An American doctor at the frontline of fighting the novel coronavirus surge said recently that, “Fear is a great way to control people and sometimes people’s ability to think for themselves is paralyzed if they are frightened enough.”
In Uganda, the fear of catching or dying from Covid-19 has been harnessed well and channeled to good effect and success within the population. This fear has been used to draw people off the streets and into their homes to avoid catching the coronavirus. People have reluctantly heeded the stay-at-home, stay-safe government advice.
But as the pandemic and the presidential lockdown ordered to slow the spread of the virus stretch on – the two are beginning to add another layer of agony; biting hunger. With each passing day, the biting hunger is beginning to blunt the fear of catching the virus that has killed thousands in Europe, USA and Asia.
“We are hungry, we need food,” is becoming the most prevalent chant among the vulnerable poor daily; and the hunger and anger are palpable too.
We are also beginning to see pockets of food protests and arrests. On April 20, police arrested two people and dispersed others who had blocked roads protesting government failure to provide relief food in Namungoona area in Lubaga division, Kampala district.
The protesters first visited local leaders’ homes demanding for relief food. When they got nothing, they went to the main roads and blocked them. Patrick Onyango, the Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesman, said then that police intelligence had established that the Namungoona group was mobilised by people intending to run in the next general elections.
Music promoters; Abby Musinguzi aka Abtex and Andrew Mukasa alias Bajjo Events were also arrested and arraigned on Thursday, May 7 before Buganda Road court for allegedly disobeying lawful orders set up by the president to contain the spread of Covid-19.
The two were arrested for protesting against the delayed food distribution. The government food donation committee is slow walking its way into homes in Kampala and Wakiso and this is stirring fury especially among the hand-to-mouth workers who are the majority.
Many have been out of work for at least 40-plus days and yet government has not put in place adequate social safety measures to support the vulnerable people – apart from the donation of six kilogrammes of maize flour and three kilogrammes of beans.
Each of the 1.8 million urban poor in the capital Kampala and Wakiso district are the immediate beneficiaries of the government relief food but loud and angry cries for food in the countryside are getting louder too.
The distribution of the food has been slow and in some areas halted due to complaints related to the quality of the food supplied. Only a few areas in Kampala have been covered by the relief distribution teams since April 4 when they started the process. And some of the lucky few that got food early in April are asking for more. They are hard up again.
Any extended, unsubsidised absence from work is rattling many people who are beginning to see their small businesses and capital evaporate. The corporate and salaried government employees with bank accounts, who President Museveni said have savings hat can tide them over the Covid-19 crisis are beginning to cry too.
The savings have diminished. Some have been laid off or salaries cut or delayed. Hunger and loss of livelihood are becoming a recipe for disaster.
According to the Bank of Uganda Monetary Policy report for April 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic is also likely to worsen Uganda’s external position, through its adverse effects on the flow of international trade, tourism, workers’ remittances, foreign direct investment (FDI) and loan disbursements.
The Uganda external revenue position remains weak, characterised by, a relatively large current account deficit. This bleak projection means that when the country re-opens its economy, government might struggle to meet the growing expectations of citizens whose livelihoods and businesses have been severely disrupted or irretrievably destroyed by the lockdown.
BoU says that in the 12 months to February 2020, the current account deficit stood at US$ 2,384.5 million, albeit it slightly improved by US$90.7 million, relative to the year to February 2019. The stock of reserves as at the end of February 2020, was estimated at US$3,305.4 million (including valuation changes), equivalent to 4.3 months of future imports of goods and services.
The foreign exchange reserves are, however, projected to decline to about 3.5 months of import cover by the end of FY 2019/20 mainly on account of the coronavirus.
According to the report, fiscal operations in the eight months of FY 2019/20 were constrained by lower than programmed government revenue and underperformance in development expenditure.
Government revenue (including grants) amounted to Sh 12,675.6 billion, which was lower than programmed levels by Shs 1,976.5 billion. The lower than target revenue was underpinned by the underperformance of both domestic revenue and grants.
Economic activity slackened in 2019, BoU says. Indeed, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) estimates economic growth at 3.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019 from 7.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018 and a total growth rate of 3.3 percent in the first half of 2019.
In the near term, activity in the Ugandan economy is likely to decline considerably. Indeed, the BoU has revised its growth rate projection for FY2019/20 to 3-4 percent.
Manufacturing, construction and the services sectors are the most affected. The services sector is projected to slow down significantly, with considerable effects on trade, hotels and accommodation, repairs, transportation, storage, financial and insurance activities mainly caused by a decline in tourism, travel restrictions and supply chain disruptions.
Given that grim projection, without help, companies big and small will run out of business and many workers will lose jobs. This will stoke more anger. Government needs to spend large sums of money to prevent the economy from collapsing.
It’s good news that the donor community has come to the rescue of Uganda. In tweet-after-tweet over the last two months, the donor community has publicly announced an outpouring of financial support to help tide Uganda over the Covid-19 crisis.
Elsewhere in Africa, the rushed imposition of rigid lockdowns has unleashed widespread social instability and economic uncertainty. The coronavirus disease pandemic caught African leaders unprepared. As the situation escalated rapidly, with the global death toll reaching tens of thousands in a matter of weeks, they were unable to come up with and implement homegrown solutions to stem the spread of the disease in their countries.
As a result, they went on to copy the strategies of other countries, imposing strict lockdowns and closing their borders. The rushed and broadly contentious imposition of rigid lockdowns in Africa, however, unleashed widespread social instability, hunger and profound economic uncertainty, leaving vendors, small-scale farmers and undocumented migrants struggling to survive.
On April 16, for example, informal vendors rallied against a proposed 21-day coronavirus lockdown in Malawi. A day after the march, in response to a petition filed by the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), Malawi’s High Court temporarily barred the government from implementing a 21- day lockdown.
The crux of the HRDC’s opposition to a lockdown in Malawi is the lack of adequate social safety measures to support underprivileged people.
Zimbabwe, meanwhile, is also struggling to maintain a lockdown, which has caused immense hardships for vendors and small traders who are restricted from working.
This could not have happened at a worse time: Zimbabwe is overwhelmed by economic and humanitarian challenges. According to the World Food Programme, 7.7 million people, roughly half of the country’s population, are food-insecure. Clearly, a hastily convened British-style lockdown is exacerbating a crippling food crisis and compounding a litany of long-established economic problems.
The International Monetary Fund estimates that at 60.6 percent, Zimbabwe has the largest informal economy in Africa. And in a nation where 90 percent of the population is reliant on informal employment, any extended, unsubsidised absence from work is certainly a recipe for disaster.
The National Vendors Union Zimbabwe has revealed that informal vendors are “going through a tough period” and facing “extreme hunger”, especially without government support to lean on.
To the east of Zimbabwe, Mozambique is hardly faring any better. There, the peasantry constitutes 80 percent of the economically active population, producing 90 percent of the food available in the country. A 30-day state of emergency, beginning on April 1, declared by President Filipe Nyusi, has, according to the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, bred devastating consequences for small-scale farmers in three ways.
Peasant farmers are selling their products way below the market price as the supply chain has broken down. They are struggling to buy basic commodities due to reduced income from crop sales. And the lockdown regulations have affected the supply of agrarian labour in rural areas.
Elsewhere, in South Africa, the questionable classification of essential workers and services has left many vendors, small business owners and traders reeling from the loss of business enforced by a national shutdown. Yet it is township-based businesses and self-styled traders that stand to suffer the most.
Although registered spaza shops (informal convenience shops usually run from private residences) have been allowed to operate during an extended lockdown, not every informal trader or spaza is catered for.
Small Business Development Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, under the pretext of safeguarding “the quality of food and surety of the quality of products”, cast doubt on whether foreign-owned spaza shops would be allowed to operate during the lockdown.
Yet any exclusionary measures might spell financial doom for migrant-owned spaza shops which have long been targets of xenophobic looting. Ntshavheni, nevertheless, also did not clarify whether thousands of migrant-owned spaza shops can seek economic aid from the 500 million South African rands ($26.5m) relief fund established for small businesses.
The all-round, critical desperation for help is palpable and the government is inundated with requests for food parcels. Although the Unemployment Insurance Fund is processing applications to subside incomes for unpaid employees, experts estimate 45 percent of all workers are not eligible for financial aid.
Undocumented migrants, however, cannot apply to receive financial aid or food parcels, and the government has not provided clarity on how undocumented migrants can access essential healthcare services or possibly much-needed money.
South Africa’s unprecedented $26.5bn coronavirus support package includes a special six-month-long Covid-19 grant of 350 rands ($18) for the unemployed. Despite this vital intervention, the National School Nutrition Programme remains shut, potentially leaving nine million children vulnerable to hunger.
Critics of the government’s handling of the lockdown contend more must be done to help poor people. The South African Federation of Trade Unions and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union believe the $18 benefit falls way short of meeting the monthly needs of the unemployed and historically disadvantaged individuals residing in townships and marginalised informal settlements.
The comprehensive problems associated with lockdowns in Southern Africa have resulted in empty food markets in Ghana and Uganda. In Nigeria, a combination of corruption at roadblocks, regulations and an extended lockdown in Lagos, have increased transport and operational costs for vendors and farmers, leaving many with depressed financial returns.
African governments must find local, workable solutions to enforce social distancing that would allow crucial economic activities to flourish.
That large, wealthy agricultural and food manufacturing companies have been allowed to operate while poor and essential ser grapple with red tape and adverse regulations is a sad indictment on agreed national commitments to facilitating inclusive economic participation.
Post-COVID-19, many African states might struggle to meet the growing expectations of citizens whose livelihoods have been severely disrupted or irretrievably destroyed by the unintended consequences of enacting unworkable lockdowns.
Going forward, governments must consider establishing a universal basic income grant and formally recognising the importance of informal economies to Africa’s social and economic wellbeing and development.