KAMPALA – My brother Rwakakamba Morrison (visit his Facebook page) has outlined several measures to cushion the country especially low-income people during this difficult Covid19 period. My view is an alternative to his proposals and takes a different lens at the problem given the fact that we do not know when all this will ease out, so that people can go back to their normal lives.
It is now becoming clear each passing day that the Covid19 economic fall-out will last longer than anybody had initially anticipated. Every passing day builds speculation and drives panic across the world. In Uganda, our level of preparedness on all fronts is shaky and if this situation lasts longer, it is likely to throw the economy into turmoil.
The government, therefore, needs to take a scenario approach and look at interventions to create stability across a three-time horizon [Short-Medium-Long term]. Taking a unilateral approach without clarity on when, how all this will end is planning on the basis of guesswork. What is clear though is that a potential vaccine will be available in 18 months if we are lucky. We can, therefore, plan as if stability and relief will return in 18 months.
Taking a three-scenario approach, today I would like to focus on short-term (1-3 months) interventions that the government can adopt to cushion the people during the “lock-down” and business disruption. These short-term interventions are purely focused on ensuring that poor people survive over the next three months considering that people’s livelihoods have been disrupted due to the public transport ban. The priorities for this short-term period place focus on Food, medicals, Utilities, Financial Services and Enhanced Awareness.
- FOOD: Having people on “lock-down” without alternatives to survive is dangerous. The government will soon have to deal not with just Covid19, but a spike in crime, lawlessness, and chaos. Hungry people can’t be silenced, stopped or counseled. We are lucky that food is produced locally here, and we have had good rains from 2019. There’s, therefore, no reason why prices should go up. However, prices are expected to start going up, as logistics of moving food becomes costly.
The dollar is running away, and we all know that this impacts fuel prices. A smart move is to quickly remove ALL TAXES on fuel, keep logistics of moving low and this would be expected to keep food prices low so that even those struggling to survive with their little income can afford food. The government can offer incentives for logistical companies to ensure food gets delivered in all markets across the country and remains available during this period. As fuel prices start to go up, and food prices increase, with a population locked at home because they can’t work anymore (no way of moving to work because of public transport ban), expect large scale disruptions which will throw the government in more chaos and divert resources & attention away from the Covid19 struggle.
There will be groups that won’t be able to afford food. These are segments that survive only when they show up to work. Create a mechanism to avail food to these groups using the same approach we have been using for refugees. Work with local NGOs to trace these groups and distribute food with strict supervision from security.
- MEDICALS: The most important soldiers we need in this fight are the medical professionals. They’re already few, stretched and poorly motivated. With Covid19 numbers likely to go up – not mentioning other illnesses – they will find themselves working longer hours and some will start to drop dead or fail to show up because of pressure and work-related stress. You, therefore, need to ensure you are remunerating them well and compensating their time.
Firstly, recall all retired health professionals willing to work and design a good incentive package for them. Get all idle government vehicles and prioritize them to move these people to health facilities and ensure their package is tripled. Call back all university medical students in the 3rd and 4th year to provide back-up. Ensure they’re trained in the basics of handling Cobid19 victims.
Secondly, ensure all hospitals have basic supplies that are needed especially the major referral hospitals – Beds, gloves, masks, testing kits e.t.c to deal with the numbers likely to show up at these facilities and ensure that the medical teams are well equipped to work.
With public transport closed, avail government cars to transport health professionals and people especially those that will fall ill of other illnesses or even Covid19 cases that get registered. Today, a mother gave birth in Kulambiro on the road side, with boda boda banned from carrying passengers, nobody was willing to help. This is just one case, but there could be many out there and they will die if we don’t help them.
- UTILITIES: In this period, people need energy and water. NWSC is a government parastatal it should offer water free during this time. The poor that do not have access to water can access the same at nearby taps in their communities at no cost. Water is critical during this time to ensure we do not register new cases. All households in poor communities such as those likely to be hit hard by the infection can be given free soap for hand-wash every week – NGOs working in these places can help with distribution, work closely with them. The had hit areas include slums and areas congested with settlements in and around Kampala.
To ensure continuity of food production, zero rate energy for millers who are now making maize flour, remove costs for utilities to keep food production at low cost and monitor them to pass on this cost saving to consumers in form of reduced prices for maize flour. All household’s energy-related fees (VAT, Service fees e.t.c should be suspended) and the per-unit cost of power reduced by 50%.
- Financial Services: With most businesses grounded or edging towards grounding, the central bank should engage with all Financial Service Providers to lessen the burden on loan repayments. Loans should be restructured on a case by case basis and installment payments suspended for hard-hit sectors – such as hotels, tourism e.t.c. The cost of restructuring, rescheduling should be borne by the banks. All taxes on financial service transactions should be suspended.
Finally, in this era of information, people need to know what is going on and social media platforms should continue working and ensuring information flow remains consistent. Remove OTT and all related taxes on data bundles, voice calls to allow people to communicate easily and access information.
- Campaigns on hygiene: Finally, to guard against new infections, step up awareness campaigns in the vulnerable communities and places that still have groups of people such as food markets. Deploy police and health workers in all markets to ensure personal hygiene is maintained and people adhere to strict guidelines. The presence of health personnel and a standby ambulance will be key to quickly take-away anybody with Covid19 like symptoms before they infect other people.
Leverage all media platforms to educate communities on how to avoid catching the disease, for the next epi-center of infections is likely to be markets as compliance is still low and most people are taking this disease lightly.
With all these strategies, the question would be how will the government meet the revenue shortfall? Here are two options to address this question.
- There’s a pending election next year and the country cannot have an election when everyone is dead. Parliament can vote to delay the election, allowing the government to channel these funds to meet the needs above and plug some of the revenue short-falls.
- The World Bank and IMF have already signaled that IDA countries will be excused from paying installments during this difficult time – Uganda is an IDA country. Engage the World Bank country team and all other lenders to explore this window. The funds meant to cover these installments can be used to address these short-term measures and bridge the revenue gaps.
These short-term measures are expected to ensure there’s continuity, people don’t starve and die, and chaos is minimized as the government works to limit new infections.
Nathan is the President of the Nathan & Christine Were Foundation, a charity with interest in education, health, and social welfare.