The COVID-19 pandemic is a global challenge that requires coordinated efforts from governments, civic societies, businesses and all segments of society. It will remain overwhelming, yet what shields us is our collective resolve to protect the wellbeing of citizens and our hard-won development gains, writes Eyob Tekalign (PhD), state minister for Finance.
The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is spreading rapidly across the world, overwhelming health systems and threatening lives and livelihoods. Mitigation and containment measures, such as social distancing and lockdowns, are having an unprecedented effect on the global economy. The pandemic reaches Ethiopia at an important juncture - during a period of transformative social, economic and political reforms - threatening to reverse our hard-won development achievements from the past decade and threatening to eliminate the progress of our recent reforms.
However, this is also a time when we are better united and equipped as a nation. Recent gains in public trust for the government, increasing transparency and civic engagement, and strengthened economic management and macroeconomic stability put us in a stronger position to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The magnitude of the impacts of COVID-19 globally remains fluid, and things are changing every day. Over 2.5 million individuals have been infected by COVID-19, and more than 175,000 lives have been lost. The global economy is projected to contract by three percent in 2020. The effects are being compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s by some.
African economies are projected to shrink by 1.6pc, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Ethiopia will not be spared from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will overwhelm our human capital and slow down our economy. However, my take is that with the resoluteness of our government, health professionals, farmers, businesses, civic society, and the general public at large, we have tools that will help us better tackle the challenges as a nation.
The Ethiopian government has a proven whole-of-government approach to economic and emergency management. Collective decision-making, learning by doing, establishing community trust, and utilizing existing structures are key features of the government machinery that have facilitated the country’s rapid growth and development for the past decade.
These existing structures will remain essential to bolster political commitment and mobilize resources to combat the pandemic. The COVID-19 national preparation and response plan builds on successful whole-of-government approaches and aims to strengthen and scale-up existing development and emergency programmes.
The Prime Minister established the high-level national COVID-19 preparation and response task force within days after the detection of the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the country. The task force is comprised of seven committees on health emergencies, food security, resource mobilization, and the economy, among others, to continuously assess the situation and refine and implement the national COVID-19 response plan.
With the Prime Minister at the helm, setting the political direction and tone, the leadership facilitates streamlined decision-making. To date, the task force has executed notable actions to prevent the spread of the virus and protect lives and livelihoods. Far-reaching social distancing measures were implemented, including the suspension of schools and universities; testing, isolation, quarantine, and treatment capacities have been scaled up; borders have been closed and inter- and intra-city transportation is being monitored, and extensive resource mobilization has been undertaken.
Leading by example, the President, Prime Minister, and top government officials have donated one month of their salaries to the COVID-19 response fund. The government has revitalized civic society organizations and successful social mobilization mechanisms that have been instituted during the last two years.
Financial and in-kind resources, technology and human resources are now flowing from within the country and the diaspora. Following the government’s call, 18,000 health professionals - including students and retired professionals - have responded to join the emergency team, and 5,000 were placed on duty immediately. The multipurpose Millennium Hall - close to 8,000 square feet - was refurbished into a COVID-19 treatment center, demonstrating the organizational efficiency of the leadership.
Most recently, a state of emergency was declared to reinforce social distancing measures and enhance the government’s ability to administrate and take quick action as the situation unfolds.
The most pressing priority is to save lives and implement social protection for those whose livelihoods are being upended, followed by provisions to build economic resilience. We are prepared to provide safety nets to 30 million individuals, including the poor and those in subsistence employment.
Mapping of the vulnerable groups has been undertaken, including those on the street, sex workers, IDPs, returnees, and refugees. Food security plans have been elaborated with reserves in place for the April to June period, and additional resources are being mobilized to cover the demands for the following three months, as the need arises.
The government is working to safeguard the agriculture sector from the immediate impacts of the pandemic to ensure that the food supply is maintained and productivity is enhanced. Arrangements are underway to make inputs available to farmers to prepare for the next season. National and regional food supply chains and logistics networks are being mapped in collaboration with regional and local governments to avoid disruptions to the national supply chain.
While the challenges are vast, the good news is that we will not need to reinvent the wheel to deliver on our lives and livelihoods protection plan. The country has existing livelihood protection and development programmes, such as the safety net programme and the health and agricultural extension workers, that are ingrained at the grassroots level and have been proven to work.
The national safety net programme, which is the largest in Africa, has been effectively protecting livelihoods and enhancing the resilience of the most vulnerable for 15 years, providing food and cash transfers to eight million vulnerable people and millions of the transitory poor annually. Similarly, the health and agricultural extension workers have played a prominent role in mobilizing communities and building capacity for socio-economic development.
The government is now tasked with the scaling up and strengthening of these existing programmes. This past week, 40,000 health extension workers took part in door-to-door screenings of communities for COVID-19. Local governments are working with existing social institutions such as idirs, local elderly associations, to spread information and support the most vulnerable population during the pandemic.
The protection of livelihoods and building economic resilience also requires targeted interventions to avoid the gradual slowdown of the economy. The pandemic reached the country just after we launched the comprehensive three-year Homegrown Economic Reform Agenda to improve macroeconomic stability and stimulate growth in key sectors. These reforms provide us with an unprecedented scope to strengthen our COVID-19 response.
The early wins in ensuring disciplined macroeconomic management, re-energising the business community to lead the economy, and setting the foundations for a digital economy are giving us leverage in the mitigation of the pandemic and the recovery of our economy. This reform momentum has also boosted the confidence of our international partners, and promising support is being garnered in the immediate term to support our COVID-19 response plans.
Leveraging improvements in the business climate and overhauling regulations, government officials are working with the re-energised business community to enhance production and productivity, ensure jobs are maintained, and further economic resilience. The burgeoning manufacturing sector and SMEs are adapting to meet the needs of the time, including the production of items that are essential for the response to COVID-19 such as masks, face shields and hand sanitizer.
Policy provisions are being introduced, including ensuring the availability of inputs and various fiscal, monetary, and sector-specific policy measures, to help preserve livelihoods and businesses and stimulate the productivity of sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing. These measures will be strictly complemented by actions to contain the spread of the virus in the workplace through the provision of personal protective devices, awareness creation and rescheduling work hours.
The early efforts to erect the foundations for a digital economy are already paying off, encouraging start-ups to lead in launching digital payments and markets to promote social distancing. These are promising initiatives that will not only help to cope with the pandemic but also prepare us for the post-COVID-19 global economy.
In light of the dynamic nature of the pandemic, the government continues to assess the situation on the ground and learn from experiences elsewhere to refine and recalibrate its plan to save lives and livelihoods. The emergency plan covers three to six months to mitigate the health and livelihood impacts of the pandemic, while the resilience and recovery plan stretches over a year. The plan considers scenarios regarding the duration and severity of the pandemic and follows a people-first approach.
The pandemic is a global challenge that requires coordinated efforts from governments, civic societies, businesses and all segments of society. The scale of the challenges remains vast, yet what shields us is our collective resolve to protect the wellbeing of our citizens and our hard-won development gains. We need to stay on track toward achieving prosperity for all.