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Parley, Covid-19 and the Economy

There is no doubt that Corona Virus pandemic has shattered Botswana’s fragile economy. Warnings about the brittleness of the economy and its susceptibility to external shocks have been contemptuously dismissed as political posturing.

The economy, throughout its trajectory post-independence, has been vulnerable to external shocks primarily because its mainstay has been mineral generated revenue, particularly diamonds. Botswana’s growth has been awe-inspiringly strong and stable over an extended period.

The country was for a long time tapped on the back for its ostensible prudent management of economic resources, liberal policies and low levels of corruption. Many laudatory labels such as ‘Exceptional’, ‘African Miracle’, ‘Africa’s Success Story’, and ‘prosperity’ have been used by various observers of the political economy of Botswana.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear to many, as it has been to a few in the past, that there was lack of clear vision to shape the economic order in a way that would generate wealth, sustain steadiness, diversify to other key sectors such as services and manufacturing and enrich citizens.

The country has deplorable levels of poverty, unemployment and underemployment, wealth and income inequalities as well as economically disempowered black African or native Batswana. Access to essential services such water, sanitation and electricity is still a huge challenge for many parts of the country.

According to the recent World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, Botswana ranks number 113 out of 141 countries on Public Sector Performance. It ranks 130 on e-participation and it is at position108 infrastructure.

The country is measured at number 103 on transport infrastructure and fares badly on quality of land administration at position 103, airport connectivity at 130, utility infrastructure 110, electricity access as a percentage of population at 118 and 107 on reliability of water supply. This makes it an unfavourable destination for Foreign Direct Investment and a not conducive place to do business.

There is an apparent skewed development. The economy remains in firm control and ownership of non-African or native Batswana, that is foreigners and naturalized citizens. The phenomenon’s extent, historical foundation and enablers has not been subjected to extensive studies.

There are questions on how COVID 19 has affected the economy and what can Parliament do. Batswana are asking themselves about developmental issues which Parliament will grapple with when it resumes and whether Parliament can really do anything at all.

They wonder if it can it deter the executive from bad and less value-adding priorities. They are worried about the future which looks gloomier by the day.

Botswana achieved an estimated growth of 4.5% in 2018, growth which is assumed to have decelerated to 3.5% in 2019 in part due to the effects of weakened global demand for diamonds alongside other factors. According to the World Bank, the global slowdown in demand and increased trade restrictions in light of the COVID-19 global pandemic is expected to have a profound and lethal impact on Botswana’s economy, particularly on the diamond industry and tourism.

This has been acknowledged by the country’s economic high command and other observers. The diamond sector has been a vital driver of growth; it has been the sole largest contributor to government revenues and accounting 80% of export earnings.  The GDP was estimated to have contracted by 50% in April.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted a decline of 3.0 percent in global GDP in 2020, and a contraction of 6.1 percent in the GDP of advanced economies.

Botswana, the IMF World Economic Outlook projects, may have its GDP plummet by 5.4 percent in 2020. The expected reduction in activity is estimated to result in a 1.2% growth contraction in 2020. The effects on the ordinary people are dire.

A new workable growth model focusing on export diversification strategy has been elusive even during the time when an economist was leading the country. Corona virus has shown Batswana what those who called for energy self-sufficiency in the past really meant.

About 48% of power is imported from other countries who must first meet their domestic demands. Electricity has become prohibitively exorbitant and unreliable. Fuel shortages have engulfed the country. Water is expensive and the billing system has become another impoverishing scam by the government owned water enterprise.

Whereas it is gnashing of teeth for the downtrodden, it is unprecedented bonanza for the affluent and well connected political and business elites; their corruption, fiscal and revenue crimes and unethical dealings oozes a nauseating pungent musty smell.

Many Batswana have lost their jobs and their sources of livelihoods. Some have lost their wages even though they are said to be employed. The informal sector has been hard hit. Workers are exploited under the guise of COVID 19. Public servants have been robbed, as it is usually the case. Labour disputes are have become a permanent feature of the industrial relations.

When Parliament adjourned to focus on fighting COVID 19, it had a very important subject on its almanac. National Development Plan (NDP) Mid-term Review discussion. Parliament has adopted eleven NDPs since independence. Half-way through, these are reviewed in accordance with available resources and new pressing demands. So, NDP can be changed at the point of midterm review.

The review serves as a monitoring and evaluation process of the implementation of the plan. What is working and what is failing. It answers the political question that is the very essence of politics; who gets what, where, how and when in the remaining years of the plan.

So, a lot has happened during the corona pandemic. The European Union has placed Botswana in a financial quagmire by backlisting it and the credit ratings are also not very favourable. The reserves are at risk and so are other offshore investments. Revenue has undoubtedly declined.

So, the executive will want the next meeting of the House to prioritize Government Business. The Government will most likely be uncompromising and steadfast on its proposals. The President and his Cabinet will expect MPs to ‘understand’ that the economy has been devastated by the corona virus pandemic.

MPs would be expected to forget about and forfeit certain key projects in their constituencies. The ruling party caucus will be instructed to toe the line. The Ministry of Finance and Economic Development might be working on a revised NDP Midterm Review for discussion and approval by Parliament. A “recovery plan” has been circulated and MPs are going to be expected to approve it without their initiated amendments.

Parliament has never rejected any NDP and has rarely altered it. Alterations have come because the Executive would have decided. The institution is inferior in terms of resources and experts to advise it to mount any serious case. It doesn’t have staff or advisors that Finance Ministry has or Government has access to.

It can engage experts to workshop it but not to advise it on the budget or NDP related matters. Parliament doesn’t have a budget office. It is almost helpless in matching the executive.

However, MPs can still make noise on things that the executive has planned but are of no value addition to the economy. Experts or no experts, MPs should be able to discern a deceptive paper tabled by the executive. They should be able to tell when some things can’t work.

They have done so in the past, albeit with no serious results apart from sensitizing the populace. They should speak truth to power. Misplaced priorities must be rejected by Parliament. Precedence must be given to jobs or wealth generating projects and plans.

Programs aimed at buying votes but not necessarily adding value should be outrightly rejected by MPs.  Useless and wasteful expenditure must be stopped. Parliament must frankly and critically evaluate the recovery strategy to see if indeed it’s just rhetoric or serious stimulation of the economy.

MPs represent the people and it is important that they speak the common man’s language and try to translate these people’s aspirations into public policy in the form of a recovery plan or revised NDP. Batswana citizens owned firms should be saved and jobs protected or created.

How the country moves forward after COVID 19 scourge should be shaped by the next meeting of the legislature. Until Parliament attains its true full independence, there is little it can do. It will remain a talk show or a rubberstamp of the ruling party and executive decisions.

The NDP Midterm Review and the supposed Recovery Plan are likely to be passed without any meaningful additions of subtractions by MPs.

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Botswana Energy Options: Solar is the Way to Go

4th August 2020

The great Thomas Edison, who logged a total of 1093 patents singly or jointly in his 84-year lifespan and who was the driving force behind a whole host of innovations which included the incandescent light bulb, once said, “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy.

What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” At the onset of the still-in-force NDP 11, which runs from April 2017 to March 2023, government hived off P2.25 billion (a move engendered by the irregular, if not corrupt, depletion of the National Petroleum Fund) from the BPC subsidy budget pertaining to that time horizon and re-oriented it toward the development of the bulk petroleum product storage terminal at Tshele Hills near Rasesa village in Kgatleng District.

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“Holy Moses” Becomes Holly Moses

4th August 2020

The “Man of God” is initiated into witchcraft

Both the two contenders for the Egyptian throne, General Atiku, had made their case and it was now up to the Wise Men to pass a vote indicating whose deposition had convinced them.

To Ramesses’ surprise, General, the Wise Men all voted for Moses. The vote was indicated by bowing their knees in front of Moses, thus confirming that he had a superior claim to the throne. Sadly, Ramesses was not having any of that. He immediately put his army on the alert and when word seeped through that Moses was to be the new Pharaoh, Zaru erupted into jubilation on the streets.

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The current two Pandemics that have affected Botswana: HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 – and the response (Reflections from an observer)

4th August 2020

Dr Edward T. Maganu

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was first detected in Botswana in 1985. The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was detected in 2020. Both viruses were new, and it was their global occurrence that led to their classification as pandemics.

They have both been traced to animals, something not surprising as most new viruses are actually cross-overs from animals. A virus crosses species, in this case to humans, and its subsequent behaviour depends on how it adapts to the new species. Many are “dead-ends”, the virus cannot multiply or be transmitted between members of the new species.

In the case of the two which are our subject in this paper, the viruses adapted to the new species (human) and underwent mutations that allowed them to be easily transmitted between humans, hence the rapid spread.

The two viruses, HIV and the Covid-19 virus are very different, hence their mode of spread is different and their mechanisms of disease causation and epidemiology are very different. The approach to their control is of necessity very different. To illustrate their difference, HIV is transmitted mainly by sexual intercourse, Covid-19 virus mainly by the droplet method through the respiratory tract.

HIV causes ill health a long time after infection, which can run from about two years to many years (incubation period); the incubation period of Covid-19 is a few days, estimated at between 10 and 14 days. HIV infection leads to the destruction of the immune system, and when the victim gets ill, it can be from any of a wide variety of diseases caused by “opportunistic infections or even cancers”, hence the name Acquired Human Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Covid-19 on the other hand presents generally as an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) although there are some presenting differently, especially with lower respiratory infection (lungs affected) in the more severe cases. Another but very important difference is that, while Covid-19 is generally an acute, self-limiting illness, with most patients recovering fully within a few weeks, and in fact many showing no symptoms, HIV/AIDS is a chronic condition; once the patient starts signs and symptoms, usually years after infection, this leads invariably to death from one of the opportunistic infections or diseases.

This last scenario used to be the case in the first decades of HIV/AIDS, but has fortunately changed after the development of drugs that in combination are referred to as Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART, now known as ART).

HIV/AIDS is now treatable and no longer a death sentence, although treatment lasts for life as the drugs do not eliminate the virus from the body but suppress it. As for Covid-19, there is currently, as is the case generally with viral infections, no effective antibiotic or antiviral drug that kills the virus or eliminates it from the body.

Where does this put us? We are essentially dealing with two diseases or pandemics that are very different from each other. I did my post-graduate studies in Public Health during the last years of smallpox eradication, actually I finished the studies in 1978, the year Smallpox eradication was certified in Botswana.

What used to be emphasized, why the world succeeded in eradicating Smallpox was that it had epidemiological characteristics that supported eradication: it was easy to diagnose, even by lay people; it had a consistent incubation period of about 10 days; it virtually had a 100% manifestation rate (everybody infected showed typical signs and symptoms); there was a vaccine against it that was virtually 100% effective. Unfortunately, there have been few diseases with such favourable characteristics for eradication. Hence the next disease targeted for eradication, Polio, is almost done but still causing some problems.

Response to the HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 pandemics in Botswana

When HIV was detected in Botswana in 1985, the world had been aware of the existence of AIDS for about five years, that is, since the outbreaks among gays in America in 1981. By 1985 the virus had been identified but little was known about it; it was still a subject of intense research. However we knew that it caused AIDS and was no longer just transmitted in gay sex, but that most transmission in Africa was through heterosexual sex, and that sexual transmission was responsible for more than 90% of transmission occurring in Africa.

Some African countries were already experiencing severe HIV/AIDS epidemics, especially in Central and East Africa. In some of them (Uganda is sometimes quoted) people started dying in large numbers before the cause was known, only for people to move to neighbouring villages and infect others there!

The Botswana HIV epidemic, as well as those of SACU countries generally, was later than those of Central and East Africa. The latter had already experienced high disease and mortality rates for some years. In the late 1980s, Botswana was experiencing a big economic boom, and this attracted professionals, technicians and artisans from African countries badly affected by HIV/AIDS, and this really speeded up transmission in the country.

When the first seropositive people were identified in 1985, I was Assistant Director of Health Services responsible for Primary Health Care. So, Disease Control fell in my Department, and I had the responsibility of reporting to my seniors at the Ministry and hence to the country that we now had HIV.

Control measures were started immediately, such as screening all blood donated for transfusion and putting together with the help of WHO, the first short-term control plan. A unit was created which was headed by an appropriate professional. In 1986 I became Director of Health Services and Deputy Permanent Secretary, and in January 1990 I became Permanent Secretary.

In all these positions I was intimately involved in HIV/AIDS control, working intimately with those directly responsible for the unit/programme, and also doing at least one assignment with Global Programme on AIDS (GPA) when it was still with WHO before UNAIDS was created to share the AIDS programme with other UN Agencies. In the same manner, here at home we started pushing for the multisectoral approach to HIV/AIDS control in the early 1990s, that resulted in the formation of the National AIDS Council and eventually NACA.

The Ministry of Health undertook a very intensive public education from early in the HIV epidemic. The Ministry warned the people of Botswana (through and including the political, traditional and community leaders) about what was going to happen, the impending doom of high morbidity and mortality. What was needed was change is sexual behaviour.

Everyone knows that the main message from the Ministry was “ABC” (abstain, be faithful, condomise), which had become a universal message especially in Africa was used by the Ministry. Put in other words, the message aimed at three things; i) delaying sexual debut, ii) avoiding multiple concurrent partners and iii) consistent condom use.

This message never made an impact on the Botswana population, so when the clinical cases started hitting the country after the several years of silent spread (the silent phase of HIV spread), the effect was disaster. We had a nasty surprise in the health system that while the countries in central Africa that had early HIV/AIDS epidemics had their HIV prevalence plateauing at 15% and we thought the same would happen here, in Botswana and Southern Africa prevalence rates went past 30%.

This was due partly to the sexual practices of our people but also to the HIV sub-type that was prevalent in our part of the world. By 1966 Botswana was declared as having the highest prevalence of HIV in the world.

The real heavy load of cases in Botswana started in the mid-1990s, and everybody remembers it; funerals and funerals and funerals. That time ARVs were still under development, and it was only at the end of the 1990s that they became available but very expensive, so most poor and middle income countries could not immediately afford them.

Thanks to India, Thailand and Brazil who broke the patents and manufactured the drugs, their availability to many developing countries would have taken a long time. Here in Botswana, it was due to the initiative of the then President that HAART became available for general use in Government facilities in 2002, with massive aid from PEPFAR and ACHAP (supplied by Merck Foundation and the Bill and Gates Foundation).

Otherwise there was talk of extinction, and the expected population pyramid produced by UNAIDS was frightening. Luckily because of ARV’s that scenario did not occur. The rest of Botswana’s HIV/AIDS trajectory up to now is history. I left Government service on 31st December 1996 after seven years as P.S. and joined WHO.

I had almost joined WHO in 1989 but deferred it when I was appointed PS and did not want to appear unpatriotic and disappoint President Masire and PSP Legwaila with both of whom I had very excellent relations. My initial job with WHO was in Tuberculosis, a disease that had been my passion since I did Public Health and took over its control as head of disease control in 1979.

No matter what post I held in the Ministry thereafter, I participated directly in Tuberculosis control. And as we all know. Tuberculosis became and is still one of the manifestations of HIV globally and in Botswana.

HIV/AIDS was and is a slow epidemic. So, the public did not really perceive it as a threat in Botswana, except perhaps in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it caused very high mortality in the country. The Covid-19 epidemic/pandemic is different. Although it doesn’t kill everybody who gets it like HIV-related disease did, we have seen in highly affected countries that the 2-5% it kills translate to large numbers, because this is an acute infection that spreads very quickly. So, it should be easy for the public to perceive its danger.

The surveillance and containment that has been employed so far in Botswana to control the spread of Covid-19 has been very effective. Those responsible, the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the Task Force deserve to be acknowledged and thanked for a job well done. I am confident that the health care system can also adjust itself and not be disrupted by this new threat.

Since the chances of developing a drug against such a virus seems a bit remote, we are all putting our hope on a vaccine. Many viral diseases have very effective vaccines, so this keeps our hope up. We also need to know if one attack of this disease results in life-long immunity (like measles, mumps, chicken pox etc.) or if one can be attacked more than once, implying that the virus keeps mutating and bringing up new sub-types.

We are still to see if the public will do better than they did with HIV/AIDS and follow the health education. Experience is what usually persuades people to change; that is why many believe the celebrated change in Uganda when people changed and HIV infections dropped was due to the large mortality they had experienced before they even knew what was killing them.

Regarding Covid-19, we are seeing in a number of badly affected countries, people ignoring or resisting social distancing measures and masks, sometimes encouraged by politicians! Here in Botswana we have not yet experienced large losses of lives from Covid-19, so it is still to be seen how the public will really conform to advice, especially on social distancing and other measures like masks and hand washing.

What one sees so far is not very encouraging -in combis, bars etc., and during weekends in homes. In health we talk of KAP (Knowledge, Attitude, Practice). We know that K does not always lead to change in A, and to P. We saw this plainly in HIV/AIDS, what is going to happen in Covid-19?

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