No one could have predicted that 2020 would see the emergence of a global pandemic. The novel corona virus later named COVID-19 at first looked just like China’s problem. But little did the world know that it was just a matter of time before it becomes a global problem. COVID -19 has changed the total round of our daily activities from the way we: eat, exercise, do business, teach and learn, relate with each other, travel and even worship.
We are faced with confinement and what I can term as “e-everything”. E-everything was becoming commonplace in almost all societies but it has in the last months grown to unprecedented levels due to COVID-19 . The World Economic Forum reports that Internet usage is up 50% in some parts of the world as more aspects of our daily lives have moved online.
The Economist has also reported a short-term boon to streaming services. Phrases like ‘social distancing’, ‘lockdown’ and quarantine were not in our collective vernacular but are now commonplace. But as we near the end of the first quarter of the year we are facing one of the greatest challenges of a generation.
We know very little about what life after COVID-19 will be. However, we have a gut feeling it will be drastically different. The most vulnerable are: the elderly, the poor, those without access to health care, those with preconditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer and those who believe they are invincible and do not take the necessary precautions.
This is not a time for ignoring government advice. This is a time for businesses and the community to come together and care. As the Minister of Health Dr. Chitalu Chilufya, who has been the leading voice in Zambia’s war against COVID -19 said, ‘this is a time for patriotism’, and his finance counterpart Dr. Bwalya Nga’ndu, anchored the same words during the Zambian Government Contingency Plan breakdown announcement.
We will define our lives as pre and post COVID-19, much as we did with cholera outbreak of 2017/2018. It goes without saying that we are dealing with unprecedented times, and the reality is none of us quite know where this is going to go. But when we look at the lessons learned from other parts of the globe, such as China, it is reasonable for us to expect that this will be with us for several months.
We are in the midst of transformations. The way we work has been entirely changed in the space of a month. Teleworking has realized its promise. Technology has gained its potential and more than ever, it has proved that it’s here to stay. That’s the good part. But the dark underbelly of this is the number of jobs that will be lost. The International Labour Office has estimated that almost 25 million jobs could be in jeopardy as a result of COVID-19. Labour expert Leonard Hikaumba, told Radio Phoenix recently that ‘government has to start planning on how to avoid job loses post-COVID-19’.
This is now a global problem that requires a mix of global solutions with local flavors to fix. The World bank and IMF are already offering COVID-19 debt relief assistance to “poor countries” at their request, stated their joint statement. We need a greater focus on assistance that will help bolster economic activity, especially the micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSME).
What does a time such as this mean for Zambia? This is an opportunity to relook at the regional value chains in Southern and Central Africa. With global value chains damaged by the economic contagion, it is clear that those most affected are the economies at the very end of the chain- those who are import dependent. We need to rethink not only our production priorities in the region but the ease of getting those goods and services across borders. It’s time to take full advantage of the COMESA, SADC, and African Continental Free Trade Area treaties that are all there – now is the time to really operationalise them. We need to look closer at aspects such as regional cooperation on health, safety, and labour and how we can build home grown value chains in the areas of protective garments, hygiene products, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and diagnostic testing. Initiatives such as having zero or reduced taxes on the importation of components into the production of hand sanitizers is a good start.
And we need to start planning post COVID and bolster our MSMEs. Its not too early to start planning for post COVID-19. However, there are a number of things that can be put in place.
First, continue to invest in the digital economy. The future of work- as this last month has shown- lies in using technology to be flexible and productive. We all know that the investment decisions of businesses are contingent on countries having a good digital ecosystem. Only companies that are more digitally enabled are more likely to survive a storm such as this. This will be even more critical going forward.
Second, skills- especially for youth. What this stay home, work from home and semi-lockdown has shown is the power of online learning. A number of learning institutions have resorted to e-learning following their closure. Great North Road Academy is just one example of many that offer the opportunity for a skills upgrade. Many sectors will very likely need years to recover, such as the tourism, hospitality and the wider services industry, this is an opportunity to map out a skills reform and get people trained.
Third, there will need to be a clear approach to the assistance that will be provided to MSMEs during and after this downturn. Tax reductions or tax breaks, capacity building, concessional financing and no or low interest rate loans are some of the measures that will need to be implemented if we are to minimize the economy wide impact of this crisis.
Fourth, how to rebuild and rethink the most important economic sectors in the country such as mining, agriculture, tourism. We should not cheat ourselves, the tourism and travel industry is being decimated. The launch of Zambia Airways may fold, because airlines are the most hit and those that don’t will reassess their routes. Travel will likely become more of a luxury for the middle class and those in the low income earning group will be more preoccupied with rebuilding their lives and their nest eggs than travelling to a tropical paradise.
What does this mean for Zambia Airways? The Industrial Development Cooperation (IDC) a strategic holding company may need to restructure its plans to relaunch the airline in September of 2020 instead use this time as an opportunity to break down the launch in phases, and through the Zambia Tourism Agency rebuild the tourism offer and do more aggressive approach to marketing of Zambia as destination. This will not be easy, but it is necessary.
Finally, I hope that companies and leaders have the courage to look at the long term and make sure they are communicating transparently and openly with regulators, investors and other stakeholders as we look to adjust to the new normal that’s out there and make the right investments for the long term.
These are challenging times for the world; and in Zambia, we will see our economy transformed. We have the leadership, we have the human capital but most importantly, we simply have no choice.
About the Author
Management Strategist and Human Capital Specialist