Businessman and diplomat Charles Stith, who served as the US ambassador to Tanzania from 1998-2001, shares his understanding of the complexity and problems presented by the Covid-19 pandemic as well as laying out the broad parameters of the solutions to the challenges that Tanzania, and Africa in general, face
Considering your pivotal role in debt relief efforts as US ambassador to Tanzania in the early 2000s, what is your opinion on how African countries can control the whims of massive borrowing during the pandemic?
The short answer is, the national debt in Tanzania like the rest of the world, is going to increase. Even though Tanzania continued to stay open during the pandemic, the economy was still impacted, which means tax revenue went down. Just like any government there will be an increase in their borrowing to mitigate the financial impact, I wouldn’t be concerned about an increase in debt, instead I will encourage the government to ensure the economy does not go down. Even the US is going to be in debt. The bigger concern other than accumulating a bigger debt in a short time is to prevent Tanzania’s economy from going down.
During this pandemic we are witnessing an imbalance in Covid vaccine distribution (globally), with wealthier countries getting the bulk of the supplies much to the detriment of developing nations. In your view, what redress do African countries have?
It’s pretty clear that African leaders need to think through how the continent recovers from the pandemic and the future outcomes, there has to be a capacity to produce pharmaceuticals. The western approach is more about sick care than health care. The continent needs to think more creatively about how to keep their people healthier.
Your assessment of Africa’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it is a complete disaster. Can you expound on this? Because it is a contrast to an earlier assessment you shared on the same matter.
The global response has not been handled well when it comes to previous pandemics, we immediately convey leadership globally. Viruses do not have the ideology. We are so interconnected by the time we find something potential the virus is everywhere.
Given the lack of capacity and resources the impact is not nearly what the folks predicted. There has been a different approach for Africa, extreme handling: “Lock down should be off the table for everybody” I think the world needs to learn from some of the African efforts. Instead of people persecuting Tanzania that has done well, they should ask themselves what hasn’t Tanzania done?
African leaders have to start to think globally about how we deal with problems of poor people and the problems brought about by poverty. African leaderships need to have the confidence to raise their questions and challenge the world to raise the answers.
How do you hope the thoughts you shared in your book will help Africa? - be it in policy making or taking more stern measures to mitigate the adverse impact that comes with a pandemic.
There is one point that I made on the postmortem of South Africa; people having near-death experience, giving an example of a young man surviving a car accident. If one is smart, they will take out two things: One, thanking God for life spared, and two, not to do it again. For Covid-19 the measures that have been implemented have caused more harm to appreciate this observation, hopefully one would do things differently, and I hope the book help with that.
Initially, Africa was thought to be treading the right path by using unorthodox measures to curb Covid, largely ignoring the Western ways, now that the tide seems to be shifting, do you share the same sentiments that Africa was right to carve its own Covid control measures?
Yes, Africa took the right route and the rest of the world needs to learn from some of Africa’s lessons. You don’t get better health outcomes when you deprive people of their income. Tanzania is handling Covid well and the economy is still opening up.
In your opinion, how does the political landscape and mindset in Africa propagate or extinguish the spread of covid?
In countries like Tanzania, where you have robust and stable democracy, you see a level of accountability, and one can see policies that are free. I anticipate Tanzania will have more policy changes, change in health care, what to do to get people healthy and ensuring they stay healthy.
You have called for concerted efforts in tackling Covid - on a global scale. If we are to narrow it down to the EAC, and reflect on the friction (at borders) heightened by Covid tests (or lack thereof). Do you think the regional bloc has done enough to consolidate joint efforts in combating the virus?
I don’t have enough details to really judge whether they have done enough as a regional bloc. But this is the type of question that needs to be asked. What challenges have they seen and what makes more sense given the resources they have in how to handle better this pandemic. Shutting boarders does not make sense. You cannot get stronger economies by scaling back the economy, instead, the regions should look at the proper ways of opening the boarder. I’m optimistic and I think leadership will continue to step up.
What the ambassador says about his book titled: ‘A view from the other side: Locked Down in South Africa’
The book was a response to what Stith was observing as Covid-19 unfolded. Since he was in South Africa, he focused more on South Africa, but still included some other parts of the world, including the US and Tanzania.
According to the ambassador the book to him was like a Kwanzaa diary that although he did not write everyday there is a sequence from the first to the last chapter. In the book he speaks about the pandemic and how it has affected the economy. His first chapter focuses on US President Donald Trump and his fall, and the two last chapters are the postmortem of Covid-19 crisis in South Africa and a postmortem to the virus panic in the US.
On why he included Tanzania, the ambassador says, “The thing that impresses me about Tanzania is that at the beginning Tanzania got it right and the current president continues in the same line. In one of the resources that I wrote early on I shared that Africa should be careful about following the approach of the Western countries, particularly US. And by this, I pointed out the lock down. Fortunately, I was not alone because the World Bank also made a point that Africa should be careful about copy-pasting Western resources to Covid-19”.
He continues by saying Tanzania got it right not to lock down the economy, a factor that has affected countries such as South Africa that did not heed this advice and the world can witness the consequences