Covid-19 cases a wake-up call for Lesotho: analysts

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Staff Reporter

THE honeymoon is finally over for Lesotho after the country recorded its first and second cases of coronavirus (Covid-19) on 12 and 20 May 2020 respectively, analysts say.

The analysts further say that although the number of cases is still the lowest in Africa and is nowhere near the levels of neighbouring South Africa, they are still a wake-up call to the Lesotho government to get its house in order. South Africa had recorded a staggering 24 264 infections and 524 deaths by yesterday, making it the country with the highest number of infections in Africa.

The analysts say the government must now take the Covid-19 fight very seriously by allocating the necessary human and material resources towards it, failing which the country could easily drown into a deluge of infections as has happened in other countries.

The first known cases of the virus were recorded in China in December 2019 before it spread to other parts of the world. As if by some divine command, which recognised how ill-prepared and ill-equipped this country was to deal with the scourge, Lesotho was the last country to record infections in Africa.

Although it has been spared widespread infections, Lesotho hasn’t been spared the deleterious socio-economic effects of the deadly pandemic.

The Finance ministry anticipates that the economy, which was already shrinking at the average rate of 0,3 percent over the past three years, will contract by 1,2 percent in the 2020/21 fiscal year due to the impact of Covid-19.

Even the important revenues obtained from Lesotho’s membership of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) will dry up with the country expected to lose as much as R1,2 billion as a result of the Covid-19-induced slowdown in regional and global activity.

The budget deficit is now projected at 11,8 percent of GDP, up from the 4,7 percent projected by then Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro, now prime minister, in his 2020/21 budget speech in February 2020.

More worryingly, the country is expecting its worst hunger crisis in recent years with about 900 000 people projected to be in need of urgent food interventions during the current fiscal year which started on April 1, 2020.

Lesotho only has 2,1 million people. This, therefore, means almost half the population will need food aid due to the impact of Covid-19 and the drought.

Lesotho is heavily reliant on the export of textile products particularly to the United States.

But imports of raw materials have been significantly delayed and therefore exports of the final products cannot take place.

On tourism, Lesotho had more than 1,1 million international tourists with total receipts of US$24 million in 2018.

But the numbers will decline due to worldwide travel restrictions.

“Financial flows through workers’ remittance will also decline due to returning Basotho people and slowdown in economic activities outside Lesotho,” the Finance ministry had said.

“Domestically, the lockdown (from March 30 to May 5 2020) … means that a number of businesses, especially micro- small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), will suffer losses which may lead to retrenchments, cash flow problems that lead to permanent closure … if measures are not taken to support such businesses.”

If the situation was already bleak as suggested above without the country’s human and capital resources being overwhelmed by actual infections, then it will be a doomsday scenario once infections start rising exponentially. This is unless the government and other stakeholders begin to take the Covid-19 threat seriously and do all they can to counter it.

“What we have been having all along is a situation where the previous Thomas Thabane regime simply put up the appearance of doing something to prepare for the Covid-19 through speeches, promising funds to critical institutions like the health sector etc…without much being done in that regard,” said a health expert who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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“The previous government also promised to establish well-equipped quarantine centres to handle confirmed and suspected cases.

“The reality however, is that despite announcing and even extending a lockdown, despite setting up a command centre comprising of various ministries, the government did precious little to inspire confidence.

“Health professionals remain demoralised and demotivated because they have not even received sufficient training to handle Covid-19. They have not even received sufficient personal protective equipment and risk allowances. The country still has not begun mass testing which is necessary to give a true picture of the rate of infections. We still rely on South Africa which is overwhelmed by its own crisis.

“By the command centre’s own admission, hospitals and quarantine facilities would not be able to handle just 200 cases should the need arise. All this goes to show our country has just been going through the motions but not really doing anything concrete. A disaster is waiting to happen unless the new premier (Moeketsi) Majoro begins to take the Covid-19 threat seriously,” the health expert added.

National University of Lesotho (NUL) academic, Lekholokoe Paul Leshota, said by the look of things Lesotho is ill-prepared for any Covid-19 eventualities.  He cited the fact that all the Covid-19 samples are still being sent to South Africa for testing and the shortages of health professionals as evidence that the country would not be able to handle a serious Covid-19 outbreak.

“I’m not sure whether Lesotho is prepared for more cases judging from the information that we have been given. A country can only be ready when its health systems are in good shape and it has an economy capable of handling adverse situations. The fact that our economy is dependent on South Africa leaves us in a very precarious position in the event of an escalation of Covid-19 infections,” Dr Leshota said.

He said the failure to effectively man the country’s porous borders with South Africa also posed a grave danger as infections could be brought in from the neighbouring country, now the epicentre of infections in Africa.

World Health Organisation (WHO) representative in Lesotho, Richard Banda, concurs. Dr Banda says the mere fact of having just two known cases should act as a wake-up call to the authorities and all stakeholders to be on high alert and implement measures recommended by WHO to contain the virus.

He said the country’s current testing capacity of just 150 people per day is not good enough. There is need to channel more resources to boost the testing and isolation capacity as well as provide care for those found to be infected.

Under WHO guidelines all locals returning from Covid-19 affected countries must undergo a 14-day quarantine period at an isolation facility.  But by the command centre’s own admissions, the isolation centres in the country can only accommodate 148 people. This is nowhere near good enough given that many Lesotho nationals illegally cross into the country from neighbouring South Africa where many of them work.

During the lockdown which lasted from 30 March to 5 May 2020, the command centre estimated that as many as 13 000 Basotho would cross into the country from South Africa. Then Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and his Health minister Nkaku Kabi made all the right noises about tightening border patrols and testing the returning nationals but it appears very little was ever done in that regard.

A leaked document prepared by the command centre in Maseru for Mr Thabane’s consideration showed that despite being tasked with spearheading the government’s response to Covid-19, the inter-ministerial committee was a toothless bulldog “frustrated in executing its mandate because it does not have the decisions-making powers especially to direct resources (personnel, health materials and financial resources.

“The national response on Covid-19 therefore continues to be uncoordinated,” the command centre said in the sobering analysis of its own deficiencies. Another leaked document showed that instead of actually doing meaningful work to fight Covid-19, the inter-ministerial committee was wasting scare funds on morning tea, lunch and dinner for its personnel.

According to the document, tea, lunch and dinner were budgeted at M180 each for the 70 persons at the command centre. There are other inflated expenses including that of non-contact thermometer budgeted at a staggering M500 000.

Desktop internet research shows that M3000 would be enough to buy one such thermometer in South Africa. Although the command centre’s chairperson, Communications Minister Thesele ‘Maseribane, said the leaked document was only an estimated but not final budget, it however gave a clear indication of the wastefulness and lack of focus in the fight against Covid-19.

Maseru lawyer, Advocate Letuka Molati, said by setting up the command centre, the government had placed the responsibility of coordinating the fight against Covid-19 in the wrong hands. He said Lesotho was highly unlikely to survive serious outbreaks of the disease unless the government realised its mistakes and assigned qualified people to do the job instead of “fly-by-night committee political appointees”.

“The command centre should have been run and coordinated by the chief executive of the Disaster Management Authority (DMA), together with Health ministry officials instead of the current political appointees who have zero experience dealing with pandemics and managing disasters.

“In any event, the command centre is an illegal entity which was set up without the enabling legislation. It has to be disbanded forthwith to make way for competent people who are not after making themselves rich,” said Adv Molati.

In the final analysis, it is clear what needs to be done to aggressively fight Covid-19. Human and capital resources need to be marshalled, health institutions and professionals must be equipped. Local testing capacity must be achieved and the nation must be educated on the necessary measures to prevent or minimise the risk of infection.

The new government should lead from the front by allocating resources as well as allowing suitably qualified personnel to spearhead the fight. It will take a lot but it is certainly achievable with the necessary political will.

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