Pandemic opens door to new dawn, let’s not miss the promising chance


Hotel workers in Naivasha have their samples collected for Covid-19 testing by the Nakuru County before they reopen their businesses. [Antony Gitonga, Standard]

Covid-19 has hit the global economy in an unprecedented way. Comparable to the great depression and worse than the global financial crisis, its impact on the world economy is monumental. Whereas the global financial crisis had the US as the epicenter and spread to Europe and Asia, leaving Africa nearly unscathed, Covid-19 has the power to toss the epicenter from one part of the world to the other - Asia, Europe, America. I think Africa will be next. The worst is still to come... and soon.

The world leadership is in limbo, and Covid-19 pandemic could not have happened at a worse time. Since World War II until some 20 years ago, the United Nations ruled the world. That is no longer the case. G7 and G20, which are the largest world economies, have taken over, defining the world’s common good, as witnessed recently on March 26 when the G20 Summit invited the UN and World Health Organisation (WHO) to their forum to discuss about Covid-19.

Providing direction

Unfortunately, these world economies are incapable of providing direction: the US has Donald Trump with his inward looking nationalism (in his third address to the UN that the future does not belong to globalists, the future belongs to patriots), EU focuses on the 27 member countries, UK is wounded by Brexit, and China only focuses on its long-term interest. Remember Trump’s nationalism is different from Reagan’s. Reagan described America as a shining “city on a hill”. Listing all that America could contribute to keep the world safe, he dreamed of a country that “is not turned inward, but outward—toward others”.

Trump, by contrast, has sworn to put America First in terms of its interests. This self-interest leadership is what we see in China, Korea, UK, EU, and the UN, the only legitimage global organisation to offer leadership, is left a toothless dog. Covid-19 has caught us flat-footed, without a globally united world, and we have become reactive, instead of proactive.

Some countries have reached the peak of the pandemic and are now descending on the other side of the mountain. They are mulling re-opening the global economy. This is premature. How can they decide how and when to open the global economy, when others such as Africa, who are part of the global economy, are just at the beginning?

The WHO provided six conditions for the reopening of the economy. These included ensuring that transmissions are under control; health systems are able to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact”; hot spot risks are minimised in vulnerable places; essential places have established preventive measures; the risk of importing new cases can be managed; and that communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal. And sweet as these minimum criteria sound, WHO was seemingly reacting to Trump’s threats to freeze funding to the health organisation and to reopen US economy.

The IMF predicts that the global economy will shrink by 3.9 per cent, that is, nearly $19 trillion. It is projected that Covid-19 will leave the US with 16 per cent unemployment rate - that is 52.96 million people, which is more than Kenya’s entire population. Hence, Trump is in a hurry to reopen the global economy. This dragon has hit in the year he is facing re-election yet the economic performance of the US is key to his re-election. The WHO, whose largest contributor has been the US, on the other hand, is under pressure to please Trump so as to get the funding. The result? Hasty strategies to reopen the economy.

Everyone has a right to their opinions but not to facts. WHO’s six points, which are actually their opinion, are reactive, and meant to reduce risks. But even these risks should not be based on opinion, for opinions are the lowest source of knowledge. We need to gather facts, learn and rebuild better based on proactive systems, not reactive systems to the extent of reverting to chloroquine, which had long been banned. Thus, reopening should be done not just to fulfill the minimum requirement, but proactively and with a more promising future for ourselves and generations to come.

New administration

It needs to be done in a way analogous to what usually happens to businesses that fail to provide the value promised to customers. Usually they are put “under new management”. Likewise, the world, on re-opening, needs to be under a sort of “new administration”. It should be a new dawn filled with promising future for ourselves and generations to come. It should be a strong statement that never again shall our children’s children and we be put into lockdown simply because our healthcare system allowed an outbreak to metamorphose into a pandemic. Never again should we allow our transport system to be the means of spreading the disease. It should be a sure promise to schools and institutions of higher learning, to our religion and families, that come another global calamity, life would go on without lockdowns.

Covid-19 is not the first pandemic in our lifetime and it is unrealistic to think it is the last. We really need a new and promising dawn. Reopening the economy should be based on building proactive social interaction, economic, health, tour and travel systems, among others – a world where there will be no situation of dilemma akin to what is now faced by every entrepreneur, world, corporate and household leader, as to whether to protect the economy or life.

When climbing a mountain one needs to be careful lest the excitement when almost reaching the peak cause them to miss a step, and thus crumble, losing everything achieved. Likewise, let us not reverse the gains made. Some countries have managed to contain the dragon. China, Italy, Spain, USA and UK count among these. Indeed the dragon is down, but not dead. It may still spring up. Wuhan has just realised this with the second phase of the virus. Some in Africa still believe, without any evidence, that they have natural advantage. Let us neither relent nor go back to old habits.

Just as we do not solve problems with the same tools that created them, we cannot reopen the economy with the same habits and mindsets that propelled the spread.

Right data

Secondly, let us gather the right data. It is more strategic to do antibody testing or antigen testing than diagnostic testing. This will give near accurate infection rates, resistance rates and the demographics of the more vulnerable. Together with contact tracing, right measures can be put in place for reopening and for any next pandemic.

Thirdly, let us build better systems upon reopening, this means a better healthcare system (incorporated with telemedicine) in terms of responsiveness, control and prevention of infections from becoming pandemics. It also means to build a global supply chain that can respond to pandemics by ensuring little reliance on exports (build local manufacturing capacity) on essentials like medical supplies. Kudos to Kenyan companies already manufacturing masks and ventilators among other Perrsonal Protective Equipment (PPEs). Fourthly, we need to factor in smarter tech in education and embrace DIY (Do It Yourself) mentality and the use of technology in the service sector such as banking, travel and the like.

Covid-19 has taught us that we are so connected that our economic status, race, religion, origin or political status cannot really separate us. This calls for us to be actively committed to social equity between different economies and to build a cohesive world with world community spirit. Together we can.

- Dr Ogola is the Director, Institute of Strategy and Competitiveness, Strathmore University Business School