The start of this year caps a dramatic 20 months that reshaped life unlike at any other point in the preceding century. That the human community survived largely intact is testimony to both its ingenuity, cumulative wisdom and the resilience of the human spirit.
2022 is in many ways likely to be anticlimactic. When the first wave of Covid lockdowns and travel restrictions hit the world just under two years ago, the hope had been that normalcy would be resuming about now. That has not happened and the year starts on the limb of rising energy and consumer goods prices and subdued economic growth.
Just when the world expected an economic and social rebound, a new coronavirus variant has spread panic, triggering tightening of restrictions on travel and a further ruin of the global economy.
Amidst all this chaos, East Africa’s economies, saddled with even a higher burden of people living in poverty, must chart a forward-looking course that salvages livelihoods, brings back a sense of normalcy and rebalances national priorities.
As the smoke clears and the carnage becomes clearer, what is not in doubt is that there will be a lot of rebuilding to do. The Covid-19 disruption and its impact followed long existing fault-lines of non-inclusive, fragile economies, less than optimal trade flows and economic integration. In the panic of pandemic responses, the impacts of these shortfalls were magnified.
The domino effect of the lockdowns that were adopted across the region was to stall trade and shrink national incomes and government revenues. Now, as the threat refuses to go away, governments must learn to live with an elusive adversary and strike a middle course that allows life to pick up.
Stricken economies need to be resuscitated, broken infrastructure and social systems fixed and trade restored. As the rebuilding begins, it needs to be informed by the lessons from the pandemic. Public expenditure ballooned with minimal social impact because the social sector had been starved of resources for far too long. Structures for a robust response were either gutted or non-existent.
A major lesson from the past year has been that economic growth without a social dimension is hollow. Health systems that were heavily premised on the private sector as the primary supplier of health goods, commodities and services, were easily overrun, remained inaccessible to the majority of the population and were difficult to align to the social emergency of the moment.
Growth in public expenditure over that period also tended to follow the same structure with the legacy guzzlers — security and public works — taking the lion’s share of resources. This has left behind socially broken communities and a widening gap of mistrust between the rulers and the ruled. Even between nations, the lack of vaccine equity between the global North and South has left an enduring bitter aftertaste.
All is not lost, however. The distinguishing quality of the human race is its ability to learn from history, innovate and turning adversity into opportunity. As governments pick up the pieces, it is important to restore the bonds that unite us as families, communities and neighbours.
Economic reconstruction should start with the people, restoring their health and economic wellbeing so that they can participate in rebuilding more dynamic and socially inclusive societies.