A perfect storm

Eddie Cross

I HATE to say it but we are in for a rough time. Our wet season is almost over and here in Harare we are sitting on about 450 ml — half our normal rainfall. We have had enough for our trees and grass but the rivers have not run as normal and our dams are about 60%. Dangerous going into our long dry season. It is what I call a ”green drought” year, we have grass but no surface water. It means that our towns and cities are at risk of water shortages and livestock will struggle. Also we face a shortage of water for next season’s planting and for the winter crops that need irrigation.

This makes for a difficult year with all the other things that are going on and now we have the panic over the coronavirus. I say panic because we are in danger of making the cure worse than the disease. This is going to infect hundreds of millions around the world and this cannot be prevented, but the death toll will still compare to similar health problems that we face everyday — HIV/Aids. malaria, tuberculosis and even the common cold. Even without this new pandemic our ”normal” death toll has risen dramatically in the past four decades.

So here we are, about to go into a national lockdown with close to eight million people needing food aid this winter and malnutrition levels at 50 % of our rural population and over 10% of our urban population. In addition, we have large numbers of people with malaria and tuberculosis, let alone one of the highest infection rates for HIV/Aids in the world. And we have no defences, our health service industry is virtually moribund — we have very few ventilators, probably less than 200 ICU beds in the country, our health workers have limited protective clothing. The extent of our problem was well illustrated by the death of a young journalist just days after being diagnosed with the virus.

I simply cannot see any way we can avoid a total disaster with millions infected and tens of thousands dying.

Just finding the time and place to give our dead a decent burial is going to be a problem. We have just one defence — we have to fight this thing as individuals — this is hand to hand combat with coronavirus. We have to do everything we can to protect ourselves and our families from being infected and if they are, we have to take care of them at home.

I hear that the old remedy we used during the guerrilla war days to treat malaria — chloroquine is a good treatment for the virus and if taken with an anti-biotic is very effective. So I have asked friends to find some and send it out to us urgently, we have none available here. Then we are taking every precaution — social distancing when we can, isolation as much as possible at home. Our domestic worker, has a home in both the rural areas and in a high-density suburb of Harare and goes to church regularly, we have said that for the next three to four months he has to curtail all external visits and receive no visitors and when he goes out he should practise social distancing. Very difficult for Zimbabweans — we are extremely social beings.

My wife and I are both 80 or nearly there, we are taking other precautions — gargling with a salt solution and using a nasal spray. We are taking heavy doses of Vitamin C and we are careful to exercise and eat properly. We are both fit and I think we will be ok. Difficult for me to stay home with all the things I do every day, so we are using Skype and WhatsApp to communicate and only when essential, do I go out to attend meetings and functions. Most are cancelled anyway, but certain things we have to do to keep going and to try and maintain activity and progress in the country. Jeanette limits her shopping trips to essentials and we even have had friends in South Africa say they will shop for us and have the stuff delivered! As Bill Gates said last week there are many things about this crisis that we as humans actually need — it is a great leveller, this is felling the great and the powerful, the wealthy and the poor, no one escapes. It shows us how really vulnerable we are and it sets real priorities. Just look at the news channels on TV, there is no other story. It also shows us how quickly the earth heals itself when our delinquencies as a species is curtailed. The people in the space station say they can actually see the ground now, in many countries where previously the ground was hidden by pollution.

But make no mistake, this is a challenge like no other we have faced before and it is global in character. Like other forms of influenza, it is going to have to be dealt with like all the other varieties of viruses we have had to contend with — develop a cure and a vaccine, heal those infected as best we can, let the thing burn itself out and then clean up the mess when things get back to normal.

Getting our economies back on their feet is another matter. The world is already so heavily in debt that we have only a limited capacity to borrow from each other in trying to repair the economic damage being done to the global system. Virtually every hotel and airline is going to shut down and their staff sent home, demand for everything is going to decline, in many areas so massively that industries will mothball their factories. Global trade is going to shrink and just look at oil as one example — US$25 a barrel! Many producers will simply close production at such prices and getting those resources back into production is not just turning on a tap. I wonder sometimes if the ”cure” in this case is not going to be worse than the disease. It is not that we have not faced a situation like this in the past, history is full of such pandemics that killed millions and changed history.

But we were not as interconnected or interdependent, we have more resources and facilities, but even these are hardly adequate. If Italians, with the sophisticated health system they have in place and one of the largest economies in Europe to back them up, find themselves overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, then what about us? I fear that the full impact in many countries similar to Zimbabwe, will never be known because people will fall ill and survive or die with no one to count them or mark their passing on except their families. Perhaps because we have a young population the impact here will not be as severe as in Europe where a high proportion of the population is over 60 years old.

Stay safe, sit tight and take care.

 Eddie Cross is an economist. He writes in his personal capacity.