Wednesday, September 23, 2020

We need to balance between saving lives and the economy

The greater Gaborone was on Friday sent back to a two weeks long zonal lockdown. This will surely have a negative impact on our already ailing economy. 

Given the damage caused and registered during the past lockdown in April/May, it has become certain that a prolonged and draconian economic freeze will have its own negative health and social effects. Luckily, the latest lockdown comes when our Parliament is in session and we look up to them to guide the way forward. While traditionally the winter session or July session of Parliament is usually meant for legislation more than anything, It is the job of our law makers to weigh competing costs and risks that our nation could be facing at any given time. So, one hopes they will consider making time to draft some guidance on the way forward, particularly on the economic side things. 

Up until the President Holidays, it appeared to many of us that the government’s timely decision to step up contact tracing and enacting some of the earliest stay-at-home orders helped us slow the spread of the coronavirus. Up until recently, most Batswana largely supported public health and social measures enacted to protect them against the coronavirus. We were winning the battle, so we thought. However, on the economic side, we seem to be fighting a losing battle. The biggest spender in the land – the government is broke. The private sector on the other side seems to be not creative enough to sustain current jobs levels or keep the engine of the economy running in the absence of the biggest spender. This is understandable because that has been the structure of our economy. The structure that we need to change going forward. This is the structure that got us where we are in my view.  

No one likes to speak of the economic costs of lives but doing so is embedded in what economists do. We therefore set our eyes specifically on our finance minister – Dr Thapelo Matsheka who is an economist by profession to guide his peers in parley. So far, the Economic Recovery Plan that was released recently by the ministry led by Matsheka has a few pointers that says we are serious about a quick recovery of our economy. 

The Plan beautifully state the need for improved domestic food production to achieve a higher degree of self-sufficiency in selected products.

“Despite historical problems in developing agricultural production (slow growth in output, weak productivity, limited effectiveness of government support programmes), it is felt that the country nevertheless has potential for agricultural sector growth”, reads part of the plan. 

It doesn’t end there; it also states that raising the productivity of agriculture is essential and potentially a source of “quick wins”, including enhancing domestic self-sufficiency, improving the balance of payments, job creation, innovation and the adoption of new technology.

But all these are not supported by anything bold. Maybe we are impatient but the last six months should have been the period in which we would have been bold enough to put up big ambitious projects that will see our import bill radically going down. We are fortunate enough to be a nation that has a lot of young people who can come up with innovative ideas on how to get our economy back on its feet. 

 The social distancing and economic cooling that we went through during the months of April and May were a necessary evil, especially considering the woeful unpreparedness of our public health sector. But as the throw jabs at each other each passing day, our MPs should not forget that there are economic consequences of locking people up over the long haul. We need to balance costs and benefits.Our legislatures should always bear in mind the level of stress that our ordinary folks who trade at the main mall, Gaborone Bus Rank, Makoro village or up north in Nata goes through during times like these. In the past when everyone else was helped they were left out in the cold to find their way back. What our policymakers and lawmakers tend to forget is that behind each of those small businesses be in Gaborone or other parts our country is an entrepreneur, often a family, that invested capital, work, hope, and a portion of their lives. Other things held constant; the SMEs are the engines of job creation in the future. Letting them fail in large numbers would have catastrophic consequences in our economy in both medium to long term. Our people must also adjust their behavior if we are to win against this virus and rebuild our economy. In the meantime, one can only make a humble submission to the government and companies operating trucks to consider providing decent accommodation to truck drivers. This would minimise the risk of transferring the virus from truck drivers to their families as some of them seem to be tempted to skip self-isolation after their return from South Africa. This would also mean a few lockdowns in the future hence room to rebuild the economy. The #Bottomline is that we need to balance between saving lives and the economy, because if we do not, depression of both the economy and the people will be the end of a nation we so much love – Botswana. 

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper

The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.