What Next?

Just when we thought we had our life on this small blue ball in space under control and with some sort of a predictable future, everything is thrown into chaos and our very futures have become totally uncertain. All because of a bug so small it cannot be seen, so fragile, that ordinary soap kills it instantly and so susceptible to sunlight that it survives only a very short time in the open.

Eddie Cross

There are many diseases that are much more devastating but what makes this so serious is the fact that we still do not understand what it is, what it does when it gains access to our body and it seems totally random when it comes to whom it kills.

It has certainly caught our attention and in the process created near panic in ordinary people across the world. In response, humanity has thrown everything it has at the problem. The lockdown adopted by 95 per cent of the global community, has stopped many of the main pillars of economic activity in its tracks. It has wiped perhaps 20 per cent of total output off the map with scant promise that we can get it back and recover anytime soon. Billions of people have lost their livelihoods and jobs.

So here we are, I have been on lockdown now for a month. Meetings on Zoom or Skype, masks over faces when in public and empty streets and closed doors. April and May in Zimbabwe are the best months of the year. Temperatures are moderate, the grass and trees are still green, flowers in profusion and those amazing deep blue skies with no humidity. Last night there was a full moon, it came over the horizon just after 7, a giant pale yellow balloon in a brilliant, star-spangled sky. I do not know anywhere in the world that can match this weather. I should be on the Zambezi River right now, fishing and enjoying the wild outdoors, but we are all on lockdown. The Victoria Falls is roaring at present with double the water going over it into the Georges below, a magnificent, unforgettable sight. But you cannot live on these things, so what’s next?

There is little doubt that the cost of this reaction to the virus is going to be enormous. Many countries highly dependent on tourism or petroleum products and used to 10 per cent growth per annum, year after year, are suddenly faced with Armageddon. The billions who have made their living on the periphery of our economies – fast food, casual workers, the street traders, taxi drivers, airlines, the list goes on and on, are all in dire straits.

The first lesson we have to accept and to take up in terms of a response to try and minimise the damage and get ourselves back on our feet, is to recognise that the shutdown was a massive overreaction. Those countries that adopted an alternative, more targeted policies and strategies have come through the initial phase with their economies still functioning and with fewer deaths and no panic. I think the media had done us a huge disservice when they published horror stories on the virus and its impact, images of people dying in hospitals and the constant, relentless coverage of every aspect. I have never seen anything like this. How can anyone make rational decisions on what to do in an environment of hysteria.

Then we have to take some hard decisions – South Africa and Zimbabwe have to come to grips with their national airlines. They were already bankrupt, only kept alive by massive injections of money from the taxpayers, overstaffed and grossly inefficient and corrupt. I think irreparably so. I think the only solution is open skies and sell off the assets to the highest bidder. There will be no shortage of companies wanting to re-establish services once the world starts to breathe again. Competition will keep the price of such services down. There is no pride to be lost in running an airline that constantly is under threat of falling out of the sky.

Tourism will recover – but will we have the capacity to accommodate them and give them a good experience and value for money? That depends on what we do now. Our hotels are down to 3 per cent occupancy – most are closed. We must protect our human resources, they have to live through this crisis and we must give the companies that employ them support in such a way that they can maintain some acceptable level of remuneration while there simply is no work. We should use this time to refurbish our hotels – many of which are pretty threadbare. Financing this process should be carried out using funds made available at low-interest rates and over a decade or more.

Our primary industries will remain the main drivers of our economy and will not be affected as severely as many other sectors – gold is earning high prices and demand – we could easily be one of the top producers and in the process employ hundreds of thousands in this sector. I do not think that a target of 200 tonnes of gold a year is impossible in 5 years – that would be US$10 billion a year, enough to float the economy and service our liabilities. Add to that Platinum, Chrome, Iron Ore and a dozen other metals and minerals of significance. The mining sector could put us back on our feet in short order.

Then our agriculture. What do we say? We have 10 000 farm dams, many large dams and lakes, we could easily put a million hectares under irrigation today – without significant investment in essential infrastructure. What could we not produce – citrus, sugar, nuts, cotton, hemp fibre and oil, maize, wheat, barley, oats, soybeans and literally hundreds of other products – we used to supply 8 per cent of the EU demand for vegetables and flowers. Instead we are importing 70 per cent of everything we could produce locally. All the resources are here – water, land, climate and altitude. This is Gods own country and all we have to do is manage it properly.

Then we need to recognise that we are in a strategic position in this part of Africa. Look at a map – we are the very fulcrum of southern Africa. We already have the Southern African Power Pool in Harare – managing regional power supplies for 11 countries. Now we need to establish Harare as the regional energy powerhouse. We have the largest storage facilities for refined petroleum fuels in Africa, in Harare, hardly used. If we became the regional hub for fuel supplies, not only could we reduce energy costs but also guarantee supply. It would put billions of dollars through our financial markets and use our railways to feed regional markets.

Then we need to recognise that we must invest in our infrastructure – we need to upgrade all major transit routes, repair our feeder roads and make our urban roads fit to travel on. We need to get our railway network up to full operational standard and equip our railways with thousands of new waggons and hundreds of new and refurbished locomotives. We need to give our people free Wi-Fi and access to the web in every home, school and village.

Finally, let’s build accommodation for our University and College students. Let’s build the 2000 new schools we need and the extra 16 000 classrooms we need in our schools. Let’s give everyone who occupies land – urban and rural, title deeds, creating tens of billions of dollars’ worth of negotiable property and value. Let’s motivate our people to get back to work. Get our Diaspora to invest in us and to bring back to Zimbabwe the skills and experience to manage what would be the fastest recovery of any economy in the world and then maintain our growth at double-digit figures until we can claim the status of one of Africans jewel Nations. You think I am dreaming, yes I am, but I think it can be done.

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