By Gregory Kronsten
The most comforting stories are those with happy endings. Our nirvana in the midst of Covid-19 would be the production of a tested vaccine that is widely available across advanced and developing countries. Before we attain this perfect state, we have to trust in our elected leaders and decision-takers. Being human, they make mistakes, so we have to hope that they make many more good decisions than bad ones.
They want to eradicate the virus but they cannot preside over the devastation of the economy for which they are responsible. We are at the point where our governments have started to ease the restrictions or are deciding how, and at what pace they can reverse the lockdown. Politicians will say that they are guided by the scientists and the medics, not that these groups of experts have uniform opinions. In practice, they will listen to their chosen experts as well as business leaders before announcing the way forward.
Technology has a leading role to play. If such existed, we could all wear biometric bracelets that measured our body temperature and heart rate, and allowed our governments to store and analyze the data. Herein lies one route to disrupting the chains of infection but also, as noted by a prominent Israeli academic, to unprecedented surveillance of our lives.
Without the bracelets and under obvious time pressures, we have to make do with less in terms of technology. Country examples abound. In Ghana, for example, drones have been used since the start of April to transport test samples for the virus from rural areas to government laboratories. This boosted the number of tests taken to what the authorities claimed was the highest in Africa on a per head basis.
In Kenya the agriculture ministry has said that it will not renew the licenses of the tea and coffee auction houses if they do not migrate to online platforms within two months. Media reports say that the coffee auctions had been closed to halt the spread of the virus, leading, we assume to delays in paying farmers and exporting product.
Technology hastened the dilution of the lockdown in the first case, and will facilitate it in the second. The mobile phone is probably the most useful tool available to governments. It could deliver a successful outcome for ‘test, trace and isolate’ provided that enough users take part. Contact tracing requires a certain level of familiarity with mobiles and of trust in the government.
Another application is for the distribution of surveys to guide governments as they plot their full exit from lockdown. The focus could be behavioural. The questions could ask if we are ready to use public transport again, if we would be comfortable returning to work subject to social distancing or if we would consider visiting a restaurant. Alternatively, they could create a picture of peoples’ conduct, and see how we have complied with restrictions and how far we would live with their extension.
As our leaders move to ease the restrictions on our lives, they can draw on technology to help them. Ultimately, however, they have to make the decisions on our behalf. They can see how their counterparts elsewhere acted although there are flaws in country comparisons. They are necessarily fumbling in the dark with a new threat and we can only hope they get it right.
Gregory Kronsten is the Head, Macroeconomics and Fixed Income Research, FBNQuest