Zambia’s precarious balancing act: health versus the economy

While the COVID-19 pandemic gripped most of Europe in March this year, the experience of the virus for much of Africa, including Zambia, was only just beginning. Despite the absence of any cases by the 17th of March, in a pro-active measure, the Zambian government announced the closure of all educational institutes and placed restrictions on air travel, as the country braced itself for the possibility of the virus being imported or discovered. The following day, the first two cases were indeed confirmed by the Ministry of Health, namely a Zambian couple who had returned to the country from France on the 15th of March. This attempt to pre-empt the spread of the virus through early restrictions appears to show that the Zambian government hoped to protect both the health of its citizenry and an already unstable economy.

The early measures taken by Zambia and other African nations were praised throughout the Western world, while many European countries, such as Italy and the United Kingdom, were criticised for failing to act swiftly against COVID-19. Many accredited the initial success of some African counties, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, to the repurposing of infrastructure previously developed to deal with outbreaks. In particular, existing facilities and measures from the Ebola epidemic of 2014 and  Tuberculosis (TB) prevention have been widely repurposed for the COVID-19 pandemic. As TB and COVID-19 both appear to spread through exhaled droplets, healthcare workers who have worked with TB are likely to be more familiar with the protective equipment that is now required to treat patients potentially infected with COVID-19. Other factors were also debated as possible reasons as to why Africa appeared to be avoiding the brunt of the virus in March and April, such as having a head start on the virus after witnessing its effects in Europe and China, a warmer climate, and a younger population. While cases climbed steadily amid efforts to ‘flatten the curve’, no widespread outbreaks occurred in the early weeks of the pandemic.

However, despite initial optimism that Africa would be spared the worst of the pandemic, fears soon rose stipulating that it was more likely to be the significant lack of testing that was causing the low number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across the continent. Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (AFRICA CDC), stated in mid-May that a mere 1.3 million tests had been conducted across the continent, which is sorely disproportionate to the continent’s population of over 1 billion. Within the continent, there are also large discrepancies between countries regarding the number of tests being carrying out. For example, Mali was reported to have administered only 0.17 tests per 1000 people, in comparison to Mauritius’ 61 tests for every 1,000 people, which was impressive on the global scale.

In May, Zambia joined some other African countries in relaxing their COVID-19 measures. In a Facebook live broadcast address to the nation on the 8th of May, Zambian President Edgar Chagwa Lungu announced the reopening of restaurants, casinos, and gyms, while bars and pubs were to remain closed. School grades that required end-of-year examinations in order to progress to the next year were also allowed to resume their education on the 1st June under socially-distanced conditions. As the measures were lifted, Zambia saw an increase in COVID-19 cases, following the pattern of many other African countries.

The resurgence of a COVID-19 outbreak or a significant increase in cases following the ending of lockdown is a common trend in many African countries. It appears that countries that instigated early lockdowns succeeded only in temporarily suppressing the virus and pushing the viral peak to occur at a later time. This can be seen with the case of South Africa, which began gradually easing lockdown regulations in June after an extremely strict and long lockdown. The decision to reopen further sectors of South Africa seemed to be based more on the economic needs of the country than the health advice of experts or the COVID-19 statistics of the country. According to Statistics South Africa’s quarterly labour force survey, unemployment had increased from 29.1% to 30.1% in the first quarter of 2020, before the pandemic even hit. When explaining his lifting of restrictions, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa pointed to the need to preserve the economic livelihoods of all citizens and particularly those who already live in poverty and are unable to access income subsidy schemes.

Similar challenges were seen in Nigeria, which also eased restrictions in May but soon became the third African country to record over 10 000 COVID-19 cases. As it stands, Nigeria has now recorded over 50 000 cases of the virus, facing the third largest outbreak of COVID-19 in Africa as well as an economic downturn. During the lockdown, a dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia caused the price of fossil fuel to fall significantly, which significantly devalued the Nigerian currency. With a partial lockdown still in place and the risk of continued inflation, Nigeria faces a long recovery for both its healthcare system and its economy.

This precarious balancing of both the health of citizens and the economy has been a common issue facing the countries across the world during the pandemic. It brings forward the moral question – how much can and should be sacrificed? Governments are put in a difficult position by having to weigh the value of human life against the cost to the economy. While most European countries enjoy the safeguard of a stable economy, many developing countries must be extra pragmatic about the decisions they make. Indeed, the decisions made by governments today have significant life-and-death effects for their citizens, not just in the short term but for decades to come.  However, a pandemic left to spiral out of control through a ‘business as usual’ approach is likely to only place a higher burden on already struggling healthcare systems, which in turn creates further economic problems. As John Hopkins University lecturer Chiedo Nwankwor commented, “Some governments across the continent are already walking the tight rope of trying to save their ailing economies, now further sickened by the pandemic, and saving the lives of their citizens, which resembles somewhat of a catch-22 situation”.

The future challenges facing Zambia and other African nations may be even worse than what they face today. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) highlights a larger issue that Africa will face while trying to recover from the pandemic, that of a “double supply and demand shock” that will come in three waves. Concerning Zambia in particular, the first wave refers to the economic effects of China pulling out of investment and trade with Zambia. Zambia’s economy relies heavily on exports to China, and China is also one of the main investors in Zambian development projects. A loss of investment to rebuild the country and a loss of exports to China could cause Zambia’s already weakened economy to collapse. The second and third waves refer to the loss of trade and tourism from European Union countries and the virus’s effects on intra-African trading.

In an attempt to handle the decrease in international exports, the Zambian government announced an economic stimulus package of 8 billion ($439 million) through the COVID-19 bond. However, the short-term fix for the economy appeared to be business as usual, despite an increase of confirmed COVID-19 cases from 1,594 in June to 5,963 in July. Areas of social gatherings such as restaurants or the workplace remained open, with emphasis on social distancing and personal hygiene. Even when parliament had to be closed on the 21st of July due to the increase in COVID-19 cases, no new measures were announced to combat the rise in cases.

The necessity of balancing health needs with economic needs may explain why today Zambia has continued to function virtually as normal, except for citizens being encouraged to wear face coverings and follow social distancing. The World Bank estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic will push a further 49 million people into extreme poverty in 2020 and that 23 million of them will be from Sub-Saharan Africa. With this negative forecast, African countries may be anxious to stabilise their domestic economies as soon as possible, to position themselves as best as possible for the future.

Cases continue to rise in Zambia, with the total number of confirmed cases to date standing at more than 12 000 at the date of publication. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) has also added Zambia to the list of countries to be avoided for non-essential travel; serving another blow to Zambia’s economy as tourism is a major industry for the country. An economic crisis appears certain for Zambia’s future, but whether it will be the main issue facing the country in 2020, or background to the more pressing health crisis, is yet to be seen.