An opinion piece by Joseph Ndondo – Harare, Zimbabwe
COVID-19 threatens to become one of the most difficult pandemics ever to be faced by humanity in modern history. To date, 23 million cases have been reported and 799 thousand lives have been claimed worldwide according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says the global economy now faces its worst downturn since the Great Depression and billions of people could be pushed into poverty as a result of the unfolding crisis.
COVID-19 has been so bad to planet earth, If anything, lessons can be drawn as a positive, from it. One important lesson to draw is that it is always less costly to prevent diseases than to deal with a ravaging pandemic. Continuously and robustly strengthening health systems should no longer be taken as an option but a necessity. Governments can no longer afford to starve healthcare from large proportions of budgetary support.
The pandemic has shown how healthcare workers are equally or even more important than military personnel on National Security. There is a strong need to effect reductions in excessive military spending and a shift of resources to projects addressing human needs. In 2015 The United Nations’ Office for Disarmament Affairs had to set up an exhibit at its New York headquarters entitled “The World is Over-Armed and Peace is Under-funded”. Generally, when military spending increases by 1%, spending on health decreases by 0.62%. This trade-off is more intense in poorer countries, where a 1% increase in military spending results in a 0.962% drop in health spending. This is according to the Peace Science Digest.
In 2017 at a Munich Security Conference, the famous Bill Gates in a warning to world leaders accurately predicted about the pandemic. He said that “A genetically engineered virus is easier to make and could kill more people than nuclear weapons — and yet no country on Earth is ready for the threat”. He went on to say that “an outbreak could kill tens of millions in the near future unless governments begin to prepare for these epidemics the same way we prepare for war.” If only world leaders earnestly listened to him at that time and took heed of his warning. They did not, or maybe they did but took it lightly and today we now desperately find ourselves in a deep crisis which we are struggling to cure.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that COVID-19 could cost 500 times as much as pandemic prevention measures. It says that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely end up costing between $8.1 and $15.8 trillion globally. In contrast, the cost of reducing disease transmission of new diseases from tropical forests is estimated to cost, globally, between $22.2 and $30.7 billion each year. Clearly, the pandemic is way cheaper to prevent than cure. The cost of Covid-19 has been calculated based on loss in GDP and also on the workforce cost of hundreds of thousandths of deaths worldwide.
Zimbabwe’s tourism sector, for example, could lose up to US$1,1 billion due to Covid-19 travel restrictions that have crippled the travel industry according to the Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister Mangaliso Ndlovu. The government of Zimbabwe was forced to issue a $500 million Bank Guarantee Facility to help the tourism sector to recover. The government announced a Z$18bn ($720m) economic recovery and stimulus package, which primarily targeted formally constituted and registered businesses.
Zimbabwe’s highly informal sector was worst affected by the pandemic as the socio-economic plight of the informally employed was ignored under the lockdown extension measures. The government through its department of labour and social welfare only later announced a social support grant of Z$600m, targeting 1-million vulnerable households. The World Bank (WB) says Zimbabwe’s economy shrank by some 6.5% in 2019, and it projects a further contraction of 5 to 10% in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where the virus come from?
For a century, two new viruses per year have spilled from their natural hosts into humans according to research by ecologists. The MERS, SARS, and 2009 H1N1 epidemics, and the HIV and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemics are good examples. Zoonotic viruses infect people directly most often when they handle live primates, bats, and other wildlife (or their meat). Humans can also get infection indirectly from farm animals such as chickens and pigs. Humans and their livestock are more likely to contact wildlife when more than 25% of the original forest cover is lost according to Boston University researchers and authors of a Policy brief in the Journal Science.
Both Deforestation and Wildlife hunting are common in Zimbabwe and are linked to socio-economic activities by people. Zimbabwe is considered one of the top safari destinations in Africa due to reasonable pricing, free-range hunting opportunities and fantastic game populations in its hunting areas. The Southern African country is home to all of the Big 5 animals (buffalo, elephant, leopard, rhinoceros and lion). The SARS-CoV-2 virus which has so far infected more than 23 million people worldwide appears to have been transmitted from bats to humans in China.
How then do we prevent the disease?
To prevent disease transmission from wildlife and forests, there is need to expand wildlife trade monitoring programs, investing in efforts to end the wild meat trade, investing in policies to reduce deforestation by 40%, and fighting the transmission of disease from wild animals to livestock according to Boston University researchers.
Wildlife hunting (both legal and illegal) is common in Zimbabwe and could pose a critical point of disease transmission from wildlife to humans. According to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks), 322 elephants were killed by poachers between 2016 and 2019, largely for their tusks. These figures are only for elephants before assessing other animals like the Rhinoceros. Much of the poaching occurs in northern Zimbabwe in game reserves straddling the border with Zambia, according to ZimParks. Global demand for wildlife causes people to enter forests to collect wildlife for sale in markets in urban and rural areas. COVID-19 is the huge price society now pays for such encounters with wild species.
Deforestation in Zimbabwe has accelerated, as rural communities use firewood for fuel as well as the high demand for wood fuel used in tobacco. Currently, we invest relatively little toward preventing deforestation and regulating wildlife trade, despite well-researched plans that demonstrate a high return on their investment in limiting zoonoses and conferring many other benefits like land conservation. A 2015 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that deforestation gutted 37% of Zimbabwe’s forested land between 1990 and 2015, leaving 87,000 hectares (about 215,000 acres). Commercial forests shrunk from 120,000 hectares (about 297,000 acres) to about 69,000 hectares (about 171,000 acres) in 2019, according to the Timber Producers Federation, an independent association of timber producers in Zimbabwe. The clear link between deforestation and virus emergence suggests that a major effort to retain intact forest cover would have a large return on investment even if its only benefit was to reduce virus emergence events.
Finally, another preventative measure is on early detection and control of exposure to zoonotic diseases There is substantial underreporting of exposure to zoonotic diseases. Correcting this would provide major opportunities for prevention.