Opening the Economy amidst COVID-19 anxieties: Welcoming the new normal!
On January 30, 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). This was followed by the March 11, 2020 declaration that the outbreak could be described as a pandemic due to its rapid spread across the globe.
While the direct impact of COVID-19 on morbidity and mortality is of huge concern, the number of deaths possibly resulting from its ripple effects of poverty, hunger and diseases could be far greater. It has been estimated that an additional half a billion people (8% of the global population) could be pushed into poverty and the number of people who are facing crisis levels of hunger, could increase by 130 million people.
The diversion of attention and resources from primary health care (including childhood immunizations), and other essential health services could lead to an increase in morbidity and mortality from diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, tuberculosis, malaria, HIV, pregnancy and childbirth complications, and malnutrition. Low and middle-income countries are likely to be hit hardest by the secondary impacts of COVID-19.
On March 24th, 2020, His Excellency the President Dr. Julius Maada Bio declared a public health emergency and on March 31, 2020 Sierra Leone confirmed its index case of COVID-19. As of yesterday 29th July 2020, the country had recorded 1803 confirmed cases and 67 deaths. Majority of these cases came from the Western Area Urban and rural districts where 828 and 223 cases have been reported respectively.
Post declaration of a state of emergency, the government put in place a National COVID-19 Emergency Operations Centre which was tasked to lead a coordinated multisectoral national response to COVID-19. It has also rolled out a number of nationwide emergency measures to reduce the risk of community transmission. These measures include total and inter district lockdowns, school closures, and curtailing of worship in faith centers.
Although Sierra Leone was among the last countries in the West African sub-region to record a case, it was among the earliest to implement the measures needed to contain the spread of the infection. Yes! We truly learnt lessons from the Ebola experience. Our proactive approaches continue to receive favourable mention globally. Going forward however, we are beginning to appreciate that COVID-19 is not Ebola. Covid-19 is unique in its serpiginous and surreptitious spread. It is not easy to tell who would go without symptoms and who would suffer severely and possibly die.
Ahem! It is become apparent that unless we find a vaccine or definite treatment soon, COVID-19 will be with us for a longer while.
In the words of Dr. David Nabarro, World Health Organisation special envoy for COVID-19, "The coronavirus is not going to go away so we must learn to live with it. We have all got to learn to live with this virus, to do our business with this virus in our presence, to have social relations with this virus in our presence "
Now the BIG question is: At what point and under what conditions do we relax the restrictions and return to some semblance of normalcy? Fact is the imposed restrictions have severe economic consequences for fragile economies. Our technocrats at the Ministry of Finance make us to understand that in the best-case scenario the projected GDP growth for Sierra Leone would reduce from 4.2 percent to 3.8 percent. God forbid, but in the worst-case scenario, the country could actually record negative growth. Either way, a substantial number of our fellow citizens will be pushed into extreme poverty.
On Friday 24th July 2020 parliament approved the 2020 Financial Year Supplementary Government Budget dubbed 'Saving Lives and livelihoods' tabled by the Honourable Minister of Finance, Jacob Jusu Saffa. According to Minister Saffa, the COVID-19 outbreak is threatening to reverse the Government gains in stabilizing the economy and hard-won economic recovery of the past twenty-four months. Minister Saffa said that whilst the COVID-19 containment measures were to save lives; their implementation had adverse consequences on economic activities particularly in the services sector which is the second largest sector of our economy. He maintained that the hardest hit sectors have been trading, tourism, and transportation, agriculture, fisheries, and manufacturing. The uncertainties created by COVID-19 is also delaying the inflow of foreign direct investment into the economy.
Fellow citizens, we appear to be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Government has a dire need to generate revenue to sustain the payment of salaries and provision of essential services. How does it do this when the economy is in restrictive mode and we are aren't working to generate the needed revenue? Definitely, an opening up of the economy is inevitable to guarantee our very survival.
The announcement of the opening of the Freetown/Lungi International Airport is therefore not entirely unexpected. The challenge is doing so while keeping a close attention to its possible impact of the COVID-19 situation in the country. The announcement of detailed measures on how COVID-19 protocols will be implemented along with the training of staff is welcome news. There has also been announcement of the opening of schools. This again is not unexpected, albeit inevitable. We are going to normalise within a new normal!
The new normal calls for individual responsibility to ensure collective safety. Going forward, social distancing, the wearing of face masks and hand washing should be seen as a normal. As experts point to the contrasting experience of Sweden vis-a-vis its Nordic neighbours, we find assurance that these COVID-19 preventive protocols work and should be adhered to.
The specific preventive measures that will be put in place as we open up our economy will need to be enforced. Individuals should cooperate by being self-disciplined and submitting to enforcing authorities. The world is in uncharted territories. No one individual, groups, institution or countries have answers to the many questions COVID-19 presents. In this new normal, we will join the rest of the world to learn by doing!!
Lonta ka da Bai! For love of Mama Sierra Leone.
Yeama Sarah Thompson