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COVID-19 response: Striking a balance – towards a bigger, better, stronger future

Compiled by Moreblessings Chidaushe- Norwegian Church Aid Southern Africa Regional Advocacy Office 

5th June 2020

It is more than six months now since the first COVID-19 case was reported in Wuhan-China, Africa’s first case was reported in Egypt on 14th February while in South Africa it was reported on the 5th of March. In the SADC region except for South Africa, the official total figures of infection rates are still very low, COVID-19 testing although increasing also remains very low. There are concerns from citizens that the figures are low because the governments are either under-reporting the cases or not testing. The level of preparedness although still low due to capacity challenges is slowly increasing, more people are being traced, tested and treated, capacities of isolation centres are being increased. South Africa currently has an impressive recovery rate of more than 50%. While these efforts are commendable, much more still needs to be done as the anticipated peak periods are yet to come. There are fears too that as the winter season settles in, cases may skyrocket. There are also concerns around the quality of some of the isolation centres. Trade Unions, health and education personnel bemoan the lack of and inadequacy of personal protective equipment which is putting the lives of many of those in the frontlines at risk. In South Africa to-date, more than five hundred health workers have tested positive to COVID-19 and half a dozen have sadly lost their lives.

It has become apparent that many economies cannot survive further lockdowns and are under extreme pressure to go back to business. Many people want to go back to start earning a living again. National governments are faced with the dicey and daunting dilemma on how to best save both the ailing economies and human lives, a real difficult balance to strike. Now all of us have to go out and navigate through the new normal and it will not be easy. There will be higher infections and fatality rates, possibly new rounds of infections as we have already seen in places like Germany, Korea and others where infection rates spiked again when they re-opened their economies. I for one, do not envy President Ramaphosa right now – or any other President who is faced with such a dilemma.

I for one, do not envy President Ramaphosa right now – or any other President who is right now faced with such a dilemma.

Clearly COVID-19 and its impacts will be with us for a long time to come. The complex urgency of the nature of the pandemic has seen the world making frantic efforts to deal with the dire situation, overnight re-prioritising and redirecting resources from many other sectors in order to mobilise enough resources to meet the pandemic’s huge demands. Many things have been put on hold and there is a real danger that some critical development sectors are being left behind as the world rightly gets pre-occupied with fighting the COVID-19 war which demands the best of our attention. There are many dangers to this, extreme caution must be taken to ensure that there is a good balance struck between saving the now and saving the future. – the two most urgent competing priorities of our time. The current emergency response, urgent as it is – must not overshadow, neglect or leave behind the long-term development agenda. Equal attention must be given to both, the opportunity cost of not doing this will be so much higher.

Africa and especially the SADC region was already predisposed to a myriad of unique human and economic developmental challenges that were pre-existing before the advent of COVID-19 and now coupled with the additional burden of the short and long-term impacts of the pandemic. These challenges and especially poverty and inequality have played a big role in exacerbating impacts of COVID-19. Concurrently dealing with the pre-existing challenges will make the post pandemic recovery more long-term and much more sustainable. The double pronged approach must be accelerated in order to not lag the continent’s development and achievement of the 2030 Agenda behind.

Resources and energies must be balanced to ensure effective dealing with the now and preparing for a better, stronger and more sustainable future – with a good balance of these, even transition to the post COVID-19 era will be much smoother and both economic recovery and society will be more prepared, more resilient and readier to move on. Resources to fight COVID-19 must be new, additional, predictable and sustainable and not taken out of existing development budgets. Counting COVID-19 support as traditional Official Development Aid (ODA) will severely undermine the already underfunded development budgets and further challenge the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. To raise the required additional funds, debt cancellation, curbing illicit financial flows, strengthening domestic resource mobilisation will be key. Engagement with private sector will also be critical now more than ever before it is time for donors to fulfil the age-old 0.7 percent ODA target.

COVID-19 must not be seen as a challenge but must be embraced as a unique opportunity for repositioning towards a better stronger and more sustainable world, an opportunity to do things anew, revitalise our fractured systems and structures, define a new future  and “Build Back Better” the Africa We Want, The World We Want. Building back better will mean both a total revamp and a strengthening of the current institutional capacities, systems and structures,  a paradigm shift, it will require a comprehensive multi-sectoral approach beyond the health sector, it will mean making sustainability an inherent part of the new structure, building stronger inter-linkages between and across different sectors, dealing decisively with inequality, political will, increased transparency, stronger ownership, total inclusivity, stronger planning, implementation, monitoring, evaluation, synergies and alignment, efficient, effective and accountable use of resources. It will mean many new things that we must be prepared to make sacrifices for – the time for business as usual is fortunately now gone.

Socio-economic inequality, Climate change, gender inequality, private sector engagement, the structural economic architecture, youth unemployment, SMMEs, education, health, social protection, safety nets, public administration, water and sanitation, infrastructure development, rural and urban development, new skills development, partnerships, local production and manufacturing industries, trade, the economic architecture, amongst others are just some of the sectors that will need a revamp. Spending resources towards these sectors should not be seen as a cost but as a long-term investment that will save billions in future, it will also ensure the achievement of the SDGs and more importantly to ensure that the world is better equipped to deal with the next pandemic when it comes. The world cannot afford to be caught unawares ever again. The central and strong role of innovation, technologies, agility and digitalisation can never be overemphasised in the reconstruction and post COVID era.

Allocating resources to these sectors must not be seen as a cost but as a long-term investment

The agenda ahead of us is no child’s play but not insurmountable, there are plenty of lessons to use as we pick ourselves up to move on, – all sectors of society – women, youth, children, communities, local authorities, private sector, civil society, donors faith leaders – have a crucial role to play in reshaping and rebuilding a bigger, better post COVID-19 future. One that is beneficial and more sustainable for all. All stakeholders should redefine coordination, engagement and partnership to go above and beyond the current set-up.

More than ever it is a time to ensure the most efficient use of the scarce resources to avoid unnecessary wastage – transparent, accountable governance and use of public resources. In all this political will and decisive leadership will be paramount. Beyond words to real action, it will require a complete departure from the norm. But we will emerge stronger on the other side.

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