By Kalima Nkonde.
- I am concerned about how our economy will survive long term or how individual households will survive. I would rather we continue partial or selective lockdown while seriously monitoring what is happening elsewhere ( Chibamba Kanyama, former IMF Communications Advisor and CEO of ZNBC, a journalist/Broadcaster turned economic commentator, April 1, 2020 in News diggers)
- Africa could see anywhere between 300,000 and 3.3 million deaths due to coronavirus. Total infections could spiral out of control and reach 1.2 billion (UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) April 17, 2020 report)
- If it is true that the novel coronavirus would kill millions without quarantines, then the extraordinary measures are surely justified, but there’s little evidence to confirm that premise. Our Stanford Study calculated the mortality rate of COVID-19 as between 0.12% and 0.2% when one considers the true number of infections (Assistant Professor Eran Bendavid, The head of Covid-19 study at Stanford University in the US )
- A lack of adequate testing means many of those who have been infected with the coronavirus will not appear in official statistics. This suggests that many estimates for its mortality rate are much too high. When it comes to COVID-19, counting has been a challenge. Projections are based on models, and this uncertainty breeds fear. ( World Economic Forum Article)
- Coronavirus cases in Africa could surge from just thousands now to 10 million within three to six months, according to provisional modeling, But it was a tentative projection that could change. (Michel Yao, head of emergency operations for WHO Africa)
- No-one is modeling the “collateral damage” of the lockdown and the impact of the economic meltdown on disease and death. Poverty can make things worse. It increases the risk of contracting TB in high-density settings like informal settings and fuels HIV infections (Prof Shabhir Madhi, the former head of South Africa National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD)
- As a country, we have bought into the international rhetoric which is a poor fit for our local circumstances.Covid-19 is here to stay, people will die but many more will live (SA Doctors, University of Cape Town class of 1993, appealing to President Ramaphosa to stop the “ hard” lockdown)
We are now in the month of May, 2020 and most African countries are under total lockdown for the past few weeks. There are many African countries like South Africa who implemented and adopted copycat lockdowns measures that are even harsher than those in the developed countries. Lockdowns have effectively stopped people from moving and interacting. Zambia is one of the few countries that has not followed the cut and paste formula of total lockdown but rather implements a partial lockdown, which I personally support and my article lays down the rationale behind my thinking and position.
The Lungu administration in Zambia has taken a very cautious and measured approach to Covid- 19 in terms of lockdowns. They have resisted a total lockdown of the country which decision has been widely criticized by all and sundry including the Opposition. It is only Chibamba Kanyama, one of Zambia’s rational and objective thinkers cautioned about the danger of total lockdown a month ago. I have keenly followed the Covid-19 health and economic debate locally and internationally. As a rational and non-group thinker, there are things that are not making sense and not adding up in our African context with regard to how we should react to Covid-19. This article may be controversial given the standard and accepted view by the majority on how we should fight Covid-19. The intention is to give an alternative viewpoint. The one size fits all of the lockdowns needs to be challenged and I am doing just that.
I have analysed the facts that are publicly available. They do not seem to be making sense in terms of supporting the total lockdowns by African countries. The currently accepted panacea to containing Covid-19 is the imposition of total lockdown of the economy. This has neither been justified nor supported by facts on the ground.
It seems to me that most African countries went into lockdowns in a copycat fashion and based their decisions on the projections from Western countries and the WHO. They cannot be blamed, in a way, because there has been limited data. However, it was important that they should have adjusted those projections with local context. There was need for additional quantitative and qualitative local analysis before lockdowns were implemented. In order to argue my case that total local down may not have been the best course of action by Africans, I will take Zambia’s specific situation and focus on the facts and not fears.
The following are the facts that Zambia faces. The first one is that according to the South China Morning Post newspaper, Zambia has one of the highest if not the highest population of Chinese. The paper estimates that there are between 80,000 to 100,000 Chinese living Zambia. In addition, there are a lot of Zambians that go to and from China. In March 2020, the WHO listed Zambia among the 13 African countries at the highest risk for Covid-19 due to Chinese connections. The rational conclusion is that given the human traffic between Zambia and China, Covid-19 was brought to Zambia as early as January 2020 by traders, students, investors, even by Chinese criminals, etc. It means Covid-19 has been and is among the Zambia population. The tests being carried out ex-post will just prove, what anyone with common sense should have known in our circumstances. This is not rocket science.
The second established fact is that Covid-19 is a highly contagious disease and it spreads fast. It follows from the above that, having been imported into Zambia from China and other places, it can rationally be assumed that it must have spread to a large part of the Zambian population. The question is: why are there such few cases? The simple answer is that there is limited testing. The wife of Microsoft Founder, Belinda Gates alluded to this fact while speaking to CNN.
“Part of the reasons you are seeing the case numbers still do not look very bad is because they don’t have access to many tests”, She said.
The third fact is that Covid-19 is a fast killer. It kills within two weeks after one being infected. The rational question to ask is: has spread to a significant part of the Zambian population, as alluded to above, why is it that it has not resulted in high death rates. The answer lies in the universally accepted fact that the majority of Covid-19 patients – data from China showed that 80% of Covid-19 cases are either asymptomatic or have the mild disease – are asymptomatic which means that patients do not even know that they are sick and they recover from it, unknowingly. There is also some recent scientific evidence to support the low mortality rates. It has been found by the recent study by Stanford University in the USA that, although Covid-19 can spread extensively to a large population, it is far much less fatal and therefore results in fewer deaths. The disease has a less mortality rate than the original projections showed. This is why Zambia has low mortality rates despite that disease has been here for some time.
Zambia and Africa would have been already experiencing a conspicuous rise in deaths from Covid-19 by now if the disease’s mortality was as per projections that were made by the West. The common-sense conclusion is that the models for calculating death rates were not very accurate especially that most modeling was extrapolating death rates using the number of deaths over the number of those who tested positive instead of the total number of those infected, which is currently unknown. The numerator was fine but not the denominator.
The fifth factor is the demographic factor – composition of the dead from Covid-19, and those admitted in ICU- in developed countries. It has been established and very accurately that the disease has been killing those mostly in the range of 50-90 years and those with pre-existing medical conditions. There was a recent report in the UK that shows that about 80% of COvid-19 patients in ICU are above 50 years old. The demographic composition of Africa and Zambia is such that it has the youngest population in the World. Whereas in Europe those above 50 years are about 40%, for sub-Saharan Africa it is only 10% which means 90% of the population is below 50years old. It follows from sheer demographic composition that the health impact of COVID-19 in Africa is likely to be lower than in China, USA, or European countries. This is a rational explanation of the lower infection and death rates in Zambia and Africa.
On the basis of the above points and some of the latest studies confirming that Covid-19 is not as fatal as originally made out to be in some projections, it is clearly rational that total lockdowns are not appropriate in Zambia and Africa’s case. The facts on the ground and our particular circumstances do not support such measures as the consequences are dire.
As at present, in the Zambian and African context, the only factor that we do not know is the impact of the temperature on the virus. It is not yet proven whether the virus is affected by temperature. The impact of the winter weather which is due this month and next month is what we should watch for. We are lucky our winters are not severe and are not long.
Why lockdowns more harmful and impractical
The lockdown solution, given our social and economic situation in African, is likely to cause more harm than good. It is also ineffective and difficult to implement. In Africa, this solution can be more harmful than good because, first and foremost, the majority of our people – about 90% – are in the informal sector and they live from hand to mouth. These people’s economic existence is depended on their daily interaction with the customer flow face-to-face; a lockdown to enforce social distancing effectively stops all revenue-generating activities for them. Lockdowns consign them to starvation. It can also pose a serious security risk as the government cannot afford to feed them. The slowdown in economic activity means that tax revenue for the government will decline, and with no reserves and borrowing capacity, total lockdown is like committing economic suicide in the case of many African countries like Zambia.
Zambia has no capacity to provide safety measures to those that will be affected by total lockdown ranging from street vendors, micro-businesses and self-employed and big employers. Wholesale economic stimulus packages are just totally inappropriate in our economic circumstances. Zambia’s economy is currently struggling with the burden of excessive debt and low economic activity and total lockdown will be the final nail in the Zambian economic coffin and can lead to its total collapse of economy.
From the social point of view, lockdowns are generally impractical and can be ineffective to implement. The majority of the population in the urban population lives in slums. As Belinda Gates pointed out, the majority of Africans in urban areas live in crowded places.
“I have been in townships all over Africa and slums. When we talk about physical distancing and hand-washing, if you live in slums you can’t physically distance, you have to go out and get your meals. You don’t have clean water to wash your hands.” Melinda Gates said on Africa.
What is the alternative to lockdowns?
One may ask, having condemned the appropriateness of lockdowns, what is the alternative? Zambia should take common-sense measures and wait out the virus. The developed world is badly affected by the virus and so the vaccine and treatment are likely to come sooner than for any other virus – at least within the next 18 months.
In the meantime, there are common-sense measures that should be focused on based on what we know about Covid-19. The known facts are as follows: it affects the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions, it is contagious, health workers are at higher risk and the majority of those infected are asymptomatic. On the basis of this, the focus should, therefore, be on helping those at the highest risk.
The public health experts will have to figure out what measures to take but from the layman’s point of view, I would recommend the following measures: find a way of safeguarding elderly by social distancing measures, stock up ARVs in health centers to cover HIV/AIDs, TB patients and encourage them to take their drugs, purchase physical protection equipment for public health workers in bulk, improve public health hygiene standards and ensure water is always available in hospitals, move funds from the Defence budget to Health and Water and Sanitation sectors, implement measures regarding public transport including avoiding overloading and encouraging wearing masks, prohibit public spitting.
The government should also ensure that measures that they have announced such as the washing of hands, wearing masks in public places, avoiding overcrowding, etc are encouraged. The funds that are being donated should be directed to sanitation measures such as the purchase of bins, installation of more standpipes in high-density areas for running water, purchase of physical protective equipment (PPEs) for healthcare workers, purchase of ventilators, permanent investment in increasing ICU units in our hospitals.
We should avoid instilling phobia which is what the current Ministerial announcements at the daily briefing are doing. The updates are creating the impression that the disease is spreading fast and growing, which is a fallacy. You hear people debating in streets by saying: “ Korona elyo yashupa nomba, naifika ku Chelstone , naku copperbelt” (Covid-19 is now on the increase, it has reached Chelston and Copperbelt). I find the Ministry of Health press conferences by Dr.Chitalu and Ms.Dorah Siliya to be useless apart from being a PR stunt and apart from building the brand of the presenters, as the disease is already here.
The Press conferences should be stopped or alternatively their frequency should be reduced. The focus should be on public education about the disease and how members of the public can avoid contracting it. In addition, this is an opportunity to change the Zambians mindset by embarking on aggressive enforcement of sanitation and hygiene bye laws of councils in the name of Covid-19. Our people’s propensity to litter and their tolerance of dirt is mind-boggling
The current narrative, especially in the Western press, seems to suggest that Covid-19 is somewhere in some oceans or in the air and circulating first to the other parts of the World, and then it will hit Africa last. This implies that the virus is a rational creature when it was in fact spread by international travel and most countries including African countries closed the stable when the horse had already bolted. I have debunked this implied theory of COVID- 19 coming to Africa last in this article. The reality is that COVID-19 is already here and will be here for years to come. As Africans, we are a resilient race. We coped with so many challenges and diseases like Cholera, Ebola, TB, Malaria, HIV/AIDs, etc and so we can easily cope with COVID-19. The disclosures of the so-called “new” cases from the testing are just inspiring phobia in the population.COVID-19 is with us already and has possibly infected hundreds of thousands of us but we are not aware of it.
The policymakers in Africa should from today know that COVID-19 is here and they need to make difficult decisions about easing or stopping lockdowns as the economic consequences of continued lockdowns far outweigh the health impact of Covid-19.
As for President Edgar Lungu, his decision for measured the lockdown may turn out to be one of the best decisions he has ever made during his Presidency and one wishes he had exercised the same precaution during the foreign debt contraction as Zambia would have avoided the economic mess we are in at the moment. I personally warned him about the consequences of excessive debt which we are now facing but he never listened.
Kudos, Mr. President for having been rational, listened to some sound advice and taken a decision that has been in the general interest of the majority of Zambians. The motivation for your decision is neither here nor there because the bottom line is, Zambia and Zambians are the winners. I would now want to advise you by appealing to you to be innovative in your thinking and engage some of the smart minds you administration and from outside, who are able to see the many opportunities, that Covid -19 presents to Zambia. There are many economic, social, political and health opportunities that the pandemic provides to Zambia. All we need are thinkers.
The writer is a Chartered Accountant by profession. He is an independent, non- partisan finance and economic commentator/analyst and a genuine Patriot.