The Novel Coronavirus has earned itself the title of a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, not only in how rapidly it spreads or how fatal it is but how devastating its consequences have been on the overall quality of life.
The World Bank, for example, paints a dire picture of the virus’ impact on poverty in the future. According to its June report on the issue:
“Poverty projections suggest that the social and economic impacts of the crisis are likely to be quite significant. Estimates based on growth projections from the June 2020 Global Economic Prospects report show that, when compared with pre-crisis forecasts, COVID-19 could push 71 million people into extreme poverty in 2020 under the baseline scenario and 100 million under the downside scenario.”
The manifestations of this impact are, of course, myriad, perhaps nowhere more than in the public health sector. In this country, not only has the virus tested the limits of our public health system in terms of our epidemiological shortcomings, it has shone a spotlight on how inefficient, wasteful and unaccountable our public health financing system is in response to such a crisis.
The beginning of the crisis started out with exposure of a scandal on the procurement of respirators, something that metastasized into the scandal of the $1.6 billion dollar COVID-19 hospital that we are told will cost three times the basic construction price when we still do not know what the money was spent on. We are told that the Auditor-General will be looking into COVID-19 spending, but considering how laissez-faire our political leadership across administrations has been in giving teeth to penalties for corruption in public financing, particularly with regards to public health, we are unsure whether the AG’s find will be of anything more than academic interest and intent, even under a new government. If nothing is done in fully examining how the current administration has treated public health financing in this crisis, then we will once again miss an opportunity, the best offered in decades, to bring some sense of accountability and integrity to the public health sector.
Another area that the combined COVID-19 and electoral crises has brought under the spotlight is that of public service efficiency. The lockdown in particular, in its restriction of public servant in-office hours, has of course put a strain on the delivery of basic public services, including access to the judicial system, the sole exception perhaps being politicians and their lawyers filing elections related cases.
Education has been the hardest hit with the closure of schools cutting off teaching time to the country’s students in the lead up to definitive exams- the Grade Six Assessment, CXC and CAPE. To counter this, technology has played a critical role, whether in limited moves to increase digitized services, or in conducting trials by Zoom, or teachers sharing lesson with their students via WhatsApp and e-mail. That said, even when the solution of technology has made things easier for some people, it has exposed the critical gaps in our society when it comes to access to technology. The opportunity exists for the development of a comprehensive plan for integrating technology into the mechanics of our public service delivery in a far more committed and cost-efficient way than we have been attempting over the past 15 years, from the ICT4D strategy that petered out to the wasteful One Laptop Per Family, to the disastrous fibre optic cable project, to the current E-gov programme that is proving to be more smoke and mirrors than actual substance, particularly with regard to the sustainability of community ICT hubs.
Finally, overall, this crisis has served as a litmus test of the limits of social vulnerability in this country. It has shown us that our health system has critical gaps that would have led to disaster were it not for committed and consistent frontline workers; it has shown that the State has zero plan in place to help the people who the crisis has pushed further into poverty, many of whom would have starved were it not for private initiatives; and it has shown that too many holes exist in our public expenditure infrastructure to allow the unscrupulous and corrupt in our political leadership to exploit a pandemic to spend public funds with zero oversight and accountability. It is clear that COVID-19 has brought the crisis – we need to decide whether we can transform it into opportunity.
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