Mahmud Tim Kargbo: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 2 August 2020:
With an unbelievable 5.4 percent recovered GDP in 2019, which was further projected to grow by 4.2 percent in 2020 but now expected to decline to 3.1 percent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sierra Leone’s policymakers need a new roadmap for navigating the challenge of managing the pandemic and supporting the economy. Setting criteria and targets for action can help.
We are now living with an economic downturn whose scope and magnitude is staggering. Governments around the world, including the Government of Sierra Leone, face a difficult balancing act of managing a serious public health crisis without causing economic and social devastation.
Therefore, what is needed in Sierra Leone is a policy roadmap that sets clear, evidence-based targets to align economic policy decisions to the varying epidemiology of COVID-19.
Dealing with COVID-19 is as much an economic challenge as a health hazard. The economic crisis faced in Sierra Leone has drawn comparisons to the Great Depression, the consequences of which were mass poverty, economic devastation and, at least indirectly, the rise of fascism in Europe and the Second World War.
One way the Bio administration can appreciate the magnitude of the economic and social costs now at stake is to consider the amount of grants and loans secured by his Finance Minister Saffa (Photo) proved to have the ability to think clearly and rapidly under pressure and uncertainty to secure such loans and grants in the midst of the pandemic and use the funds wisely.
The speed and size of these loans and grants are as shocking as the suffering caused by the covid pandemic.
Of course, beyond these figures, the impacts of lockdown policies extend to a multitude of other areas, ranging from school closures, travel restrictions, social distancing measures on households, to the mental health of individuals confined to their homes.
Arguably, the main reason Finance Minister JJ Saffa is getting these huge loans and grants is to prevent the current economic situation not to turn into a severe, long-lasting social and economic disaster for Sierra Leoneans.
There are good reasons to be confident that, informed by past mistakes, the government’s policy response to any severe economic downturn caused by the pandemic, will be better and swifter today.
However, the ongoing virulence of the current pandemic may prevent the policy reaction being as swift and as positive as it ideally could be. Until an effective vaccine becomes available, we will have to learn to live and operate with the virus – keeping its spread under control in a way that is sustainable.
To that end, it is imperative that government policies complement each other in addressing simultaneously – both the public health crisis and the economic impacts.
The road to economic recovery will require finding the balance between keeping the economy and society going, while also keeping the spread of the coronavirus under control. This is a major challenge but there are ways and means of achieving it.
With the odd example of using COVID-19 funds to buy luxurious SUVs for public officials, I argue that the key to charting a course that saves lives and avert an economic disaster is for Sierra Leone’s policy makers to set a transparent and consistent objective for managing this crisis as opposed to an ex-poste COVID-19 2020 Expenditure Management approved supplementary budget.
In particular, if eradication isn’t the goal for the developed world, then policy must allow for the virus to remain present in the population – but at such a level that public health catastrophes, like that experienced in New York City or Italy’s Lombardy region earlier in the year, are averted.
Real time audit will prevent further corruption and mismanagement of COVID-19 funds, save money, and ensure that the country never get to a point where the healthcare system is overwhelmed due to lack of funds.
A key benefit of using real time audit is that it provides an explicit, unambiguous criterion for evaluating the merits of various expenditures in the pandemic, and for communicating the rationale behind these expenditures to the general public.
Pandemics, by their very nature, involve phases of exponential growth in infection – one individual may infect 10, these 10 then infect 100, these infect 1,000, and so on. Managing the dynamics of a dangerous pandemic such as COVID-19 isn’t a familiar or comfortable experience for economists and policy makers. But neither is it a comfortable experience for epidemiologist to entertain the idea of tolerating some level of spread for a deadly disease. This is uncharted territory for all.
Given the stakes, we need to find our path fast, and learn on the go. This crisis is different from any other in living memory. It requires adaptive thinking that accounts for complex trade-offs between managing the pandemic and managing economic and social well-being.