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Prof. Chukwuma Charles Soludo.
Former Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Prof. Chukwuma Charles Soludo has called on African leaders to think outside the box and evolve a homegrown strategy that will provide the solution to the problem of coronavirus pandemic and ease the lockdown that comes in its wake.
Prof. Soludo believes that a strategy that includes lockdowns/border closure is the worse of two options given the social and economic realities in the continent.
Recalling that China isolated Wuhan, and kept Shanghai, Beijing, and other major economic engines open, and today, China supplies the world with medical equipment, face masks, etc and raking-in hundreds of billions of dollars, the gifted economist declared: “The idea of a lockdown (and border closure) implies that you will continue to do so (with extensions) until such a time that you are satisfied that the spread of Covid-19 has been arrested or on the decline (with the possibility of imposing another round of lockdown if new infections surge).
“That is the catch: lockdown for as long as required to stem the spread. The length of time required for such lockdowns to ensure “effectiveness” in arresting the spread would make it near impossible in much of Africa. If the strategy is to lockdown until infections stop/significantly decline or so, then we would have a suicidal indefinite waiting game.”
He continued: “First, monitoring the spread requires effective testing, and Africa cannot afford effective testing of its 1.3 billion people. New York State, with a population of 20 million and a budget of $175 billion, is pleading with the US Federal Government to assist with testing kits and facilities. Check out the number of testing centres and facilities in each African country relative to their populations. A joke in the social media narrated that the health minister of Burundi was asked to explain the miracle in his country whereby the number of infections was reported as zero. His response was: “it is simple: we don’t have any testing kits”. Besides, there is a stigma associated with the infection, and on the average Africans only go to the hospital as the last resort. There are also asymptomatic cases, and only the critically ill ones will report. So, there will always be massive under-testing and gross under-reporting.
“Furthermore, social distancing in most parts of Africa will remain impractical. From the shanties in South Africa’s townships to the crowded Ajegunle or Mararaba in Abuja/Nasarawa, or Cairo or Kinshasa to the villages and poor neighbourhoods in much of Africa, social clustering, not distancing, is the affordable, survivalist culture. Communal living is not just about culture, it is a matter of economic survival. Hence, the statistics on infections will be coming in fits and stats: shall we be locking down and unlocking with each episode of surge as there may probably be several such episodes (unless and until a cure is found)? Even with over four weeks of “stay at home” or lockdowns in some African countries, the reported daily infections continue to rise. Some may argue the counterfactual that without the initial lockdowns, the number of infections could have been multiples. It is a reasonable conjecture or anecdote, albeit without any proof. The question is the end game for a poor society such as Africa? New infections have re-emerged in Wuhan, and both Singapore and South Korea are going back to the drawing board. Since we cannot sustain lockdowns indefinitely or even until the spread stops/declines, it means that we would sooner or later remove the restrictions. What happens then? There would still be infections, which can still spread anyway. Why not then adopt sustainable solutions early enough without weeks of avoidable waste and hardship? Let us think this through!”
Besides, Soludo contends that African states cannot pay for lockdowns. Many countries depend on budget support from bilateral and multilateral donors, and with acute balance of payments problems. They do not even have leg rooms to simply print money. Most are now begging for debt relief and applying for urgent loans from the IMF and the World Bank. In Africa, both the governments and the people are begging for “palliatives”.
And given that no government in Africa can seriously pay for lockdowns, over one billion Africans are left to survive if they can or perish if they must, especially at a time that African economies are facing their worst economic condition in decades, where commodity prices have fallen dramatically, and for oil producers, the situation is precarious.
Soludo said: “Each day that any of the major African economies stays under lockdown costs Africa billions of dollars in lost income but with debatable benefits. Given its financial and structural weaknesses, Africa does not have the luxury of using the same “conventional tools” of the western countries in the face of the twin pandemic. At the minimum, Africa needs its full population (its most important asset) working at full throttle to have any chance of defeating the impending economic catastrophe.”
On the way out, he said: “We should think African but act locally and opportunistically to survive and prosper, and exploit the global opportunities offered by the crises. Every shock or pandemic presents opportunities. Solutions need to be multidimensional, far beyond economics and western medicine. Ad-hoc response will be a wasted opportunity. Africa needs a package for creating sustainable prosperity in a world of continuous techno-economic-health disruptions.
“As a first step, African countries should urgently dismantle the border closures as well as the stay at home/lockdown orders. Every African society has some local herbs that, to use President Trump’s phrase, “might help”. While the UK and others are experimenting with vaccines, you never know if an Africa herb might be the cure. Necessity is the mother of invention, and only those who dare, succeed! With enough education and mobilization, the infection rate will be drastically reduced without pausing the lives of 1.3 billion people.
For Soludo, the real challenge is the potential economic catastrophe that many African economies face. How policymakers respond depends on how they interpret the shocks: as temporary or permanent structural shifts. But howsoever they choose to see it, one thing is certain: several more similar shocks (not necessarily in the exact form) are on the way.