Apples in Ghana, pears in Nigeria

The coronavirus pandemic has brought heavy-duty exposure to experts in many fields. This may well be on an unprecedented scale because the threat is both invisible and new. Scientists with different specialisms including the behavioural, medics and psychologists are positioned centre stage. Some are advising their governments and others are outside the tent. A few may feel they should have official status, and are looking to damage those that spurned them.

A tendency among the experts, and in the media coverage of their conclusions, is to make country comparisons. A topical example is the news yesterday from the Ghanaian president that the country’s measures of control are to be lifted in part. So why not Nigeria, where the selective lockdown has been extended for a further two weeks?

So beyond the obvious answer that the FGN has decreed otherwise, we read that Ghana has been more active in testing its citizens for the virus and that those tests have shown a very low proportion of positive results. The percentage of less than 2 per cent seems exceptionally low by European standards, where closer to 30 per cent has been common, but perhaps the tests are different. Testing in Ghana has been supported by the use of drones to deliver the samples to government laboratories. Technology, as we have observed in a previous column, is a winner from the pandemic because it has shown its positive side with new applications.

Without medical knowledge, we can supply background to the decision-taking. By virtue of the size of the population, Nigeria is a larger unit to manage. Further, it has a federal system and so another layer of authority. Straying into subjective territory, we would add that government communications and its sharing of information are suboptimal.

Whatever their skills, each government has to make a call on the mindset of their citizens.  Will they follow guidelines? Can they handle bad news? What is their appetite for information from official sources? How would they react to the reimposition of controls? How far would their confidence be dented by extended lockdown, and would they maintain their lockdown habits after the relaxation of controls?

Our point is that beyond the detailed scientific and medical data, which are not public knowledge, governments have to ask such questions when they impose, lighten or re-impose restrictions on their citizens. We have often heard that governments are driven by “the science” but they must equally pay attention to the impact of their decisions on the economy, and on law and order.  It is much less important what the neighbor is doing. The FGN is no exception.

For their part, statisticians should compare apples with apples, and the same applies to the experts and the media. Consensus currently has it that South East Asia has responded quickly and effectively to the virus. The countries have the medical expertise and their governments stockpiled the equipment that the rest of the world is now scrambling to procure. They were better prepared because, unlike other regions, they have tackled earlier respiratory diseases such as SARS.

Again, Italy and Spain have taken a far greater hit than, say, Germany and the Scandinavians. Different public health systems yes but would it not be a factor that three generations of one family often live under one roof in the Mediterranean countries? Or that the share of the population aged at least 65 years is five percentage points higher in Italy than Germany? There are some sad cases of young casualties but the overwhelming majority are older citizens.

Gregory Kronsten

Head, Macroeconomic & Fixed Income Research, FBNQuest

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