
We say this because we do not see Botswana escaping the global pandemic and we actually fear that it is only a matter of time before we have our first deaths from the deadly disease. Of course, we wish only the best for our country, and indeed the world that we are a part of, but – as the adage goes – wishes are not horses and so we do not ride.
And when what looks like the inevitable finally strikes, we trust that our government will be truthful and transparent with the facts. This is essential to deal with the flow of fake news on social media, which spreads like a wildfire. Already there is a prosecution in Selibe-Phikwe where a woman has been charged with maliciously spreading false claims that there were two cases of the virus in the town. Hence we take the opportunity to warn Batswana against believing everything they read or see on social media, and in particular to refrain from forwarding unsubstantiated rumours. It is good advice to first seek official confirmation from known authorities, especially our Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation.
The advent of the virus in our country will have immediate impact on our way of life, and we look to the government to ensure that it is prepared for the social and economic tsunami that will ensue in the wake of the pandemic. We will expect the government to issue guidelines on how the lockdown will be implemented and to put in place plans to look after the most vulnerable members of society – the rural and urban poor who depend on their measly Ipelegeng earnings for their survival. Thousands of school children depend on school meals both to ward off hunger and for nutrition. It is our prayer that means are being devised to see that these wards continue to be looked after because schools have been closed for fear of the children contracting Covid-19.
Workers are another vulnerable section of society. Under a lockdown, many businesses may have difficulties paying their employees. This is where the Department of Labour, in consultation with trade unions and employer organisations, ought to step in with appropriate measures both to preserve jobs and to ensure livelihoods for the duration of the lockdown. The department must also be on the lookout for unscrupulous employers who may be want to use the pandemic as an opportunity cut salaries and wages, as well as retrench and fire employees.
One of the first areas impacted by any lockdown will be transport. Already cross-border transport has been stopped and it is only a matter of time before even public transport within Botswana is curtailed. This will be unavoidable, but government must give Batswana ample warning. Many of us living in towns and cities are migrants from home villages in rural Botswana and will prefer to trek there to be with our families during the lockdown. We say this because any hasty closure of long-distance transport could result in the chaos and social unrest experienced in South Africa and India where thousands of people were stranded.
The extent to which we survive this pandemic will depend on two factors: whether we Batswana obey the global policy of social distancing and avoid unnecessary travel and close contact with other people to stem the spread the virus, and whether we practice vigorous personal health with frequent hand-washing.
But importantly, a lot will depend on how much both our public and private health services are prepared for the hundreds, even thousands, of Batswana who may need hospitalisation. We are very grateful to Jack Ma of Alibaba for his donation of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and testing kits for our health workers and the general public.
But the government has been disturbingly silent regarding how prepared our health services are for the coming onslaught. We know nothing about the testing protocols – who is to be tested, can Botswana process the tests and where will the tests take place? We know much less about isolation wards and intensive care beds with ventilators that are essential to save lives. Batswana need to know these about the state of things before the epidemic takes hold.
But if we are to survive this pandemic with our society and economy reasonably intact, a seamless partnership between all Batswana and the government is of the utmost importance. We believe that we all understand this and that we will turn to God that at all times to save us.