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The Perspective with Edward Bwalya Phiri: Identifying the silver lining amid the new normal

The Novel Coronavirus Disease broke out in China’s Wuhan City of Hubei Province, in December 2019. The disease is alleged to have originated from animals and seafood that were sold at the Huanan Seafood market in Jianghan District of Wuhan. The pneumonia like disease is caused by a Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2) that is linked to bats and pangolins. The virus infected and caused thousands of fatalities in China, before it was imported in other parts of the world where it wreaked more havoc in countries like Italy, Spain, Iran and the United States, among others.

Following the classification of the Novel Coronavirus Disease by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30th January 2020 and the eventual declaration of the disease as a global pandemic on 11th March 2020, the government of the Republic of Zambia, through the Ministry of Health, on 13th March issued Statutory Instrument (SI) no. 21 to declare the disease as a notifiable infectious disease pursuant to sections 9 and 28 of the public health Act, Cap 295 of the Laws of Zambia. The designating of the disease as a notifiable infectious disease entails the mandatory reporting of any COVID-19 suspected or related incidences.

Additionally, in order to curb the transmission of COVID-19, the government instituted control measures through SI no.22 pursuant to sections 28, 30 and 114 of Cap 295 of the Laws of Zambia. The effect of the two SIs caused a partial lockdown of the nation and this resulted into restrictions on some social and economic activities, and further caused loss of income or source of livelihood to many people, and ultimately to the shrinking of the economy. The effects of COVID-19 have not spared anyone and have been so dire that many businesses had to either downsize as a cost-cutting measure or completely close down. Among the industries and sectors that have been seriously affected include the tourism, mining and hospitality. Many individuals have become casualties to this serious crisis. Zambia recorded its first case of COVID-19 on 18th March, and the total number of recorded cases has cumulatively reached slightly over a thousand. It is important to note that there has only been minimal fatalities and an impressively high number of recoveries.

There is a realisation worldover that the disease will last longer than anticipated, hence the call by government to accept the situation as the “new normal”. But what does the call mean to the governed? New normal as a buzz phrase has been interpreted in different ways and many have expressed mixed feelings. I am not going to spend time explaining what the government meant or justify its position, but I will give my perspective on the issue. To begin with, life is dynamic and everyone, including the conservatives, need to appreciate this fact. Therefore, when times have changed, you do not need to continue doing things the same way as before. Obviously, there is need to make some adjustments in order to adapt. Greek philosopher Heraclitus Bloson Herakon once said that change is the only constant in life. One’s ability to adapt will determine one’s success in life. And so to interpret the phrase ‘new normal’, it means a quick and diligent adaptation. In short, we have to accept the new situation created by the effects of COVID-19, and get accustomed to the new way of life. However, accepting the new normal does not mean settling down in the situation with the laissez faire attitude, the one locally known as the “fikaisova” kind of thinking.

On the contrary, it requires diligence; we need a thorough and careful institution of measures both at personal and corporate level to counter the impact of the situation in order to make progress. Borrowing from the words of Alfred North Whitehead who said, “the art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order”, we need to be organised and proactive even as life evolves.

Of course, one way of embracing the new normal is by appreciating the fact that every dark cloud has a silver lining. Instead of concentrating on the bleak side of the situation, we can choose to focus on the positive and leverage the opportunities presented by the crisis. It’s important to note that every crisis presents opportunities. While many will consider themselves as casualties, only a few will exploit the crisis to their advantage. History presents us with numerous object lessons. Most successful people have at one time solved problems caused by crises and were rewarded for their ingenuity. So instead of self-pity and considering yourself as a victim of the COVID-19 crisis, you can choose to have a positive attitude and heroically emerge a victor.

Evidence of persons taking advantage of the current situation is there to show and lam going to highlight a few here. For instance, at the peak of the pandemic and people dying en masse in Europe and the US, the manufacturers, distributors and retailers of caskets were and are still cashing in. By the same token, persons involved in the distribution of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), testing kits and other medical supplies have made a fortune out of the crisis, to an extent of exploiting those who need the supplies. And in order to bring sanity in the business of medical supplies, in a March 27 press release, Doctors without Borders [Medecins Sans Frontireres] called on governments worldover to ensure that there is neither patents nor profiteering on drugs, tests, or vaccines used for the pandemic. Dr Marcio Fonseca, who is the Infectious Disease Advisor of the MSF Access Campaignshare said, “we urge governments to set wheels in motion to override these monopolies so (that) they can ensure the supply of affordable drugs and save more live.” Further, Stijn Deborggraeve, who is the Diagnostics Advisor of the MSF Access Campaignshare said, “with the pandemic raging, now is not time to test the highest prices the market can bear.” The two statements speak volumes of the kind of return on investment (ROI) being realised by companies in question. This proves the fact that there are persons who have identified opportunities in the crisis. However, we condemn the idea of profiteering through extortionate prices.

The local narrative is not very different; we have seen how our own tailors and seamstresses have jumped on the bandwagon of face masks production due to a seemingly decent return on investment (ROI), arising from the increased demand and economies of scale. We are aware of the local suppliers of medical supplies who are leveraging the crisis opportunities and making a fortune. We have also seen the proliferation of different brands of hand washing utensils and other sanitising materials currently on the market and that should tell us something. There is also a group of persons in some of the hardest hit sectors who have flipped tables to their advantage. A classic example is that of Zambian Breweries, whose business was hampered by the closure of bars and taverns where their products are predominantly sold. The company did not wait until the situation goes back to the pre COVID-19 era. They simply accepted the status quo – or new normal – and embraced it with both hands. They cut down the production of alcohol and ventured into a new line of production, by including alcohol-based hand sanitizers on their product line.

Of course, you need to be cautious not to jeopardise your own safety and that of others.

The current situation has compelled us to cut down a lot of things, including our most cherished pastimes. If you come to think and looked at it through the lenses of positivity, you will realise that the crisis has a good side because it is helping to “sanitise” the world of the illicit activities and other social ills. If you introspect at a personal level, you will realise that the situation is helping us to get closer to God and our families. We can actually choose to strengthen relationships, instead of murmuring about the situation. Because of the reduced socio-economic activities, the situation can also help us reduce on most of our financial leakages and learn to become better users of our resources. In life, we can only make a meaningful and sustainable progress by being frugal and innovative. We therefore need to institute cost-cutting measures at personal and family levels, to help prevent unnecessary cash outflows. Strive to redirect the focus and energies to essential activities only.

By working out personal finances and economics, we will be contributing to the national economy. We can all help grow and diversify the local economy, through our ingenuity, through value addition and creation of value chains. Some countries are still under lockdown and that is limiting the movement of goods and service between nations, and that is an opportunity to grow the local industry. Let us therefore snap from our utopic wishes and reasoning and sublimate to something else in this phase. You have to see beyond the current situation and appreciate the good that can be derived from it. For example, on the political scene, we have seen a reduction in political polarisation. In China there is a reduction of smog and an increase in visibility. We have also been taught the importance of cleanliness both at personal and corporate levels. The onus is on each one of us to make the Hobson’s choice; to either do something about the crisis, or do nothing and continue complaining about everything.

To sum it up, I just want to day please let us change our modus vivendi, embrace the new normal, and leverage the opportunities presented by the pandemic. And don’t forget to comply with guidelines given by the health experts, as failure to do so will attracts sanctions. Failure to comply with the measures stipulated under the Public Health Statutory Instrument no.22 of 2020 is classified under section 14 as an offence, punishable by either a fine of 2500 penalty units, or a custodial sentence of six months imprisonment, or both. However, our compliance should not be based on the fear for punishment, but on the appreciation of the necessity to comply. For today I will end here. Good day, adios amigos, au revoir and aluta continua.

For comments: elbardogma@yahoo.com

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