BY CHENAYI MUTAMBASERE (ECONOMIST)
For the majority of us, in countries heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, surviving transcends to not just avoiding the virus, but also surviving the conditions of the “new normal” from many perspectives. One school of thought is that what we must do is find our fulcrum being that point where the positive activities outweigh the negative ones enough for us to stay winning. An example of an activity for individuals would be avoiding toxic relationships during the pandemic because we need as much mental strength as we can get to survive.
That mental strength being our resilience in difficult times. It is in the same vein that governments, particularly for those in countries such as Zimbabwe that already have pre-existing endemic conditions, get rid of stresses in order to build their resilience and increase probability of surviving the adverse impact of Covid-19 pandemic.
Karl Max (not a common or favourite but allow me in this instance) is known to have said “The redeeming feature of war is that it puts a nation to the test…” War, or as in this case, crisis, passes supreme judgement upon systems that have outlived their vitality. The extent to which Zimbabwe survives/recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic will rely on its resilience. To be resilient is to eradicate socio-economic stresses that threaten economic development.
Government policy must seek to offload stresses in favour of activities that determine resilience. The next five years for Zimbabwe should focus on surviving in both the literal sense and the socio-economic sense. We must have a fiscal strategy that can help get us to the finish line, being that point where the pandemic is over and the optimum vaccine is free for all the world over. Like Noah, we must build a ship that can ride the storm. The time has come to be clearly apparent about our stresses and offload them without apology. Equally let’s find our resilience nexus and let every aspect of policy focus on these.
The Ministry of Finance must set out a clear strategy to get rid of the worst and commonly known stresses which exist in corruption, political reform, health sector reform, education reform amongst many others.
Corruption has long been that gaping hole in the pocket of the public purse. The same public purse is now over stretched due to Covid-19 resourcing. It is quite essential that a genuine clampdown on corruption is put in place. Not only should corruption cases be expedited in the way that the judicial system deals with such, they must be a swift way of seizing stolen assets and recompensing victims of corruption. To use an appropriate metaphor, being part of a corruption ring must be viewed upon as being as dangerous as catching Covid-19. The approach towards corruption must not be for the government alone but citizens should also not shy away from socially distancing themselves from corrupt situations or individuals known to be involved in such.
Corruption reduces a country’s ability to recover from crises as shown by the analysis of Mediterranean economies in the late 2000s which saw countries with higher corruption index taking a longer time to recover following the economic crisis. Corruption allows budgets that are set aside to achieve positive outcomes to be diverted for individual gain. More often than not, those budgets never recover. Further, corruption results in expropriation of funds which creates further shortages of money supply.
Without corruption Zimbabwean citizens would receive the benefit in full of their natural resources such as gold and diamond mining. Corruption must be rejected from the ground up from the relatively minor roadside bribery to the major contract deviations. Now is simply not the time to turn a blind eye to the cancer. Corruption must be dealt with swiftly, incisively and immediately.
Perhaps more unique to Zimbabwe, political reforms continue to be that thorn in our flesh. For as long as I can remember my maternal grandma was famous for quoting the statement “Politics is a dirty game” at every possible opportunity. At the age of five, this statement was much of an enigma to me. I imagined the dirt I spent all day cooking in tins or rolling around in and likening that to something that adults did made no sense to me at all. But fast forward thirty-five years later and politics to me now has that image. To me the most recent face of dirty politics in Zimbabwe is that image of Honourable of Joana Mamombe emerging from a hut in a far away village covered in mud, blood stains, human excretion etc. The world over, this image of politics in Zimbabwe has been shared and governments have called on the Zimbabwean government to redress the situation and investigate circumstances when politics seem so apparently dirty.
Zimbabwe’s lack of political reforms currently puts a handbrake on development. Until the day we have elections that are deemed to be truly free and fair, where young politicians are given open opportunities to participate in the political space, the country will continue to be perceived as a basket case by most. What happens is that FDIs continue to dwindle and the risk factor to lenders remains too high. Because of this, Zimbabwe will remain that lone ranger that no one wants to associate with in a fair and equitable manner. To be resilient is to be able to walk through as many doors as possible and in turn open our doors to as many as possible.
We need to attract the right local and international investors, but while we continue to play dirty an increase in investment flows into the country remains unachievable. A truly democratic space will serve all Zimbabweans well regardless of their party of choice. Political reform will extend to clear separation of duties between the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and the Ministry of Finance. It will also separate ministry involvement in some State-Owned Enterprises which should serve the needs of citizens first.
The education sector is the barometer for survival of any state mainly because of its majority shareholders who are the custodians of the next generation. Further there is a symbiotic mutual relationship between resilience and education. Education creates structures that allow innovation and en masse communication to take place during a crisis. Without education, innovation isn’t ad infinitum, moreover a lag in education will be a lag in innovation which in turn is a lag in economic recovery. The government must deliver a resilient education sector, which means as much as possible, every student is able to access education.
While digitalisation is somewhat progressed in Zimbabwe, the current data tariffs do not accommodate sustainable long-term use by individuals. The tariffs are geared more towards data access being for mostly infrequent recreational use. Government must work with network providers to find an optimum that increases accessibility. Local schools should in time be encouraged to find innovative ways to continue delivering a service safely to pupils who may not have access to the internet for online learning. Currently we are more or less one academic year behind as shown by the recent Grade7 results. Education should never cease to be accessible to all children of school going age. Education is both a key provider of services and a key consumer. This dichotomous impact on the economy warrants the government exerting itself to come up with a robust plan for this sector.
And so we save the “worst” for last – the Zimbabwean health sector has become the struggle within the struggle. Long before the world had known of Covid-19 Zimbabwe’s state hospitals were struggling to provide basic services to patients. Characterised by lack of equipment and underpaid staff the health sector has always been the country’s biggest stress factor. While some countries are looking to rebuild their health infrastructure to restore things to the way it was, for Zimbabwe, a plan is required to recover and reform the health sector. As things stand, access to health care for Covid-19 patients is either not meeting demand or non-existent in some areas. A complete overhaul of the health sector infrastructure is required so that healthcare staff are adequately remunerated to minimise brain drain and increase the number of staff available to report for duty. Moreover, the handling of healthcare financial management should be reviewed considering citizen-run trusts that have a clear segregation of duties from the Ministry of Health. Trusts that are responsible for the successful running of primary health centres, for example, would do a better job than the current arrangement. In spite of the importance of healthcare, it’s disheartening to note that this sector has not been immune to corrupt practices. As the impact of the pandemic deepens the idea of handouts from other nations even to meet health objectives is depleting. Therefore, it’s crucial that the health sector is moved towards a position of self-reliance.
The relatedness of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) to the present Covid-19 pandemic should serve to ensure that the government must not lose sight of the urgent need to establish a healthcare infrastructure that is able to treat NCDs locally and timely. If political reform and corruption are both addressed, it may be possible to invite health partnerships who can make equitable contributions to the sector for mutual benefit.
This article is by no means exhaustive, it merely points to the fact that we can’t begin to consider post-Covid-19 recovery ahead of building resilience. Inasmuch as consideration is made of Covid vaccines, the government must balance their focus to build socio-economic resilience so that both country and person survive the Covid-19 pandemic.
Chenayi Mutambasere* is a Zimbabwean Developmental Economist & UK Technology Architect based in the UK. These weekly New Perspectives articles are co-ordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant and past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society. – firstname.lastname@example.org or mobile +263 772 382 852.