Two-year pandemic exposes vast schisms between Namibia’s rich and poorWindhoek • [email protected]
Nearly two years after the World Health Organisation first sounded the alarm about a novel coronavirus outbreak spreading across the globe, analysts say the pandemic not only exposed Namibia’s socio-economic cracks but widened them considerably.
“The pandemic has exposed Namibia's socio-economic fault-lines - particularly inequality, lack of sanitation and access to clean water, and the generally poor state of health facilities and services,” Graham Hopwood of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), said.
Political analyst Henning Melber found that in Namibia, “given the socio-economic disparities and poor-rich divide, the ‘haves’ suffered much less from the effects of the pandemic than the ‘have nots’. The pandemic thereby reproduced the stark divide.”
Unam Economics Professor Omu Kakujaha-Matundu said the pandemic highlighted the cushioning afforded to wealthier Namibians while poor Namibians felt the brunt of the pandemic punch.
“While the elite were sipping champagne, the poor were sleeping on empty stomachs during the hard lockdown. Disaster can strike at any time, and improving service delivery should be the order of the day, not a last minute rush to deliver services to the poor during pandemics,” he said.
Kakujaha-Matundu warned that the pandemic will leave in its wake a “poorer Namibia, with increasing unemployment levels and income disparities”.
Ultimately, Hopwood underlined that a crucial lesson from the pandemic is for Namibia to “do much more to address these issues and lift Namibians out of poverty and deprivation.”
Melber said while many Namibians buckled under the “disastrous consequences” of job losses and income stoppages, the police at times harshly punished those who broke the rules, while in contrast some “leaders showed that they followed different rules and displayed double standards”.
He said the message was that ordinary people had to follow the rules while the “big folks” could comfortably ignore them.
More broadly, Henning said the “responses to the pandemic also underlined the ‘we-they’ divide between the industrialised global North and the countries of the global South, with a form of new apartheid in terms of the availability of vaccines. Namibia had to wait like other countries far too long for vaccines and the pandemic contributed to the global injustices.”
Henning moreover said some of the issues plaguing Namibia are not unique, but a global challenge, including widespread fake news that has undercut vaccine uptake.
“Maybe government could have been more pro-active to create awareness and enlighten the people. On the other hand, the same phenomenon exists elsewhere and is not limited to Namibia or southern countries,” he said.
Kakujaha-Matundu noted that the vaccine roll-out was not helped by Geingob’s unwillingness to stand first in line for the jab once vaccines became available. “At no moment did he act as the leader of the nation,” he said.
Hopwood added that government, in particular the health ministry, offered a lacklustre vaccine drive, which paled in comparison to the efforts made by Namibia’s First Lady Monica Geingos and her team to promote vaccine uptake.
“There’s been little imagination or innovation in government communications. This has contributed to the very slow uptake of vaccines,” he said.
Hopwood believes that while the first hard lockdown imposed in March 2020 was necessary at the time, “tragically we did not use this period to build up the capacity of health services to the necessary level”.
He believes government’s biggest failure over the past two years was the lack of preparation and planning for subsequent waves, with fatal consequences during the third wave in mid-2021. “There was really no excuse for this and it led to the loss of lives.”
Kakujaha-Matundu said “Namibia was caught napping without adequate and up to standard health facilities, oxygen supply, ICU beds etc.”
A sliver of good news, he said, was that the deadly crisis ultimately led to a boost in oxygen supply at health facilities, and an improvement of the diagnostic capacities at laboratories.
Hopwood added that government’s short-lived emergency income grant should have been supplemented with other welfare initiatives to help those most in need.
“It will take quite a time for the economy to come back to pre-pandemic levels - mind you, the pre-pandemic levels were also nothing to write home about,” Kakujaha-Matundu said.
He warned that government’s tendency to “wait for things to unravel”, should make way for decisive action going forward.
Melber added that the “recession since 2016 was bad enough. The pandemic made it much worse. It will take several years to recover, and some of the effects have increased the misery of the poor.”
He believes a priority is to implement and action targeted policies to tackle the living conditions of ordinary Namibians.
He warned that if these plans and policies do not have a visible effect, “it will most likely also influence voter’s choices.”
Melber cautioned that it is “doubtful, if any other party in government would have been able to fare better in handling the pandemic. Overall, policy failures in handling the pandemic were not that significant that it would deserve punishment.”