Extraordinary Times

Every time you think you have seen everything that the world can throw at you along comes something else, completely unexpected.

Eddie Cross

For the past 5 weeks I, like billions of others, have been in lockdown at home. Not a great sacrifice for someone like me whose life comprises talking and meeting others and planning the way forward, I can do all of that from my home office. Thanks to Skype and Zoom and the glorious internet.

Like others around the world I have never seen anything like this – I am a news fanatic and watch several news services on a continuous basis, but there is no news – just one subject, this damned virus. And then this eerie atmosphere – no traffic sounds, silent roads and empty buildings, no sport, no school functions, no Church meetings. It is almost as if life itself is at a standstill.

Like others I am fed up with news and advice about the thing, everyone is an expert and yet no one seems to know what exactly it is or how things will pan out. But right now my main concern is that our reaction to the pandemic is going to be much worse than the disease itself. It’s not that we have not been here before. Our history is littered with new diseases that seemed overwhelming at the time but were eventually dealt with and with which we learned to live. I do not think that this new virus is any different and we need to urgently revise our approach to dealing with it as a new health threat – joining all the other diseases we still have to contend with.

I am old enough to remember Polio and Tuberculosis. Diseases that loomed large and affected millions. When I was born my parents took me to a clinic where I was given an inoculation against TB and then at school, I was treated for Polio by a drop of something on my tongue. But in their day they were terrifying. So what is different about Covid 19? We will eventually get a medical response, but this global panic? These sweeping decisions and the enforced shut down of everything that actually makes this world work (to some extent).

We have, in the past 200 years been able to reduce poverty on a scale never seen in history, we have created a world economy that enables us to live longer than at any other time, eat better, enjoy things that were unimaginable for even my parents. It is all now under threat from a bug we cannot see or control. We have reached for the skies and beyond, we have gone to places where man has never been and we hold in our hands weapons so powerful that they could destroy the world, but we are running from a bug so vulnerable it cannot survive heat or common soap. Come on world, wake up!

I live in Africa, in Zimbabwe, and we have almost zero capacity to deal with the virus and its side effects in any significant way for the majority. If you present yourself here with Covid symptoms, they will send you home – you are much more of a threat to the health workers themselves and they can do little to help you. We are mostly on our own in this hand to hand fight with the virus. We cannot even test on any sort of scale so here we are fighting a disease which our leaders say has killed 4 people with 23 cases confirmed!! Our death rate from normal things is probably several hundred people a day, but we die from Aids or Aids-related problems, Tuberculosis, Malaria, Cholera, Diabetes, Cancer and even poverty and malnutrition. We need perspective.

Intensive care for someone who cannot breathe because of the virus costs thousands of dollars every day – we cannot afford that for anyone except the wealthy or the powerful, the rest of us must fight this battle at home. Most of our people have no savings, they live from hand to mouth, hunger is a daily problem, many only eating once a day. Tens of thousands sleep rough or in crowded accommodation where whole families live in a single room. Water is a problem everywhere, let alone clean water. Our State schools, when they open, have over 50 kids per classroom – I have seen classes so crowded they sit on the floor because we cannot get furniture and kids into the space available.

Did you see the millions trying to leave the urban areas in India, not because they fear infection, but because the shutdown has denied them the only way they can make a living! After registering the lowest rate of unemployment in recent history in the USA, tens of millions in the States are unemployed and unable to even feed themselves. For these people the Covid 19 threat is the least of their problems.

Our next deadline for a decision on the lockdown in the 4th May. We have to start thinking about how we get back to work and school. Schools are due to reopen on the 5th May and personally I see no way in which we can sustain the lockdown for much longer. I do not really think we have any choice but to start to gradually go back to work.

Clearly everyone has to alter their personal habits – no handshaking, no direct contact, regular hand washing, sit in the sunshine for half an hour every day, eat the right foods, increase your vitamin c intake and wear a mask when in public and meeting people you do not know. If you get the bug, go home and deal with the side effects and rest, self-isolate. At school, all I can see us doing is to get the kids to wash hands and faces regularly and take their temperature on arrival and if they have a spike in temperature, send them home until the all-clear.

We have little choice but to rely on our own defence mechanisms and the capacity of our bodies to fight back, perhaps with a bit of help from the medical cabinet. For 95 per cent of us, this should be adequate. Of course, we will see deaths but that is part of life and all of us have to prepare for that day. If we think otherwise we delude ourselves. I was astonished, for example, to read last week that the overall death rate in the UK at about 12 000 a week has not increased to any extent. The virus is an accelerator and we need to understand that this new challenge once again reminds us of our vulnerability and not to take our health for granted. Exercise, eat properly, avoid excesses, stop smoking.

If we do, it may actually help us to avoid many health challenges that have become so common it is scary.

The next issue is post Covid recovery. I think that given the situation in almost every major economy around the world, that it is going to be at least until the end of 2020 before we can really expect things to start to get back to “normal”, whatever that represents. It is clear that major damage to our global economic system is unavoidable. I doubt if we can get away with less than a ten per cent decline in our formal GDP. But the situation sector by sector is very different – the tourism industry is going to be hardest hit, the travel industry even more so. It now looks as if SAA is going to go to the wall, something that seemed impossible until recently. Many other companies in this sector will follow.

But we have many things in our favour. First is that we are a very resilient country. We have been to hell and back in recent years – economic collapse is something we have all seen and experienced. I look back on 2000 to 2008 and ask myself how on earth did we survive? So we know how to white water raft in economic terms. Then we have little personal debt. Our homes and cars are all owned without bond liabilities or lease charges. Our National Debt has not been serviced for years and no one expects us to start anytime soon.

We do not have the resources to help anyone in trouble, so we all know we have to “make a plan” and when things do start to recover, we will be in a good position to take advantage. But it is going to be tough.

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