The corona crisis – what now?
Updated: Mar 27
By Hon. Prof. Biman Prasad - Leader of the National Federation Party.
Opinion Piece was published in the Fiji Times on:-
Saturday 21st March 2020
Some people say that national crises, of the kind we are facing now, are not the time for “politics”.
They seem to suggest that this is a time for opposition parties to stay silent. That is wrong.
No time is more important for all of us to carefully scrutinize what our government is doing, and to call for change when it is needed. Lives literally depend on it.
If we criticize, or if we suggest alternative approaches to things, this does not make us unpatriotic. This is a time for us to bring our best ideas together. And, for a government which does not typically listen to anyone else, it is also a time to change that behaviour.
And national crises are also a time for reflecting and learning lessons for next time. Were we prepared? Did we plan our response well? Have we executed it well? And – and this is very important – are we keeping a good record of what we are learning, so that, when the crisis is over, we can put those lessons into effect?
Next week the Government will issue a special Budget to tackle the crisis created by the corona virus. What should its contents be?
First, understand where we are
We cannot react to a crisis without situational awareness. We first need to understand where we are. And that assessment is not fantastic.
First - you need trusted leadership. People need to have confidence in their national leaders. They may not have voted for them; they may not even like them. But they must trust that their national leaders will do the right thing.
This government’s past behaviour means that it is not highly trusted. We can’t do much about that now. But it makes a unified national response more difficult. And how the government behaves now will be crucial to that national response.
Second - you need capacity to respond to the crisis. The most flexible tool for this is Government spending. But of course, to spend, you need either to have cash or the ability to go into debt. There should always be a buffer for disasters. We should know this. We have serious weather events at least once every five years. And as I and every other serious economist in Fiji have been saying for years, we no longer have that buffer. Our ability to spend money flexibly is seriously limited.
Third – we need to have positioned ourselves well to meet the crisis. When a cyclone is looming, we need to have crisis responders, essential supplies and equipment in position. In the face of a looming health crisis such as this, so far we have done next to nothing. Even last Thursday, when severe restrictions went into place, the organisers of the Marist 7s were talking about continuing their tournament; Fiji National University had a graduation ceremony in Labasa; and a major school sports event took place in Levuka. These were non-essential gatherings, where people were spending money that they needed to save for their immediate needs.
There was panic buying in the shops on Thursday, because the government had not already signaled to people what would happen if a corona virus case was confirmed. The Prime Minister’s planned morning announcement was delayed by hours. Did the Government even know what it was going to do?
How to lead
How the Government leads in the next few months will be crucial to the success of our corona virus response. Leadership is critical.
Plan for three months. Government must think about how long the crisis will continue. Three months is a reasonable window (the crisis may go longer but it can adjust its response as it goes. The Government must think about how its measures can work over that period.
Take a pay cut. This is not about the money. It is about showing solidarity and sacrifice. The Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Assistant Ministers, Speaker, Assistant Ministers, Members of Parliament, Permanent Secretaries, Deputy Permanent Secretaries, and executives and directors of Government owned commercial companies and statutory organisations, as well as Heads and Executives of Independent Institutions, should take a 35% salary cut. Further, the parliamentary standing and select committee sitting allowances as well overseas travel allowances of the Cabinet and MPs should be reduced to the levels before the exorbitant increase on 29th September, 2016. The cash should go into a Workers’ Solidarity Fund for the thousands of workers who will soon be earning nothing.
Trust the people. This is not a time for ordering people around. It is a time for showing trust in our people. Of course there will always be backsliders and people who seek to take advantage. But the vast majority of our people are ready to work together. Use that goodwill.
Consult, do not dictate. Many key people – shop owners, banks, food manufacturers, farmers, employers – know their business better than the Government. The Government should ask them for advice on how to protect the country and the economy. If it is going to make new laws for the crisis, it should show them the laws in draft and ask if they will work.
Encourage and persuade, do not punish. This is not a time for threatening people. It is a time for asking for their help. Tell them what you want, and tell them why. If the situation does not improve, then the rules can be enforced and people punished. But that is not the way to start out.
Health and essential service measures
Up until now, people have not understood the seriousness of the health crisis – and how poorly equipped our health system is to cope. They must understand that their lives are literally in their own hands
Non-essential public servants should be sent on leave and asked to return to their communities to help. They should be trained to teach their communities on essential hygiene – hand washing, social distancing and health monitoring. They can also help in monitoring and reporting on how well people are responding to these requirements. This is not so that people can be reported or punished – rather to see what measures are working and which ones are not.
Social distancing. We are a highly social people. We live in close-knit communities – many of us gather around a grog bowl. We have to explain how this disease is transmitted and how dangerous these activities are.
We need to equip community leaders with basic hygiene tools – medicated wipes, hand sanitisers, soap – and have a system where people are reminded, every two hours or so, to use them.
We need to look at seriously overcrowded places like our prisons. Non-violent offenders with less than six months to run on their imprisonment should be released.
Hospitals will become highly dangerous places. We need to carefully consider who is kept there and whether some patients are better looked after in their homes.
We should require food service outlets to close after 3pm to discourage unnecessary movements. Workers who need food for the afternoon or evening should be encouraged to buy ahead of time.
The Fijian Competition and Consumer Commission should meet with supermarkets and food wholesalers to work out a voluntary code of conduct, limiting the sale of essential items and ensuring that the elderly and disabled have access to goods. In other countries supermarkets have been closed to allow the elderly to shop first.
Customers in remote places, where it is expensive to transport goods and where there are fewer buyers, must not be sacrificed just because sales in the bigger centres are high. The code of conduct must ensure that everyone has fair access to goods. This is particularly important to stop people moving into urban centres to find food and essential supplies
We should expect that thousands of people will lose their jobs or have their wages significantly cut. It is vitally important that they have money. Money is the most flexible tool for their specific needs whether it is food, medication or hygiene.
We will have to borrow money in the short term. But what is critical for long-term economic confidence is to make clear that we will pay this money back and how we will pay it back. This may need future fiscal measures, specifically cuts and discipline in Government spending. But we must commit to that.
We should be asking our near neighbours – Australia and New Zealand – for urgent cash help, in loans or grants. This is not a time for Government politicians to take egotistical positions on national pride. We need to think of the poorest and most vulnerable. It is also in the health interests of those countries that we – their nearest neighbours – control this crisis effectively. We know they will help.
We need to ensure that displaced workers continue to receive money. These are people who are not in the welfare system because they have jobs. If their jobs are taken away, they will have nothing to fall back on. There should be a Workers’ Solidarity Fund which can be used to help those who need short term help during the crisis. The details of how we pay and who we pay can be worked out.
The richest in our society must help. We should impose a 10% income tax surcharge on all of those who earn more than F$100,000. The wealthy will be willing to help if they believe that their money will go to those in need. So rather than disappearing into Government coffers, the funds should go into the Workers’ Solidarity Fund.
Employers’ tax payment and FNPF deduction obligations should be suspended, as long as they can show that money is being paid to suspended or temporarily redundant employees. We can work out how to recover this money later. Right now, we do not have that luxury.
Government should immediately set up a joint working group with religious bodies and NGOs who work with the poor. They know who their clients are and what their needs are. They have long experience and the skills and compassion to help. Let’s make sure we use these assets.
Public servants engaged in work unrelated to the crisis should be sent on leave. They will not be productive in the next three months anyway. Many of them have good skills that are better used in the community right now.
Let’s ask the banks for their help. They are human beings too. They understand the extent of this crisis. I am sure they will volunteer to take measures such as suspending loan repayments and bank charges.
Banks can help to identify low-income people who may need access to cash, even on overdraft if the crisis continues. The Reserve Bank could work out a Government guarantee scheme to ensure that, over time, low-income people have access to cash. This should not be an up-front payment, like the disastrous “Help for Homes” scheme where huge amounts of FNPF money were squandered. We are talking about using the bank system – ATMs and bank branches – to ensure that people continue to receive small amounts of the cash they need over time.
Don’t leave it all to the Government
Finally, this is a time when we can show the best of who we are. The Government cannot solve all of these problems.
Even while we take care of ourselves (because taking care of ourselves helps others) we should be looking out for each other – the elderly, the poor, those who have been thrown out of work.
We may not be able to go to church or visit our temples or social clubs. But we can work smart and work with each other to keep the weakest people in our community safe.
There is a famous saying that every crisis is an opportunity. This crisis is an opportunity for us to reconnect with our neighbours and friends – and with those who need our help – in a different and more meaningful way. Let’s all step up.
A time to work together
This is a time for national leaders, to show unity. We for our part are ready.
It is a time for all political parties to unite. If the people can see that all political leaders are moving in the same direction and supporting the same policies, this will help unite all of us. So we are saying to the Government – we are willing to help.
And there is no better way to start than bipartisanship in the preparation and passage of the coronavirus response supplementary budget.
Talk to us. Use our skills and our networks for the good of everybody.