By Antonio Pedro*
This was not a bad dream: It happened
THIS was not Steven Soderbergh 2011 movie “Contagion” or any sci-fi movie where a rogue character unleashes biological warfare for profit maximization. It was not a bad dream, either! It happened.
In 2015, Bill Gates predicted it and indicated that the world would not be prepared for it. It wasn’t! A prophecy turned reality? A Nostradamus of the 21 st Century?
Conspiracy theories aside, it touched rich and poor, developed and developing world, the old and the young, music icons and Prime Ministers alike and even a top virologist such as Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and one of the discoverers of the Ebola virus; in short, it touched all of us and in an apocalyptical way!
Draconian measures were taken. Member States declared national emergency, curfews were imposed, war cabinets were established, lockdowns became a norm and soldiers left barracks to come and enforce the confinement. It didn’t end there; borders were closed impairing the livelihoods of informal cross border traders, especially women, and creating havoc in landlocked developing countries such as Chad and Central African Republic.
Travel was interrupted, with many planes grounded. Two of my colleagues were left stranded in Brazzaville for a month or so, and, Inge, my daughter who was studying in South Africa, could not join us in Yaounde for the Easter holidays. Tragically, travel restrictions imposed that I and many others across the globe could not travel to join relatives to pay the last respect to loved ones who passed away during that period.
Deepened macro-economic instability Oil prices plummeted to below US$20/barrel due to supply and demand dynamics as well as price wars between Russia and Saudi Arabia, deepening macro-economic instability in oil- exporting dependent countries. We have a couple of them in Central Africa, namely Angola, Chad, Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
A Black Thursday we witnessed, a bear market we entered with stocks plunging nearly 30% below record highs. Businesses declared bankruptcies and massive bailouts reminded us of the 2008 global economic meltdown and financial crisis and the “too big to fail” narrative. Boeing needed billions of aid to survive. Some airlines collapsed, with IATA estimating airline industry losses of up to US$84 billion in 2020.
Factories closed, restaurants too. The entertainment and creative industry was hit hard as theatres, museums and concert halls closed. Sports were not spared either, a 3-month hiatus was followed by surreal games played behind closed doors with no fans, taking the example of the Everton-Liverpool Merseyside derby, which in a normal day would have attracted tens of thousands of spectators. To the dismay of many, because of the ban on alcohol sales during the lockdown period and lack of storage capacity, South African Breweries had to dump the equivalent of 400 million bottles of beer, as retailers stopped buying beer.
Jobs were lost everywhere, pushing many to the poverty line, especially in the informal sector. For the 2 and quarter of 2020, ILO estimated a drop in global working hours equivalent to 305 million full-time jobs. It also indicated that 1.6 billion informal economy workers would be significantly impacted by lockdown measures, especially in developing countries lacking appropriate safety nets. Gender-based violence increased and mental breakdowns alike.
Nations sink into a deeper financial hole Global supply chains were disrupted, domestication of production and supply increased, leading analysts to indicate that the pace to deglobalisation was irreversible. As economies collapsed, debt restructuring topped the policy discourse as lack of financial liquidity risked sinking nations into an even deeper financial hole. Credit rating companies were on the spot with several countries weary that any precipitated debt restructuring move or a call to debt cancelation could lead to a “junk status” downgrading, closing access to markets!
Just as in 2008, the debate this time around also became alphabetical 1 with economists pondering whether the shape of the economic recovery would be a Z, U, V or a W, in other words, a spending spree and a brief boom after the end of the lockdowns followed by a growth trajectory at the same level as in the pre-pandemic period (Z); a slow downturn followed by a slow recovery (U); a dramatic tumble followed by a sharp upswing (V); or a recovery followed by another retraction and then a second rebound (W), respectively. Others, inspired by the Nike logo, talked of a” Nike swoosh” recovery, i.e. a quick but short dramatic surge at the end of the lockdowns followed by a long and slower rate of recovery.
The shape of all of these economic recovery trajectories depended, of course, on many factors including how intense the pandemic would be, how long it would last, whether we would have a second surge of infections and how effective the stimulus packages would be to accelerate the recovery. Many pundits agreed that economic recovery would mostly depend on how fast we would exit from our fears because those and not administrative measures would determine consumer confidence, whether we would sit in restaurants, travel, go on holiday or go to the barbershop.
Sadly, unlike in 2008, this crisis was different. COVID-19 was a unique and tragic health, economic, social and humanitarian crisis, with every country in the world affected, millions of people infected and hundreds of thousands dead, including Manu Dibango, whose 1972 hit single Soul Makossa filled dance floors across the globe. Not even druid Getafix’s magic potion would have saved Obelix from COVID-19 debilitating effects. Masks and sanitizers became the face of our fear and of the exponential danger we were all faced with.
Our habits and customs, were tested; e-commerce exploded and new apps hit the markets offering solutions to life in lockdown. We learned social distancing and to navigate between Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex, Bluejeans, Skype for Business and many other platforms as teleworking became pervasive. The future of work changed before our eyes, giving better expression to the concept that countries could leapfrog to a knowledge economy and a digital society, turning old practices obsolete.