OPINION: STOP COVID OR SAVE THE ECONOMY? WE CAN DO BOTH.
Is the coronavirus pandemic a severe once-in-a-lifetime challenge? Yes. Is economic suicide the cure? No.
Let me preface this piece by saying I’m not a doctor, nor aprofessional on communicable diseases—I’m a former school teacher and a small business owner now—so I cannot scientifically speak to when or how the executive should begin safely reopening The Gambian economy. Yet I remain perplexed by anybody trying to portray all leaders who want to resurrect the economy as favoring money over life.
In order to conquer the disease we must resume Gambia’s economic engine — and we must do so now. Continuing this fear-based economic shutdown is a blunder that will trouble Gambia for years. The risk of a long-term global economic depression is rapidly rising.
It was only a few months ago that Gambia’s economy was beginning to pick up. And then the coronavirus hit us. In short order, fear and panic consumed our politicians, media and public. Within weeks, they started endless state of public emergencies without proper administration of the rules.
Now our government started a new experiment, economic shutdown, and a perilous one at that. And it is uncertain it will work. Furthermore, do Gambians understand that most of us will ultimately be exposed to this virus anyway? The goal is only to “flatten the curve,” meaning slow the spread so our healthcare system can keep up. An actual vaccine is at least a year off.
I don’t doubt the seriousness of the pandemic. However, I can’t help but deliberate on the cost of this economic shutdown, based on the fact that tens of thousands of livelihoods are in the midst of being eliminated due to hunger. Will all — or any — of these thousandssoon-to-be-gone economic buoyancy return? It’s unlikely.
After quite a few weeks, entire industries are by now on the brink of collapse —travel businesses, hotels, restaurants, bars, and so on. Unemployment rises to a record — and this is only the starting.
Another month of this and our economy will be in ruins. And, yet, leadership is saying all non-food outlets shall remain closed. Furthermore, will they do a second economic shutdown during Hamattan, when the virus is likely to make a comeback?
The Government Rice stimulus package (more debt for our children and grandchildren) to combat this self-imposed economic freeze-up is chump change equated to the economic devastation underway. Note that Gambia’s national debt is on the rise, and our leaders will be back before you know it calling for more debt to fight the pandemic. Think about it — a bag of rice or two is about a month ration for an average Gambian family— a mere band-aid in view of the carnage.
Small businesses are closed and the government did not unveil any plan of bailing them out, despite what the politicians say. And small businesses are the lifeblood of Gambia’s economy — over 99% of all Gambian firms are small businesses, employ many workers, and account for a huge sum of the country’s economic activity.
What happens to the thousands of small businesses that will fail because of this government economic-shutdown experiment — most importantly, what happens to their employees and families?
This madness needs to end before it’s too late. This is real life — not a Hollywood pandemic movie. Our economy must be reignited, and we must get back to work and school now — with new health guidelines, as well as large financial fines for those who go to work or school sick and endanger others. Stringent health rules with requirements for masks and social distancing should be kept in place until the threat passes, and identifiable hotspot locations should remain under lockdown.
The President should have given consideration to this fight by slowing the spread of the virus and educated Gambians about the need for social distancing. Then, simultaneously, he should havecalled for all healthy Gambians to get back to work and school to reignite our economic engine for the national good, albeit with a host of new health-safety precautions in place.
The President could then launch a “stage two” to directly protect the most vulnerable parts of our population from the virus — meaning the elderly, chronically ill, and homeless. Although most of our vulnerable people are of retirement age, we have astoundingly been implementing a strategy that is deliberately killing off the jobs of our working-age people.
Has anyone noticed that Senegal, our neighbors who implemented this strategy first and failed and is now working to get their economy up and running? Even though they have stronger economy, higher cases and death than us.
Furthermore, Chinese companies (not their government) have created “disinfectant tunnels,” in which a person walks through an arch and is sprayed with disinfectant mist from all sides. This is far better than shutting down your economy. Where is the innovation Gambians are known for?
Government is yet again proving itself to be more of a problem, than a solution. Thus far, our government’s reaction has been fear-based by ordering Gambians to stay home and shelter in place, effectively shutting down our entire economy. The correct response is the exact opposite.
The typical African spirit is geared to solve problems, provide answers to questions, and deliver supply where demand exists. We should be encouraging our free-market economy to roar now like never before. By doing so, we will rapidly see the arrival of vaccines, treatments and therapeutics; testing kits aplenty; new and creative disinfecting mechanisms; personal protective equipment including masks, gloves, ventilators; and ICU beds en masse; as well as every other needed supply, including enough rice for those who still wish to hoard.
None of this can happen when we are ordered to stay home, though. Simply put, government doesn’t make even one of these needed products — our free-market economy does.
There are far better ways of fighting this pandemic — and reigniting our fragile economic engine is the key to doing so. If President Barrow succeeds in restarting our engine, we will promptly defeat the coronavirus and soon again have a booming economy with growing employment. To not do so will be economic suicide.
By Alhagi Touray.