Fight hunger, or fight corona… which comes first?

By Ray Mawerera

All talk of “the time after COVID-19” may be redundant in the face of fool-proof attempts to fight it. Backing down in the face of public pressure to “restore normalcy” knowing full well that thing is still out there is a debate that is centre-stage almost all around the world.

There is the hunger argument. It is a very realistic and present argument, difficult to counter. People who live a life of hustle and know no other way of surviving unemployment and harsh economic conditions are bearing the brunt of lockdown. It was reported in Zimbabwe that, in remote Gokwe, a couple of wailing women approached the rural authority asking for solutions to their hunger. They survive on selling wares as public vendors, and lockdown had killed off their enterprise.

An online news publication, in an article titled “Urbanites hit hard by lockdown extension”, focused on the plight of an urban transport service provider whose business had literally stopped and his family was now down to one meal a day as this was their only source of income.

“We survive from hand to mouth,” became the swan song for many such Zimbabweans, particularly in the urban areas. They wanted a government solution fast, otherwise they would violate the lockdown regulations. In response, Zimbabwe allowed a partial relaxation of the lockdown under very strict conditions.

These conditions were promptly violated.

On the first day of the relaxation, The Sunday Mail tweeted a picture of shoppers in Harare who wore masks as required to enter a supermarket but took them off once inside. In a sign of camaraderie, those with masks shared them with those without, to allow them to also go into the shop. Turns out the same was happening elsewhere around the country. Inspired by the easing of restrictions, enterprising vendors made roaring trade selling handmade masks, with customers sampling them by trying them on one after another until they settled on the one that they really liked.

Did I hear someone say, “Public awareness”?

It led one social media observer to remark: “At this rate, if we don’t die of coronavirus in the next few weeks, then that virus is not in this country!”

It seems to have been made in jest, but it is a stark reminder of the current reality. A lack of appreciation of the grave threat posed by the pandemic has been evident ever since news of it started coming through. There are cultural barriers and economic considerations that dull the senses to believe this “thing” is alien to these parts, even in the face of some positive cases and a few deaths. And it is, in fact, the fact that there are “only a few deaths” locally so far that makes the situation worse.

The focus, as illustrated by the online news article, is more on the economic impact than the real and present possibility of huge losses of life. The Zimbabwe president remarked that, with the pandemic it was possible to convene an all-stakeholder meeting to discuss how to reboot the economy but “I’ve never heard of a conference to discuss how to resuscitate the dead”. He was expressing his views on the hunger versus health debate, shortly before he extended the lockdown.

Let me share a short conversation I had with a colleague, before citizens invaded the cities in droves following the announcement of relaxed conditions for the extended lockdown.

Me: Actually I think …that this partial lifting of lockdown may cause problems… numbers are only now starting to spike and with winter almost here…

Him: You could be right. But then again hanzi nzara yabata (trans: they say the hunger has hit us badly).

Me: So which do you prefer? Dying of hunger, or fighting a virus that can be defeated by simple methods (even) though it kills?

Him: Chicken and egg. It’s tough.

Is it?

The fascinating thing is that the challenges are similar, globally. Nonplussed governments in both highly developed and least developed countries have courted the ire of citizens by making pronouncements that are deemed either unclear, contradictory or inadequate and slow.

In the United States of America, a global superpower to boot, the government was criticised for being slow to react, despite warnings from health experts and medical scientists from as far back as 2016 about the high probability of such a pandemic occurring. When asked by David Quammen of the New Yorker why most countries appeared unready especially in light of previous warnings with the SARS, MERS and Ebola epidemics, Ali S. Khan, a medical expert formerly with the Centres for Disease Control, said without mincing his words: “This is about lack of imagination.” (New Yorker, 4 May 2020)

In his view, they only needed to look at how countries like South Korea were handling the crisis, and take lessons from there.

Quammen paraphrased: “Scientists could describe the risk, public health officials could chart a response, but bureaucrats and national leadership failed to comprehend how bad the outbreak could be.”

He added that there was a high level of lack of appreciation “to understand the gravity and immediacy of pandemic threats”.

The real hunger will particularly hit those countries badly that do not have fail-safe mechanisms and resources to fight an enemy as enigmatic as this current coronavirus strain. This was highlighted in a Bloomberg article on 21 April which posited that African businesses could suffer from lockdowns as the continent does not have the means to negate the economic impact of Covid-19. Bloomberg quoted a McKinsey and Company research survey that suggested that some 100 million informal jobs were at risk. That’s a huge statistic, considering that most jobs on the continent are informal and the impact affects millions of livelihoods further down the chain.

The bottom line is that things will never be the same again and we are having to learn how to do things differently. Online activities may become the new normal as we start to get used to new habits. As I write, Reuters has just tweeted the story of a Chinese couple that exchanged vows in a two-hour ceremony streamed live for family and friends, with numbers of viewers rising like a shooting star past the 500,000 mark!

The economic costs when they are counted post-Covid will no doubt be tremendous. The time for business to rethink and re-strategise is now. Are there any opportunities arising out of this crisis? Being locked down in our homes every day is teaching us new things we didn’t know, or had forgotten, about ourselves. Every one of us will need to put our thinking caps on and conjure up futuristic scenarios that spawn creative and dynamic solutions.

As someone said, when things change, innovate! But to do that, we need people, healthy people: that asset that can never be replaced. The clamour for complete suspension of lockdown on the basis that the people are going hungry needs to be tampered with the realistic acceptance that, while excruciating and painful, the coronavirus must not continue being given a chance to find human hosts. It is an unwelcome visitor.