Botswana’s Response to Covid-19: A few thoughts- On the informal sector, workers and the homeless (Part One)

We live in unusual but not unprecedented times. We have had pandemics before in the world but at varying degrees of severity. Old timers will talk about the Spanish flu, in Mexico they will talk about the small pox that nearly wiped out the population of their indigenous peoples from the face of the earth. However, these remain trying times; for our governments, social institutions and for us as individuals.

In this article I would like to make a commentary on Botswana’s response to the Covid-19 virus. I run the risk of being critical or sounding unappreciative for what the government has done so far. Such is the risk of doing what I endeavour to do. My critique is meant to be constructive for us to improve our response in an unusually fluid situation. Personally, I have been impressed by the response by government to deal with the Corona virus so far. The government response from border control has been commendable.

Government response is however not limited to disease control as there are economic ramifications during the outbreak of a pandemic as we are currently experiencing. In the ‘90s and ’00s when the HIV pandemic had Botswana by the throat resulting in a fall in productivity, the country saw a dip in the amount of FDI flowing into the country. We, therefore, cannot ignore the economic realities that such a situation brings to the fore. In the USA we have seen the stock market slip into the bear-market territory as indicators of the market like the Dow Jones tanked by 20%. Our response as a country is of paramount of importance.

Today (April 1, 2020), the Minister of Economic Development and Planning along with his contemporaries held a press conference to address the country on policy interventions during these trying times. On the whole, the policy package, which includes tax breaks, loan repayment holidays and financial grants among others, will serve well to protect businesses. We must applaud before we critic what the government has done. With the acknowledgement of the fluidity of the situation, I wish to highlight the aspects of the package that I feel were inadequately dealt with or omitted. As the situation evolves, we shall deal with any such developments.

Firstly, I wish to deal with interventions designed for the informal sector. I wish to point out that my concern stems from the fact that the informal sector is the largest employer in the country. In the National Development Plan 11 policy document, government made is abundantly clear that the development of the informal sector. This acknowledgement by government is in the following unequivocal terms “Income earning opportunities created through this channel do not only create employment, but also provide the economy with an inclusive growth momentum…” I, therefore, found it mind boggling that the informal sector was not included in the package.

 For developing countries, Botswana included, most persons earn a living through the informal sector and it is usually associated with the most vulnerable in our society. Women, especially those without formal education, find themselves in employed in this sector. A failure to protect this sector in times of economic uncertainty will definitely plunge a majority of the them into poverty, erasing the gains we have made as a country. While government has myriad of social protection measures, these are not adequate to protect those who make their living in this sector. Worse still, some may never be able to return to their ‘businesses’ owing to financial ruin that is but guaranteed at the moment.

My plea to government is to put up measures that may ensure that those in the informal sector are able to continue with their trade. I believe certain restrictions and measures can be made to ensure, as an example, that street vendors are able to ply their trade. Imagine the plight of a vegetable vendor who would be left with perishable stock that she won’t be able to sell while a national chain supermarket is able to sell its stock. The cost is too high further adding pressure to government limited resources allocated to social protection measures.

Secondly, workers in the formal sector especially the private sector will not be spared the brunt of the pain of what is to come. From a legal standpoint, we know that contracts in some instances would stand suspended by operation of law owing impossibility of performance. I will not discuss the technicalities thereof here. 

I am of the view that government should put in place measures to cushion workers who are going to be affected. Temporary unemployment benefits can be deployed for those who all of a sudden find themselves without a paycheck for the time being. A failure to do that may plunge many into financial ruin. This would also mean that some debts won’t be fulfilled with a negative impact on the financial sector. In her address, the Minister of Trade did mention that loan payment holidays may affect the capacity of finance institutions to offer services for a while. Be that as it may, one would have hoped that loan repayment holidays would have been extended to workers who find themselves with suspended contracts and without a paycheck.

Third and most harrowing concern is in relation to the homeless. This is the time for government to provide shelter for our homeless population. Controlling their movement, providing adequate hygiene and nutrition to these poor souls will go a long way to fighting Covid-19. I believe the military engineering corp can be engaged to set up temporary shelters for these people. This is a matter of urgency which does not have to wait for a situational analysis as the Minister of Local Government. Mr. President, I am on bended knees pleading with you to protect our most vulnerable. The humanity of your, rather our government will be judged by how we deal with the most vulnerable not on tax rebates and financial aid to the rich and powerful.

In closing, I urge all to follow the advice of health experts. Stay Home and Stay Safe. We shall persevere.

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