Thursday, May 28, 2020

Trust, science, and openness will be central to the new normal

As we come to the end of the first month under lockdown in our efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic there is a need to reflect and explore how we are going to proceed as a nation and people. Central to everything will be trust, openness, and science. With particular regard to our leaders at national and tribal level, they need to avoid mistaking the goodwill that our people have extended to them for trust. On the scientific front the professors who are leading the fight should not think that their credentials will see them through. Our media houses have to allow free flow of information and verify each and every fact that they publish.

During the debate on the extension of the state of public emergency after the pronouncement that one nurse who had assisted members of parliament had tested positive for COVID-19 the speaker Rre Skelemani was clearly spooked, and was very keen to go into quarantine as determined by the Director of Public Health. After some debate the Director of Public Health stated that the proceedings could proceed for so long as members of parliament wore face masks and maintained the recommended social distancing.

Interestingly after a short recess the sitting of parliament went ahead, and some including the Speaker were not wearing face masks. These occurrences are a matter of public record in the form of video footage that is now permanently recorded on social media platforms. The Director of Public Health also seemed to be unsure of his stance, and one could observe a change in emphasis tied to the position, and body language of the national leadership. These two events demonstrated a situation where political considerations took precedence over science, and when the time comes, as it will in the near future, to pivot to making current health advisories a way of life, our leaders will have diminished their trust credit.

During the debate some members of parliament argued that they were in agreement with the emergency regulations being placed before them, and that their constituents supported the regulations. This quite clearly could not be true for there was no evidence that the constituents had seen the said regulations. Again these pronouncements are a matter of public record. These pronouncements will in the near future come to haunt our members of parliament when they have to promote the current regulations as a continuing way of life going forward.

In making pronouncements on the extensions to the lockdown our president also gave out disturbing signals with regard to what it is he wants to do going forward. Our people are mostly affected by the restrictions on movement under the current regulations. In terms of the regulations the restrictions on movement continue even after the end of the lockdown. Our people on the other hand are primed for relaxation of movement restrictions when the greater possibility, as I argue below, is that they will continue. If things pan out as I argue below our president may be forced to make a political rather than a science based decision because the science will have failed, and unnecessarily so.

I am of the view the current strategy of contact tracing and sample testing is inherently flawed. Nothing demonstrates the flaw than recent pronouncements that we now have local transmission. Effectively we now need two contact tracing regimes, one for those with imported infections and one for those with local transmission. Assuming we had full and complete knowledge of those that have entered this country we can with some measure of success carry out this stream of contact tracing. In any case this type of strategy follows the spread of the disease it does not pre-empt it.

In the case of local transmission I have a tough time appreciating how contact tracing can be effective. This is because there is no how you can predict where the spread will sprout. In my view once we have identified some local transmission we have no choice but to undertake wider testing and isolation. With just above 6000 tests out of a population of nearly 2.5million people we have not really started any serious attempt to understand the level of infection in this country. I think we are likely to have a flare up soon because of this approach, and our esteemed professors may have a tough time pulling us back for they would have lost the confidence of our people and the leadership. Now is the time for them to change direction before it is too late.

There is also a need to take a regional approach to the fight against the virus. Why is it so difficult to have lockdowns in the SADC countries synchronized? We can still have provincial/ district level control regimes whilst maintaining a holistic approach. What is the point of South Africa testing widely and opening its economy whilst small dependent economies like that of Botswana do not test enough and stay longer under lockdown?

On the national economic front we have all heard that our economy is taking a huge knock on the mining and tourism front, but are we being told enough? I have asked some colleagues what the value of our stockpiled diamonds is. Most have kept quiet and a few have said they think they are worth a lot. I maintain that something that has not potential buyer in the next 12 months is of no value in the short term. My understanding is that we have a 12 month budget cycle. Our expectation is that we will have income of about P60billion and expenditure slightly above that for the current financial year. Now imagine a three year infrastructure project that starts now when all you have is funds for the first twelve months. Where is the funding for the next twelve months going to come from when your diamonds, under stockpile, are effectively valueless for the next twelve months?

What I am trying to get at is that we may actually be broke as a nation and if that is the case is it not better for the leadership to tell us so? Given that government is the biggest player in our economy things do not really look good. The setup of our government is also in my view flawed. It seems we have a situation where in terms of seniority we have the President, Vice President, Minister of Presidential Affairs, Minister of Defence in that order. A look at all these positions will show that rather than being generators of wealth they are consumers of wealth. The public service, the army and the police do not generate any wealth for this country. I am not saying they are not important just that they are a cost item not a revenue item. One would expect revenue generating ministries, such as agriculture, mining, finance, trade and industry to rank higher than consuming ministries in a developing country such as ours.

I really worry for our pensioners. Given that the bulk of their pension fund investments are external and there has generally being a decline in income from investments, one wonders what their pensions are now worth. Imagine a situation where a pensioner also supports grandchildren as happens in some cases. How many pension schemes have been open with their customers and updated them on any adverse effects on their pension income?

One of the lessons that we must take home from this pandemic is that we cannot continue to use the same approach and tools that have placed us in this precarious position. We have for a long time instead of dealing with issues sidestepped them by addressing easy questions. For example, generally if we are asked who knows how to get us to Bonwapitse, we respond to the question “who do you like?” or “which faction does he belong to?” If we think we can waste 12 months answering useless questions then we must brace for really difficult times ahead. It is really scary when parents want schools opened, in the face of a pandemic, so that their children can be fed because they are unable to feed them ourselves. Why are these parents not fighting to be capacitated to feed their own children?

Something is also fundamentally wrong with an income or wealth generation ideology that expects profits to grow by 25% every year. Where is this growth supposed to come from? One can see this coming from reduced salaries for workers, raised prices and other attributes which generally hurt the poor. A look at the BBC shows a rather disturbing picture, Americans sleeping in cars whilst lining up for free food because they have nothing to eat, Indian workers going hungry because they are paid daily and have no savings.  Former president Rre Mogae once remarked that our people live pay cheque to pay cheque. Nothing has changed.

Strange as it may seem Batswana need to turn their eyes from government, and government needs to look the other way, and let Batswana get on with making deals amongst themselves. We are largely cash strapped but asset rich. We must look to whether we can make cashless or none money deals.

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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of May 24 - 30, 2020.