Did Covid-19 emanate from a really “novel” coronavirus or a fiendishly hatched up pathogen? If it is a manufactured virological weapon, in whose direction should the finger of indictment point? In a 5-part mini-series, BENSON C SAILI pronounces on the world’s most bothersome pandemic since the Spanish Flu of a century back.
On April 14, 2020, Donald Trump, the dismally shambolic US President, announced that he had instructed a relevant arm of his government to pull the plug on its share of WHO funding.
It is curious that the Don sounded off exactly 30 days after China had accused the US of purposely (or was it inadvertently?) propagating Covid-19 in the world’s second largest economy which is on course to surpass the US in only a matter of years.
In a March 13, 2020 tweet, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had charged that the US was responsible for introducing the coronavirus in the Hubei Province city of Wuhan. Zhao did not furnish nail-on-the-head particulars as to why he so supposed, but the dot-connection by many a pundit pointed to the US military personnel, who were alleged to have seeded the virus on China territory when they flew there to take part in the 2019 military games in Wuhan in October that year.
The reasons Trump advanced for withholding financial assistance to the WHO basically were that by openly endorsing China’s initial stance to play down the pervasiveness of the coronavirus spread in China, the WHO was complicit in “covering up and mismanaging the spread of the virus”.
It was ironic that Trump of all people should somersault and take issue with the WHO on the matter when he himself had stopped just short of declaring the coronavirus a non-event which would peter out sooner than later and had even heaped plaudits on President Xi Jinping for a job well-done. “Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation,” Trump had gushed in one of his fixation tweets early in the year.
Clearly, it was not the WHO’s softly-softly tune on China that particularly rubbed the Don the wrong way. It was the organisation’s eyebrow-raising coziness with the reportedly second-richest man on Earth, Bill Gates.
Seemingly, Trump was incensed that only the day after Bill Gates pledged $50 million to the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator – a concerted effort on the part of 12 US-based pharmaceuticals to come up with a vaccine against Covid-19 – the WHO declared the disease a pandemic, when to date it had resisted spirited urging by the “philanthropist” billionaire that it does so.
Gates, we will demonstrate in due course, has a vested interest in a possible vaccine (which had tacitly been long in the works) against the now globalwide pandemic as it is certain to send his bottom line rocketing into the stratosphere.
DID IT JUMP OR WAS SIMPLY PUSHED?
Somebody said all truth passes through three phases. First, it is ridiculed left, right, and centre by practically everybody else. Second, it is violently opposed, with its propagator eliminated in the most extreme of cases. Third, and ironically at that, it is accepted as self-evident, as if all along it was in fact a foregone conclusion!
Ever heard of a guy called Galileo Galilei? He was a 16/17th century Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer. He was indicted and tried before the Roman Inquisition for openly, impassionedly, and repetitively affirming the Copernican theory of hundred years prior that it was Earth that revolved around the sun and not vice versa as was the brainwash belief then.
For disseminating this “heresy”, Galileo was, in a meting out of capital punishment dressed as suicide, handed a mug containing a poison called hemlock – the origin of the term “Poisoned Chalice” – in 1642, at age 77.
It took 350 years for the Vatican to at long last own up to its “error” and officially vindicate Galileo in a statement by Pope John Paul II in November 1992. In one of history’s great emblems of conflict between reason and dogma, science and faith, an otherwise great savant of science was unjustly, albeit unhurriedly, put to death for embracing what we today take for granted as unimpeachable truth.
With the advent of the dreaded “novel coronavirus”, many a percipient folk among the ranks of mankind who bravely choose to pierce the veil and isolate fact from fiction are, in a near-reprisal of Galileo’s fate, certain to burn at the stake – figuratively speaking since we live in a comparatively more restrained and less extreme age in which reckless savagery is more subtle than overt.
The popular hypothesis is that the coronavirus at issue jumped the species barrier from bats to humans by way of pangolins, in the manner HIV is said to have resided in apes before it made the apocalyptic leap into mankind’s bloodstream through “primitive” Africans with an insatiable, if not barbaric, craving for Simian flesh. I beg to differ at the risk of being labelled a propagandistic conspiracy theorist, a tag that is all too familiar in my case anyway.
WUHAN OR WAR-HAN?
Every time there is a catastrophe of sorts in some part of the word, or any such hard-to-fathom development for that matter, my inbox is deluged with pleas that I help unpack whatever conundrum it is.
I was subjected to the same barrage not very long after Covid-19 erupted in China. In heeding this call – thank you fans and friends: I value the enormous and unwavering faith you repose in me – I decided not to make haste but to bide my time given that all sorts of theories were being bandied about as to the probable cause or origin of what was soon to be a globalwide pandemic.
Covid-19 is a disease, so we’re told, that arises from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2). Coronaviruses belong to a family of viruses that ordinarily thrive in animals.
I first learnt about coronaviruses in 2002, when SARS-CoV-1 broke out in China, as though it was the preordained cradle of such Frankenstein viruses. It was the first time I heard of Foshan, a city in China’s Guangdong Province where the disease first surfaced.
And it was sometime in 2019 that I first heard of Wuhan, the birthplace, reportedly, of Covid-19, and the largest city in central China. But did Covid-19 really spring from within Wuhan or it was incubated elsewhere and then somehow transplanted to China? Or was it the result of some strategic gambit on the part of the Chinese government itself that went awry, with Xi Jinping ending up with plenty of egg on his round, mirthless face in the eyes of a relentless army of Western cynics and critics? Was it a biological war waged on China by the implacably vile, vicious, and vindictive Uncle Sam?
GENESIS IN A WET MARKET?
If reports by the forefront voices of the international media are anything to go by, the Covid-19 outbreak timeline in a nutshell unfolded as follows: Between December 12 and 29 last year, a never-seen-before flu-like illness presented in about 27 residents of Wuhan, a conurbation of three principal population centres of just under 12 million collectively.
On December 31, China informed the WHO on the existence of the outwardly inscrutable disease. The following day, the Chinese authorities ordered the closure of Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a live animal and seafood market – also known as “wet markets” in that water is every now and again sloshed on produce to keep it cool and fresh – where the diseases was allegedly spawned.
On January 11, China announced its first Covid-19 fatality. The victim was a 61-year-old man who had actually succumbed to respiratory complications arising from pneumonia on January 9. The pneumonia is said to have been triggered by Covid-19, which the man supposedly contracted during one of his trips to Huanan, where, so we are given to understand, he was in the habit of stocking up with proteinaceous foodstuffs.
One report had this to say about such markets, which are a commonplace feature of Asia: “At the crack of dawn every day, ‘wet markets’ in China and across Asia come to life, with stall owners touting their wares such as fresh meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices in an open-air setting …
“The now-infamous Wuhan South China seafood market, suspected to be a primary source for spreading Covid-19 in late 2019, had a wild animal section where live and slaughtered species were for sale, including snakes, beavers, badgers, civet cats, foxes, peacocks and porcupines among other animals …
“Older shoppers generally prefer buying freshly slaughtered meat for daily consumption, believing it produces flavour in dishes and soup that is superior to frozen meat. Slabs of beef and pork hang from the butchers’ stalls while various cuts piled on the counters amid lights with a reddish glare and the occasional buzzing of flies.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese government had on January 7 designated the virus as an altogether different strain of the comparatively mild coronaviruses of yesteryears, the reason they employed the term “novel” in its basic description. On January 23, China decreed a lockdown of Wuhan which lingered for 76 days. China thus set the tone for copycat lockdowns in several countries across the globe including Botswana, which was one of only a handful of countries that went for a nationwide stay-at-home restriction.
THREE MILLION INFECTED, 200,000 KILLED
The disease has since spread to more than 190 countries and killed up to 210,000 of the nearly 3 million people who have contracted it to date. In the US alone, it has claimed 56,000 scalps. Besides the US, the most impacted countries are Italy, Spain, France and the UK in that order, all of which have suffered more than 20,000 fatalities.
The death toll on the continent of Africa now stands at about 1300 only. China, the purported breeding ground of the virus, has logged just under 4700 deaths. Only one country in the whole wide world has professed having “eliminated” the coronavirus menace. This is New Zealand, a country of 5 million people that has to date registered 19 deaths out of a total of about 1500 cases.
The country declared “victory” over Covid-19 on April 28, following a five-week lockdown and during which new cases whittled down to single digits. One hopes a second wave of the dreaded pandemic is not in the offing in the country.
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” Carl Sagan
Corruption is a heavy price to pay. The clean ones pay and suffer at the mercy of people who cannot have enough. They always want to eat and eat so selfishly like a bunch of ugly masked shrews. I hope God forgives me for ridiculing his creatures, but that mammal is so greedy. But corruption is not the new kid on the block, because it has always been everywhere.
This of course begs the question, why that is so? The common answer was and still is – abuse and misuse of power by those in power and weak institutions, disempowered to control the leaders. In 1996, the then President of The World Bank, James D. Wolfensohn named the ‘C-Word’ for the first time during an annual meeting of the Bretton Woods Institutions. A global fight against corruption started. Transparency International began its work. Internal and external audits mushroomed; commissions of inquiry followed and ever convoluted public tender procedures have become a bureaucratic nightmare to the private sector, trying to fight red tape.
The result is sobering corruption today is worse than it was 25 years ago. There is no denying that strong institutions help, but how does it come that in the annual Transparency International Ranking the same group of countries tend to be on the top while another group of countries, many African among them, tend to be on the bottom? Before one jumps to simple and seductive conclusions let us step back a moment.
Wolfensohn called corruption a cancer that destroys economies like a cancer destroys a body. A cancer is, simplified, good cells in a body gone bad, taking control of more and more good cells until the entire body is contaminated and eventually dies. So, let us look at the good cells of society first: they are family ties, clan and tribe affiliation, group cohesion, loyalty, empathy, reciprocity.
Most ordinary people like the reader of these lines or myself would claim to share such values. Once we ordinary people must make decisions, these good cells kick in: why should I hire a Mrs. Unknown, if I can hire my niece whose strengths and weaknesses I know? If I hire the niece, she will owe me and support my objectives.
Why should I purchase office furniture from that unknown company if I know that my friend’s business has good quality stuff? If I buy from him, he will make an extra effort to deliver his best and provide quality after sales service? So, why go through a convoluted tender process with uncertain outcome? In the unlikely case my friend does not perform as expected, I have many informal means to make him deliver, rather than going through a lengthy legal proceeding?
This sounds like common sense and natural and our private lives do work mostly that way and mostly quite well.
The problem is scale. Scale of power, scale of potential gains, scale of temptations, scale of risk. And who among us could throw the first stone were we in positions of power and claim not to succumb to the temptations of scale? Like in a body, cancer cells start growing out of proportion.
So, before we call out for new leaders – experience shows they are rarely better than the old ones – we need to look at ourselves first. But how easy is that? If I were the niece who gets the job through nepotism, why should I be overly critical? If I got a big furniture contract from a friend, why should I spill the beans? What right do I have to assume that, if I were a president or a minister or a corporate chief procurement officer I would not be tempted?
This is where we need to learn. What is useful, quick, efficient, and effective within a family or within a clan or a small community can become counterproductive and costly and destructive at larger corporate or national scale. Our empathy with small scale reciprocity easily permeates into complacency and complicity with large scale corruption and into an acquiescence with weak institutions to control it.
Our institutions can only be as strong as we wish them to be.
I was probably around ten years old and have always been that keen enthusiastic child that also liked to sing the favourite line of, ‘the world will become a better place.’ I would literally stand in front of a mirror and use my mom’s torch as a mic and sing along Michael Jackson’s hit song, ‘We are the world.’
Despite my horrible voice, I still believed in the message. Few years later, my annoyance towards the world’s corrupt system wonders whether I was just too naïve. Few years later and I am still in doubt so as to whether I should go on blabbing that same old boring line. ‘The world is going to be a better place.’ The question is, when?
The answer is – as always: now.
This is pessimistic if not fatalistic – I challenge Sagan’s outlook with a paraphrased adage of unknown origin: Some people can be bamboozled all of the time, all people can be bamboozled some of the time, but never will all people be bamboozled all of the time.
We, the people are the only ones who can heal society from the cancer of corruption. We need to understand the temptation of scale and address it. We need to stop seeing ourselves just a victim of a disease that sleeps in all of us. We need to give power to the institutions that we have put in place to control corruption: parliaments, separation of power, the press, the ballot box. And sometimes we need to say as a niece – no, I do not want that job as a favour, I want it because I have proven to be better than other contenders.
It is going to be a struggle, because it will mean sacrifices, but sacrifices that we have chosen, not those imposed on us.
Let us start today.
*Bokani Lisa Motsu is a student at University of Botswana
Parliament, the second arm of State through its parliamentary committees are one of Botswana’s most powerful mechanisms to ensure that government is held accountable at all times. The Accounting Officers are mostly Permanent Secretaries across government Ministries and Chief Executive Officers, Director Generals, Managing Directors of parastatals, state owned enterprises and Civil Society.
So parliament plays its oversight authority via the legislators sitting on a parliamentary committee and Accounting Officers sitting in the hot chair. When left with no proper checks and balances, the Executive is prone to abuse the arrangement and so systematic oversight of the executive is usually carried out by parliamentary committees. They track the work of various government departments and ministries, and conduct scrutiny into important aspects of their policy, direction and administration.
It is not rocket science that effective oversight requires that committees be totally independent and able to set their own agendas and have the power to summon ministers and top civil servants to appear and answer questions. Naturally, Accounting Officers are the highest ranking officials in the government hierarchy apart from cabinet Ministers and as such wield much power and influence in the performance of government. To illustrate further, government performance is largely owed to the strategic and policy direction of top technocrats in various Ministries.
It is disheartening to point out that the recent parliament committees — as has been the case all over the years — has laid bare the incompetency, inadequacy and ineptitude of people bestowed with great responsibilities in public offices. To say that they are ineffective and inefficient sounds as an understatement. Some appear useless and hopeless when it comes to running the government despite the huge responsibility they possess.
If we were uncertain about the degree at which the Accounting Officers are incompetent, the ongoing parliament committees provide a glaring answer. It is not an exaggeration to say that ordinary people on the streets have been held ransom by these technocrats who enjoy their air conditioned offices and relish being chauffeured around in luxurious BX SUV’s while the rest of the citizenry continue to suffer. Because of such high life the Accounting Officers seem to have, with time, they have gotten out of touch with the people they are supposed to serve.
An example; when appearing before the recent Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Office of the President Permanent Secretary, Thuso Ramodimoosi, looked reluctant to admit misuse of public funds. Although it is clear funds were misused, he looked unbothered when committee members grilled him over the P80 million Orapa House building that has since morphed into a white elephant for close to 10 successive years. To him, it seems it did not matter much and PAC members were worried for nothing.
On a separate day, another Accounting officer, Director of Public Service Management (DPSM), Naledi Mosalakatane, was not shy to reveal to PAC upon cross-examination that there exist more than 6 000 vacancies in government. Whatever reasons she gave as an excuse, they were not convincing and the committee looked sceptical too. She was faltering and seemed not to have a sense of urgency over the matter no matter how critical it is to the populace.
Botswana’s unemployment rate hoovers around 18 percent in a country where majority of the population is the youth, and the most affected by unemployment. It is still unclear why DPSM could underplay such a critical matter that may threaten the peace and stability of the country. Accounting Officers clearly appear out of touch with the reality out there – if the PAC examinations are anything to go by.
Ideally the DPSM Director could be dropping the vacancy post digits while sourcing funds and setting timelines for the spaces to be filled as a matter of urgency so that the citizens get employed to feed their families and get out of unemployment and poverty ravaging the country. The country should thank parliamentary committees such as PAC to expose these abnormalities and the behaviour of our leaders when in public office. How can a full Accounting Officer downplay the magnitude of the landless problem in Botswana and fail to come with direct solutions tailor made to provide Batswana with the land they desperately need?
Land is a life and death matter for some citizens, as we would know.
When Bonolo Khumotaka, the Accounting Officer in the Ministry of Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services, whom as a top official probably with a lucrative pay too appears to be lacking sense of urgency as she is failing on her key mandate of working around the clock to award the citizens with land especially those who need it most like the marginalised. If government purports they need P94 billion to service land to address the land crisis what is plan B for government? Are we going to accept it the way it is?
Government should wake up from its slumber and intervene to avoid the 30 years unnecessary waiting period in State land and 13 years in Tribal land. Accounting Officers are custodians of government policy, they should ensure it is effective and serve its purpose. What we have been doing over the years, has proved that it is not effective, and clearly there is a need for change of direction.
His Excellency Dr Mokgweetsi EK Masisi, the President of the Republic of Botswana found it appropriate to invoke Section 17 (1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Botswana, using the powers vested in him to declare a State of Public Emergency starting from the 2nd April 2020 at midnight.
The constitutional provision under Section 17 (2b) only provided that such a declaration could be up to a maximum of 21 days. His Excellency further invoked Section 93 (1) to convene an extra- ordinary meeting of Parliament to have the opportunity to consult members of parliament on measures that have been put in place to address the spread and transmission of the virus. At this meeting Members of Parliament passed a resolution on the legal instruments and regulations governing the period of the state of emergency, and extended its duration by six (6) months.
The passing of the State of Emergency is considered as a very crucial step in fighting the near apocalyptic potential of the Novel COVID-19 virus. One of the interesting initiatives that was developed and extended to the business community was a 3-month wage subsidy that came with a condition that no businesses would retrench for the duration of the State of Public Emergency. This has potentially saved many people’s jobs as most companies would have been extremely quick to reduce expenses by downsizing. Self-preservation as some would call it.
Most organisations would have tried to reduce costs by letting go of people, retreated and tried their best to live long enough to fight another day. In my view there is silver lining that we need to look at and consider. The fact that organisations are not allowed to retrench has forced certain companies to look at the people with a long-term view.
Most leaders have probably had to wonder how they are going to ensure that their people are resilient. Do they have team members who innovate and add value to the organisation during these testing times? Do they even have resilient people or are they just waiting for the inevitable end? Can they really train people and make them resilient? How can your team members be part of your recovery plan? What can they do to avoid losing the capabilities they need to operate meaningfully for the duration of the State of Public Emergency and beyond?
The above questions have forced companies to reimagine the future of work. The truth is that no organisation can operate to its full potential without resilient people. In the normal business cycle, new teams come on board; new business streams open, operations or production sites launch or close; new markets develop, and technology is introduced. All of this provides fresh opportunities – and risks.
The best analogy I have seen of people-focused resilience planning reframes employees as your organisation’s immune system, ready and prepared to anticipate risks and ensure they can tackle challenges, fend off illness and bounce back more quickly. So, how do you supercharge your organizational immune system to become resilient?
COVID-19 has helped many organisations realize they were not as prepared as they believed themselves to be. Now is the time to take stock and reset for the future. All the strategies and plans prior to COVID-19 arriving in Botswana need to be thrown out of the window and you need to develop a new plan today. There is no room for tweaking or reframing. Botswana has been disrupted and we need to accept and embrace the change. What we initially anticipated as a disease that would take a short term is turning out to be something we are going to have to live with for a much longer time. It is going to be a marathon and therefore businesses need to have a plan to complete this marathon.
Start planning. Planning for change can help reduce employee stress, anxiety, and overall fear, boosting the confidence of staff and stakeholders. Think about conducting and then regularly refreshing a strategic business impact analysis, look at your employee engagement scores, dig into your customer metrics and explore the way people work alongside your behaviours and culture. This research will help to identify what you really want to protect, the risks that you need to plan for and what you need to survive during disruption. Don’t forget to ask your team members for their input. In many cases they are closest to critical business areas and already have ideas to make processes and systems more robust.
Revisit your organisational purpose. Purpose, values and principles are powerful tools. By putting your organisation’s purpose and values front and center, you provide clear decision-making guidelines for yourself and your organisation. There are very tough and interesting decisions to make which have to be made fast; so having guiding principles on which the business believes in will help and assist all decision makers with sanity checking the choices that are in front of them. One noticeable characteristic of companies that adapt well during change is that they have a strong sense of identity. Leaders and employees have a shared sense of purpose and a common performance culture; they know what the company stands for beyond shareholder value and how to get things done right.
Revisit your purpose and values. Understand if they have been internalised and are proving useful. If so, find ways to increase their use. If not, adapt them as necessities, to help inspire and guide people while immunizing yourself against future disruption. Design your employee experience. The most resilient, adaptive and high performing companies are made up of people who know each other, like each other, and support each other.
Adaptability requires us to teach other, speak up and discuss problems, and have a collective sense of belonging. Listening to your team members is a powerful and disruptive thing to do. It has the potential to transform the way you manage your organisation. Enlisting employees to help shape employee experience, motivates better performance, increases employee retention and helps you spot issues and risks sooner. More importantly, it gives employees a voice so you can get active and constructive suggestions to make your business more robust by adopting an inclusive approach.
Leaders need to show they care. If you want to build resilience, you must build on a basis of trust. And this means leaders should listen, care, and respond. It’s time to build the entire business model around trust and empathy. Many of the employees will be working under extreme pressure due to the looming question around what will happen when companies have to retrench. As a leader of a company transparency and open communication are the most critical aspects that need to be illustrated.
Take your team member into confidence because if you do have to go through the dreaded excise of retrenchment you have to remember that those people the company retains will judge you based on the process you follow. If you illustrate that the business or organization has no regard for loyalty and commitment, they will never commit to the long-term plans of the organisation which will leave you worse off in the end. Its an absolutely delicate balance but it must all be done in good faith. Hopefully, your organization will avoid this!
This is the best time to revisit your identify and train your people to encourage qualities that build strong, empathetic leadership; self-awareness and control, communication, kindness and psychological safety. Resilience is the glue that binds functional silos and integrates partners, improves communications, helps you prepare, listen and understand. Most importantly, people-focused resilience helps individuals and teams to think collectively and with empathy – helping you respond and recover faster.
Article written by Thabo Majola, a brand communications expert with a wealth of experience in the field and is Managing Director of Incepta Communications.