In Zambia, calls for lockdowns have been made by bona fide institutions including eminent persons such as Zambia’s former Ministers of Finance, Dr. Situmbeko Musokotwane and Ng’andu Magande, respectively. I have singled out the latter because they should have weighed in on the impact of a lockdown to the economy of Zambia, which by itself is already weak. While I have no problems with a lockdown, I am opposed to a total lockdown. My reasons are few.
First, a total lockdown will keep people at home and significantly reduce on economic activity, only allowing few entities to be in operation. The aim is to ensure there is maximum social distance. Locking people at home, possibly under the supervision of security agencies, will have its own serious consequences.
I have blogged in the past two weeks that the structure of our economy is very informal. The bulk of the citizens live hand-to-mouth. A day out of the market to interact with buyers is as good as death. Only about two percent of Zambians have savings that can sustain them for a couple of months. The majority survive by either constantly selling something, offering temporary labour or seeking support from working relatives.
Without the guidance of social scientists, able to understand the dynamics of social structures and how people earn a living, a total lockdown will fail. Other countries, such as South Africa have gone the route of a total lockdown. Pictures emerging show long queues of citizens seeking to purchase supplies. Social distancing in these cases is non-existent, implying the same measures can possibly facilitate the spread of the virus.
South Africa has also been able to support its vulnerable citizens with financial means. I am not sure about the extent to which the social cash transfers in Zambia can ease the economic burden that hundreds of thousands of our citizens are facing. A total lockdown will certainly be a hard call and will most likely lead to unconventional strategies by our citizens to earn incomes. It is in these informal, unguided, unconventional approaches of earning a living under a total lockdown that the coronavirus may find breeding ground. I would rather the social distancing is managed in such a way it does not keep away people from engaging in certain activities while allowing for self-monitoring and providing necessary guidance to everyone.
The second reason is about what a lockdown will do to the economy that is already facing serious problems. The treasury is already in some lockdown because the resources from taxes will significantly fall during this period. Civil servants’ salaries will most likely fall into arrears for six to eight weeks. The choice now is between the rock and the hard place. Already, with many companies directing their staff to operate from home, the level of business activities has slumped. The hospitality industry is on a forced lockdown. Other industries will follow suite simply because there is a huge reduction in visits by tourists.
Others are on an automatic lockdown because of some of the measures undertaken by health authorities to limit social contact. The alcohol industry is one of those that, even without placing soldiers at the gates to ensure they do not open, will on its own scale down operations. When bars, the outlet for 80 percent of the products, are shut down, companies that produce alcohol will have to shut down 80 percent of the equipment.
My advice is that as we take lockdown measures, we should do so strategically. It is not only because I am concerned about how the economy will survive long term or how individual households will survive. It is mainly because when we take the hard route to protect lives, individuals will find the backdoor to survive and it is in that backdoor, away from the monitoring screen, that the coronavirus may prove to be problematic. I would rather we continue with partial or selective lockdown while seriously monitoring what is happening elsewhere.