Strategic, safe exit needed

SOUTH African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced last week that his country will begin to lift the coronavirus lockdown restrictions from tomorrow due to concerns raised on their impact on jobs and the economy.

Editor’s Memo

Faith Zaba

Ramaphosa said from May 1, some businesses can re-open in a phased manner, but most workers must continue staying at home, while public gatherings remain banned. Movement between provinces and international travel also remains severely restricted.

The mining sector is set to re-open, while shops and supermarkets can sell a wider range of goods, including cigarettes. Alcohol remains banned. In addition, some schools will re-open, with class sizes dramatically reduced.

South Africa is one of the countries that have introduced some of the most severe lockdown restrictions in the world as part of the government’s efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19.

While acknowledging that “our people need to eat. They need to earn a living”, Ramaphosa developed a strategy to slowly revive economic activity, whereby the country, provinces, districts and metros will be classified on a five-level risk scale that determines what restrictions will be in place at any given time.
South Africa will be moved from level five, the highest risk category, to level four tomorrow.

“This approach is guided by the advice from scientists who have advised that an abrupt and uncontrolled lifting of restrictions could cause a massive resurgence in infections,” Ramaphosa said, two days after unveiling a R500 billion (US$26,2 billion) support package to deal with the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The South African leader also presented a map to illustrate the point that the government’s response can be as precise and focussed as possible. The country has close to 5 000 confirmed cases, of which over 2 000 have recovered and 93 died.

Zimbabwe also needs a Covid-19 exit strategy. The two-week lockdown extension ends on Sunday and it is not clear whether President Emmerson Mnangagwa will extend the restrictions. Like Ramaphosa, Mnangagwa is also under pressure to lift the restrictions from business, who have raised concerns about lockdown’s impact on jobs and the economy.

As South Africa’s Covid-19 risk-adjusted strategy, Zimbabwe needs a scientifically-based decision to inform it on whether to relax or tighten the restrictions.
The five stages, as outlined by Ramaphosa, are measured at all administrative levels and the strategy is well-coordinated, with each industrial and service sector knowing exactly how to adjust when a certain level is reached on the scales.

They did not plunge into it without taking into account the risk factors.The opposite is true for Zimbabwe. There is no evidence of similar thinking and planning. We do not even have a stimulus package. There is not enough testing to inform a scientifically-based exit strategy based on changing Covid-19 escalation risk profile, segmented into specific geographical areas and the systematic effects on the whole economic and social ecosystem, backed by mathematical modelling. These are not possible currently without the adequate key input variables that need careful measurement.

Only 453 tests had as of Tuesday been conducted countrywide, compared to South Africa’s 200 000 tests to date. In Zimbabwe, 32 people have tested positive to Covid-19 and four have died, while South Africa has close to 5 000 infections and 93 deaths.

Instead of the current status quo where the taskforce is replete with politicians, government needs to bring in technocrats, who should include senior doctors, medical researchers, scientists and mathematicians.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. They just need to look across the Limpopo River and benchmark with their counterparts and adapt the lessons and craft a contextualised model.

Zimbabwe is now recording community infections. The cases of people in rural Murehwa and Mhondoro testing positive to the virus is an indication the actual numbers of infections could be much higher than has been recorded. It is causing panic and distress that if Mnangagwa abruptly ends the lockdown, infections could spike as happened in Ghana.

Ghana recorded 271 new cases of Covid-19 within 24 hours, a week after lifting the lockdown in Accra and Kumasi.

Let us not be hasty in our decision to lift the restrictions. Instead we should be scientific and systematic as we craft a Covid-19 exit strategy.