Zanzibar has ruled out a complete lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic saying the financial costs of supporting the poorer segments of its population would be too high to bear.
The permanent secretary in the Ministry of Finance and Planning, Khamis Omar, told The EastAfrican that a lockdown would probably double the current 31 per cent household poverty rate in the semi-autonomous archipelago’s main Unguja and Pemba islands.
“We have just completed a survey of at least 60 per cent of households living below or just above the poverty line and the results showed that at least $19 million will be required for their upkeep for a lockdown period of, say, three weeks,” Mr Omar said.
“That is almost two-thirds of the total budget for Zanzibar’s Covid-19 response plan. And we do not know for how long the pandemic will last,” he added.
He added that “the experiences of other countries which imposed lockdowns as a strategy to curb Covid-19 from spreading further were proof of what the possible ramifications could be if not properly thought through. Such steps should only be taken as a last resort. We have to be careful of what we wish for.”
At the last update on May 8, Zanzibar had registered 134 positive cases.
According to Mr Omar, the isles government is already reeling financially from the effects of closing down its ‘lifeline’ tourism industry as one of its first measures to try to nip the spread of the virus in the bud. Revenues from tourism receipts dropped from $200,000 to just $2,000 in the week that followed the industry shutdown, leaving the government in no shape to directly address private sector demands for financial support and bailout while also continuing to run other key social services.
“We expect some residual income from tourism-related activities in March and maybe April, but from May-June we won’t have any such income to count upon and we will have to rely on other sectors of the economy to keep functioning,” he said.
He cited alternative revenue sources like the services sector, traditional agriculture and manufacturing, and cautioned that some immediate short-term measures to rescue the economy might not work in the longer term.
“While the services sector is promising, it has depended mainly on tourism, so it probably won’t do so well without it, meaning we will probably have to focus on the other two options,” he said.
“Tourism is only expected to bounce back from next year at the earliest, and that will depend on how this highly uncertain Covid-19 situation unfolds,” he added.
He said Zanzibar was preparing an economic recovery plan “which will include the type of stimulus package envisaged by the private sector.”