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Tanzania: It’s time for a lockdown, debt relief and much more urgency

April is shaping up to be a decisive time that will determine the success or failure of Africa’s war against COVID-19. It is imperative that we in Zanzibar and Tanzania – where we have 24 cases at the time of writing, according to the Coronavirus in Africa tracker – intensify our efforts to protect our people and their livelihoods. Our collective future depends on our response. We cannot afford to fail.

Our economy is facing significant stress and strain as a result of the pandemic. There is an immediate need to address this. We cannot afford the current trends of price inflation and protectionism of big businesses to continue. The Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA) and Zanzibar Revenue Board (ZRB) cannot continue their “business-as-usual” approach, which sees no urgency in bringing about tax relief for people whose businesses and livelihoods have been devastated.

Both the Mainland and Zanzibar governments should initiate extraordinary measures to mitigate the economic impacts of the global crisis. The pandemic and its effects will not end tomorrow. The time for burying one’s head in the sand is over. I call upon every leader in the United Republic – political, business, labour and community – to stand up and honour their obligation to protect our vulnerable communities from COVID-19.

Issue a universal stay at home order

I again call upon the governments to implement a universal stay at home order. This should be accompanied by a coming together of leaders of all sectors of society to develop a plan to mitigate the socio-economic impacts of the crisis and to ensure the food security of our people. A sense of urgency must pervade our efforts. We must remember that we are at the brink of incoming monsoon rains, the “Kipupwe” cool season and the Holy Month of Ramadan.

The armed forces deserve our gratitude for their efforts in addressing issues of emergency preparedness, logistics support and in enforcing the current level of community restrictions. However, it is important that they do not abuse their powers under the pretext of fighting the coronavirus. The government has yet to declare an official curfew or restrictions on general movement. Why then are some elements of our armed forces visibly threatening and antagonising law-abiding citizens going about their regular business? This does not bode well for any eventual lockdown as necessary as it may be.

Our armed forces are obligated to act with a reasonable and proportional amount of force, where necessary, and in accordance with the law. This crisis is not the time to use excessive force with impunity. This crisis is the time for our armed forces to show a maximum level of empathy, love and conviction while executing their duties and obligations.

Ask for debt relief

Tanzania and Zanzibar are not prepared for the health challenge that COVID-19 poses. Unfortunately, our national budgets have under-prioritised the health sector for many years. It is therefore inevitable that the pandemic finds us unprepared, underfunded, and with no capacity whatsoever to face it head on.

Economic factors make matters even harder. One-third of Zanzibar’s gross national product comes from the tourism industry, which also comprises 80% of its foreign exchange transactions. The coronavirus has brought the tourism industry in Zanzibar to its knees. Our youth, who make up a significant percentage of the work force, are now without jobs. This is compromising the sustainability of government revenues which could have been used to support our health sector.

The UN World Tourism Organisation suggests that even if the crisis were to end tomorrow, the global tourism industry would have suffered financial losses of up to one third of it standard revenues. This will undoubtedly result in long-term repercussions for our tourism industry. We are in for a long and arduous journey to recovery. It will take months, most probably years, for us to get back to where we were before the pandemic.

As a small island developing state such as Zanzibar, this is too heavy a burden to bear.  We will need international financial corporations to support us by suspending our debt servicing for at least one year so the money saved can be used to support the revival of our economies and to save our health systems from total collapse. If the IMF and the World Bank, as well as developed countries, heed our call, we will be able to reduce our current vulnerabilities and build our resilience to get through this crisis.

Tanzania has an external debt of $23 billion, 65% of which comes from international financial corporations and donor countries. If our debt servicing is suspended for one year, Tanzania may save up to TSH 3 trillion ($1.3 billion) which can be used to immediately strengthen our over-burdened health system and alleviate economic shocks. Zanzibar could get its quota of TSH 330 billion ($143 million) which would be critical for the islands to recover from the brink of economic collapse.

We must work together

Collectively, we need to fight this pandemic with greater urgency and resolve. This starts with all our leaders working together to save lives by issuing a stay at home order and ensuring citizens adopt behaviour that avoids increased infection. This should be enabled by patriotic, empathetic and service-oriented armed forces that put citizens, their safety and their rights first. We then need to implement tax relief and make an urgent application for relief from debt servicing for one year.

As the Chairperson of ACT-Wazalendo, I wish to reiterate to the governments of both the Mainland and Zanzibar – we are here to help and do whatever is necessary to win this battle. Working together, we can beat this pandemic and emerge stronger and more united as a country.

This article was published by African Arguments.


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