Andrew Keili: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 19 March 2020:
Hold your horses and spare me a second to explain! This is not an SLPP vs APC thing. Obviously APC did not cause Ebola neither did SLPP Corona. Both scourges merely happened under their watch.
The prayer of all Sierra Leoneans is that we will be spared from having the Corona virus disease in our midst, even though it continues to ravage most parts of the world and our immediate neighbourhood. Even under the best of circumstances that it doesn’t, we will feel its unsavoury economic impacts for quite some time.
Truth be told, the government’s handling of the situation thus far has been commendable; President Bio and his government are not oblivious of the untimely preparations for Ebola and the many missed opportunities we had of nipping things in the bud. They are also mindful of the eventual successes in fighting the scourge and of the economic problems wrought by Ebola.
The actions by the Health Ministry and the President’s decision to make the management of the CORVID 19 problem in Sierra Leone very inclusive by going across the political aisle and inviting people with experience in managing the Ebola crisis to work with his team is commendable.
The government’s communication of information and initial planning measures have been on point, even though a few glitches with quarantining need to be ironed out. We have undoubtedly learnt from the Ebola crisis.
Whatever problems we may have as a nation of keeping to the law, merely succeeding to keep most of the 1.5 million households at home during Ebola was a success in itself, together with adhering to many of the edicts meted out to all during the crisis for the common good. Barring few aberrations, people complied and willingly they did. There were hardly any reports of high handedness by security forces.
The economic consequences of this new war – whether or not the virus breaches our shores are bound to be with us for quite a while. After all, we live in a global economy. Current estimates indicate the Corona virus disease will reduce the average GDP of African countries this year from the projected 3.2 percent to 1.8 percent, with oil exporters hit the most.
Health spending is projected to increase by $10.6 billion. Studies have indicated it will have an effect on trade – African countries trade with China and the rest of the world affected by this disease. It will also have an inimical effect on remittances and tourism. On the investment front, we will have to contend with capital flight and domestic financial tightening. Fiscal stimuli will be required for many economies but countries will be hard pressed to get what is required.
During the Ebola crisis we saw how food prices escalated tremendously. In Kenema and Kailahun, food prices escalated in some case as much as 40 percent for basic food items. Coupled with the restriction in commercial activities, life became very difficult. Receipts from the NRA in terms of taxes and duties dropped tremendously. Corporate institutions scaled down operations. Commercial activities in quarantined areas were at a minimum and many SMEs were affected.
Halting commercial transactions and the movement of goods to and from quarantined areas had significant economic effects that were profound and long-term and reached well beyond the quarantined areas. As modern business practice relied on such supply chains, shortages of food, fuel, essential personnel, and social services became the norm.
Schools were on holidays for a long time. This undoubtedly set back the educational process for our children. Fewer students eventually passed external exams. Gains made in decreasing the school “drop-out” rate among students, especially female students were lost as teenage pregnancy became rampant.
Even the airlines deserted us, going against the advice of the WHO that it was better to keep things as normal, as stopping flights would have debilitating effects on the affected countries as it would be difficult to get badly needed medical and food supplies into the country as well as personnel from international organizations to help fight the disease. Only SN Brussels continued to ply the Sierra Leone route.
The hotel and tourism industry was badly hit with devastating consequences for the economy. Nearly all areas of the formal economy were affected. Some lucky workers were sent home on pay. Others were laid off and some put on partial pay. Businesses fared badly. Those that took loans for expansion projects ran to the Banks to put a hold on loan repayments but the Banks themselves were hurting.
Sierra Leone’s prospects before the Ebola crisis were bright, with the economy expected to grow by some 14 percent during the year of the outbreak, almost three times faster than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. The mainstay of the economy, the mining industry went into the doldrums. London Mining and African Minerals had their shares fall to unprecedented levels.
Some mining companies at preproduction stages put a hold on their operations and even operational ones became apprehensive about their future. Operational costs increased because of so many factors.
I wrote an article in this column at that time in which I described the Agriculture and health systems thus: “Agriculture, which accounts for some 45% of the GDP and which engages a preponderant part of the rural population is also in the doldrums. One agricultural Officer observed: ‘the disease has killed farmers on cocoa and peanut plantations and rice farms, leaving the crops to rot’.
“Our health system which was weak before the Ebola outbreak is now breaking at the seams. Sierra Leone has only one physician for 45,000 people. These and the nursing and other medical staff are being severely tested by this disease to which many have succumbed. Reputable private clinics have closed down for fear of unwarranted infections to their staff. Memuna Forna writing in Politico says ‘Our Public health system is inadequate at the best of times, and the huge financial and infrastructural demands imposed upon it by Ebola have taken resources away from other essential services such as maternal and child health and routine vaccinations leaving them to emerge as potential health problems further down the line.’ These are indeed difficult times.”
The article also described the effect of the sub-regional economies: “One report claims the disease threatens to cripple three economies with a combined gross domestic product of about $13 billion. One realization that is setting in is that when push comes to shove, we should not be surprised if we are left in the lurch to fight our own battle.”
These were indeed difficult times for Sierra Leone and we continued reeling from the economic effects of the Ebola crisis for a long time. Fast forward to this new corona crisis. Already, even without the disease reaching us, SN Brussels and Air Maroc have stopped their operations on the Sierra Leone route.
We have started feeling the effects on the tourism industry. Hotels are now going empty. With the current economic problems facing advanced economies, many of the investments anticipated by government will be at best tenuous. The domestic private sector, which has been hurting before the onset of the current crisis is gripping its seat very hard, not knowing what fate will befall it.
Even when all of this eventually ends the effect will be felt in all sectors of our economy for a long time to come. God forbid that it reaches us, but if it does, rigid social distancing requirements will seriously affect social and economic life as we know it. Our health system will be severely tested and the government’s plans for the economy will go awry as it tries to meet unbudgeted needs. Many of the aforementioned problems during the Ebola crisis will threaten to raise their ugly heads. We hope it does not get to this.
Someone has suggested we should have a bipartisan Economic Resuscitation Committee that will aggressively work on a strategy(s) for our economy. No excuses at all in being “a prophet of doom and gloom”. If dwelling on the negative jolts us to get into action, all the better.
Notwithstanding the difficulties, we should not just fold our arms in despair. That is why we should all join the government in fighting this scourge so that we do not have to count the costs the same way we did with Ebola.
As already mentioned, the President’s initial inclination to fight this war in an inclusive bipartisan way is commendable. This is not a time for postulating but suffice it to say that we cannot continue with things as usual. We must be careful not to politicise the war.
Some mistakes were made during the Ebola crisis in this direction. One report for example showed the distribution of Ebola funds to medical teams in various Districts which indicated the main epicentre Districts, Kailahun and Kenema being apportioned slightly less funds than other Districts. In fact Koinadugu, which at that time had no case of Ebola was apportioned more funds. Several people expressed their disgust and disbelief at such a skewed and irrational distribution pattern.
We cannot depend on external help solely to bail us out. This time, it will be more difficult to come by as even advanced countries are hurting. Whatever we raise as funds to go towards this crisis must be jealously guarded as charlatans lurk in the dark to exploit the situation.
The government should do all in its power through the various institutions and bodies involved in this crisis to build the confidence needed and prove that this Corona fight will be fought with diligence and forthrightness.
The Health Ministry should, unlike during the Ebola crisis come out of this smelling good. Surely, with political will we can give a good stewardship of how funds are spent and provide the rationale for the various expenditures to the public. This is surely not asking for too much.
APC did not cause Ebola, neither did SLPP Corona. We have seen how a health pandemic is not discriminatory. Corona affects both rich and poor nations, the rich and the poor in society. It has no political colour.
It behoves us therefore as a poor country that reels from its effect to fight this new fight with all our might together. Ponder my thoughts.