The world inches closer to a million infections of coronavirus globally in a nightmare that has distraught the onset of the 2020s. By the time this article will be going to press, more than 720,000 cases worldwide will have been presumed and confirmed while the death toll will have surpassed 33,900. As the global map shows the West drawn to its knees and a South Asia on the brink of a full-blown episode of their own, Africa is still displaying sporadic nests of infection. It is, nonetheless, growing. And on a map showing the segment of Africa where Malawi locates, our country seems to be in green as its neighbours are already registering cases.
Despite the official reports, there is much for Malawians to worry about.
A combination of porous borders, recent international travel to coronavirus hotspots by Malawians, almost non-existent testing and weak preventive options (hello, church pastors!), weak leadership at the highest level and the newest discovery that SARS-Cov-2 is also airborne, it is foolish to think our country is the chosen nation that will be saved from this scourge. What’s worse is a national psyche that thinks Covid-19 is a foreign disease, let alone other myths that Malawi’s WhatApp conversation has gone to town on.
Here’s something to ponder on. When SARS-Cov-2 and Covid-19 decide to toss their fury at us, we sure won’t be able to duck. We will surely die in scores. A country that continues to behave as though in denial of its vulnerability, Malawi will soon learn that this caution of looming doom was better heeded than bask in the illusion of our phoney readiness.
These are among many factors that raise such concern for our poor country. However, this article focuses on three aspects associated with our compromised economic situation that we believe are most critical at the moment: our large informal economy, flyaway international trade and weak social protection.
Let’s start with the humongous informal economy, which employs 89% of the 5.5 million people, using the 2014 Malawi Labour Force Survey conducted by the National Statistics Office. The daily earnings of many of these 4.9 million people go directly into the purchase of food and other quotidian households needs. These earnings are hardly saved nor invested into wealth creation, meaning the level of vulnerability in Malawi is not one that affects the unemployed alone. And so, to fulfill limited human movement and physical distancing, two strategies epitomizing the prevention of the coronavirus’ violent spread, means cutting the supply of a basic livelihood for these millions of workers. The most available solution to such quandary can only be provisioned by public resources through social security measures, the most effective of which are cash transfers.
Before we can tackle social protection, we need to consider the dynamics of our relationships with key international trade partners. A cringing prospect is what’s about to follow the closing of borders by South Africa, Malawi’s largest trading partner from whom we import at least $411 million worth of goods and services. The scenario is grimmer when one considers that China (our imports are worth $261 million) is only cranking its factories back to life again now after a little more than two months of zero activity, and others such as India ($99 million) and Tanzania ($69 million) will most likely be shutting down either their borders or engines, or both, as their own Covid-19 concerns grow. But even if these latter three trading partners were to keep our trade open, shipping companies have docked their carriers and will reopen at an indefinite future date. The absence of shipping companies means we cannot ship to our top export destinations (Belgium-Luxembourg, Germany, Russia, The United States and South Africa), who annually purchase $486.8 million worth of goods, at least for the next three weeks. There isn’t a textbook solution available to open up a market for our goods or link us to international suppliers of key raw materials, technology and other lifelines like medicines for our hospitals in a global pandemic situation of the current gravity. Even our industries are bound to stand to a halt.
The effects of SARS-Cov-2 and Covid-19 on Malawi will not only start with chocking our nation on the availability of essential goods and services we inadvertently import from others but will directly impact the extent to which government can provide basic services like health and education, which it already miserably fails at. Having said this, it feels right to talk about social protection, which is a song the IMF and the World Bank have been trumpeting as the golden bullet to mitigating the economic impacts of Covid-19 on the masses. First, Malawi does not have such dosh and, secondly, the architecture to deliver such relief is one that has relied on foreign aid since our independence. Much of this aid is on its flight back wherever it comes from as Covid-19 forces a shift in donor priorities within their own troubled borders.
Take, for example, the growing reality that Malawi must close her public spaces, including the markets that our 4.9 million informal market patrons and matrons rely on. In an unlikely world where the Reserve Bank of Malawi printed cash to hand to those most vulnerable, it means cash transfers would yield nothing if there were no markets to purchase basic necessities in the first place.
Our vulnerability is real, and Everton Chimulirenji, Malawi’s disaster Minister, together with Ministries of Health and National Defense, must engage key stakeholders and the nation in designing practical preventative measures for an impending Covid-19 pandemic. He must work with his partners to put in place emergency supply chains of essential foods, goods and services, while ensuring he is the conduit through which medical relief (testing equipment) and facilities can be provisioned to districts and municipalities like they were needed yesterday.
Once, in a slip of the tongue, A Dzonzi – as we’re all fond of calling him – ever proclaimed a “Late Peter Mutharika” at a political campaign rally. His biggest nightmare is that the joke’s now on him if Covid-19 were to pass the security gate at Kamuzu Palace. Which it could.