Dr. Johnathan S. Bangura (PhD): Sierra Leone Telegraph: 28 March 2020:
There is a common sense case for a Diaspora Trust Fund to be established, as an economic recovery measure, for Sierra Leone to come out of this crisis even stronger. This week, we have seen many African leaders declaring potential lockdown and enforcement measures to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic.
This includes our own Sierra Leone Government declaring a state of emergency, and the closure of borders including the banning of all regional and international flights in and out of the country; and changing the outlook of the economy and the country from struggling to an out-right negative, reflecting an extremely weak and sluggish operating environment for Sierra Leone.
What to expect
It is obvious that the counter measures put in place by the government to prevent the spread of coronavirus Covid-19 in Sierra Leone will further deteriorate the sluggish domestic economy, with negative business sentiments and trade uncertainty clouding growth prospects. Sierra Leone has high public debts and its GDP growth will remain insufficient to boost per capita income levels or increase economic resilience.
The coronavirus Covid-19 mitigation will continue to engender a weakening operating condition in the country and pressuring governments’ credit quality, and set to have a knock-on effect on the overall economy through reduced business generation, slower credit growth and rising asset. These are expected to result in doubled-down negative outlook on the sovereign ratings of the Sierra Leone economy, even though the virus did take some time before it surfaced in the country.
Also, the well-connected individual citizens and residents, including entrepreneurs and businesses benefitting from government support uplift, and the financial institutions – especially banks with ratings capped at the sovereign level because of heavy exposure to government debt, face pressure too.
Asset risk is also high as a result of rising government arrears, high loan concentrations, adverse borrower legal frameworks, and still-evolving risk management and irrational supervision capabilities.
Therefore, it is highly unlikely the government will be able to manage the macro-driven impact of the virus mitigation and reverse a subdued economy, specifically – the inability to address fiscal pressures and severe weaknesses throughout the economy that’s also affecting investor sentiments.
If all of the predictions and modelling for COVID-19 take hold in Sierra Leone, this pandemic disease could spread beyond the control of the country where the healthcare system is underfunded and understaffed. There are only between four and eight nurses for every 10,000 inhabitants in the country.
However, in one of the world’s richest countries, Norway, there are 180 nurses for every 10,000 inhabitants. This makes the healthcare system in Sierra Leone extremely vulnerable and unprepared for such a virus and thus crying for an immediate help from the Sierra Leone diaspora community to provide assistance to mitigate the socio-economic impact on the country and its inhabitants of about 7 million.
In Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Diaspora Trust Fund (EDTF) was launched on 22 October 2018, in a response to their Prime Minister, H.E. Abiy Ahmed’s call for $1 a day by the diaspora to help support critically needed social projects in the country. This is an initiative that can be replicated in Sierra Leone; working with the diaspora to set up a Sierra Leone Diaspora Trust Fund (SLDTF) which will allow people of good will to donate or contribute money as minimum as $1 a day which can be used towards supporting citizens and residents of Sierra Leone with basic needs, and also to support the government in the response against Covid-19.
Such Sierra Leone Diaspora Trust Fund (SLDTF) can be launched effortlessly by well-meaning diaspora Sierra Leoneans in partnership with International development partners, that calls for a donation or contribution of $1 a day by all persons of Sierra Leonean descent in the diaspora to help support critically needed services, and provide social safety-net to help home based Sierra Leoneans weather the economic impact and fallout from the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
This is an initiative that should aim to unite Sierra Leoneans across the world – working together as diaspora residents and community to support our vulnerable country; for people of Sierra Leone descent across the world to unite to support and advise the government and to create immediate short-term innovative solutions starting with the sourcing and distribution of essential food, medical equipment, medicines and other goods to the most vulnerable citizens in Sierra Leone; and a long-term effort to put in place economic recovery measures for the country to come out of this crisis even stronger.
In Sierra Leone, there should be a targeted campaign towards raising awareness about the virus. This campaign should be at the heart of the work of the Sierra Leone journalists, as they play a vital role in shaping the narrative in a local context. How can people practice social distancing, self-isolation and be quarantined in Sierra Leone?
How can you practice social distance in a busy marketplace in the heart of Freetown or self-isolate when you live in a small space with your family and with friends of your family? The country must look beyond the measures that have been urged by WHO, in order to find local solutions to prevent the spread of the virus.
In an already bleeding economy, this challenge might be catastrophic. A lockdown is asking the population to stay at home in order to prevent being infected by the virus and to prevent its spread. However, it is also asking the majority of the population to stay at home with limited or no food and water security.
This is very challenging as these are necessities, and the spread of the virus will continue unless these major issues are addressed. It is significant for not only the current government and administration of H.E. Julius Maada Bio, but also the small but extremely influential private sector in the country, together with bilateral and multilateral development partners and ALL people of Sierra Leonean descent in the diaspora to look towards finding solutions for the most vulnerable.
Whilst analyzing the spread of the virus, it is important to note that the world has seen that no person is immune to it. However, as more governments are enforcing measures to keep their population at home, it is vital to also look at innovative solutions in order to make it possible for vulnerable populations in Sierra Leone to actually survive in these new conditions.
As proven through various investments in Sierra Leone, the private sector plays a major role in the country’s development. This includes corporations but also individuals. According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Sierra Leone has an abundance of natural wealth, including a multitude of minerals such as gold, diamonds, Rutile, Bauxite, Iron Ore, etc., and as well as excellent climate to grow and produce coffee, Cacao, Palm oil, Piassava, Tea, and timber. However, these resources have failed to benefit the people of the country – often referred to as one of the “poorest countries in the world”.
Although the country is rich in terms of its resources, it remains very poor, and the challenge for this nation will be to limit the virus’ spread whilst at the same time ensuring that the population have access to the basics, such as food and water.
Protecting the most vulnerable in Sierra Leone
Protecting Sierra Leone’s vulnerable urban and rural poor, millions of whom live in squalid conditions with limited or no access to sanitation or healthcare, and where the burden of infectious diseases is already great, must be the immediate concern of the government, the private sector, bilateral and multilateral development partners, and ALL people of Sierra Leonean descent in the diaspora to provide means to mitigate the impact of the virus on Sierra Leoneans in urban areas that have no ready access to places to wash their hands – a crucial weapon against the spread of the coronavirus, and the majority of rural Sierra Leoneans who also lack basic handwashing facilities.
Therefore, government policymakers, working with international donors and the aid community, must prioritize the provision of soap and other sanitation essentials in a bid to ensure that the virus does not take hold in poor urban and rural communities.
While the interaction between Ebola – which suppresses the immune system of Sierra Leoneans who survived the epidemic – and coronavirus, remains largely unknown, government policymakers must ensure that survivors continue to have access to anti-Ebola therapeutic medicines. Efforts to combat deadly malaria and tuberculosis must not be allowed to fall by the wayside either, as focus shifts to the new coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic.
But Unfortunately, extensive economic damage is already assured. To prevent a financial crisis turning into a terrifying health crisis, Sierra Leone and its partners must act now.
A call for innovative solutions
It is imperative that the government works closely with the private sector that includes domestic local corporates, bilateral and multilateral development partners and ALL people of Sierra Leone descent in the diaspora in order to reduce and cap the prices of necessities. These need to be managed strictly and sanctions must be enforced if not followed.
Furthermore, the government must urgently work with companies within the country to increase the production of hand soap and hand sanitizers locally. Along with the production, measures must be taken to ensure that these products can reach the ones who are unable to pay for them, and that’s where the diaspora of all people of Sierra Leonean descent living in countries that are currently in lockdown can play a major role in the fight against COVID-19 in Sierra Leone. They have a deepened understanding of the measures that their respective countries like United States, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Canada, Australia, and Asia-Pacific Countries have been forced to take, and also understand the local context in Sierra Leone.
The words “State of Emergency” raise great concerns in Sierra Leone where the majority of the population is forced to go out every day in order to make ends meet. In other parts of the world, we have seen governments play a significant role in ensuring the economic safety of its population and working hard towards implementing innovative initiatives in order to reassure the population that “everything will be okay”.
An example is in Norway, where on 15th March, 2020, the Prime Minister announced that a $10bn fund would be created to support SMEs and large companies to survive the country’s worst economic downturn in years; and today the United States Congress passed the largest main-street stimulus package of $2 Trillion dollars to support individual American citizens, small businesses and large companies to survive the economic impact and downturn in the broader economy as a result of the mitigation efforts by all levels of Federal States and municipal government to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.
About the author
Dr. Johnathan P. S. Bangura (PhD), is an Economist and Banking and Finance Executive, resident in New York, USA.