The real challenge that this damn virus poses to our African economies is neither medical nor health.
I am one of those who are strongly convinced that on a purely medical level, this virus will sooner or later find in front of it, a scientific community which will be able to annihilate it by an effective remedy. It will happen very soon. I affirm it, not by a stupid and stubborn faith, nor by divine revelation, but because I have this deep conviction that this virus cannot be superior to our intelligence, the very one that sent man to the moon. I believe in the exceptional intelligence of humans, I believe in their perfectible nature. I believe in this survival reflex of our species and our society, especially when the existence and hegemony of known superpowers are at stake. The COVID19 will certainly cause its share of damage, humans among others; but ultimately, it will do its time, and will be under control thanks to science, like all other pandemics or diseases known to man before him.
I also do not believe that this COVID19 constitutes a real test of the organizational structure of our society, Ivorian and African. This crisis teaches me nothing new about what the Ivorian is. The Ivorian is undisciplined, addicted to fake news, constantly looking for a buzz. He has an unrivaled propensity to want to make the buzz himself, to be the buzz, whether he is a music star or a simple citizen. But there ends the caricature, because the Ivorian is also ingenious, creator, unifier, born humorist, master of satire, and aspires like any citizen of the world, to a better tomorrow. It is his most absolute right.
In these times of COVID19 crisis, I would not set myself the goal of changing this Ivorian there, or of educating him in record time beyond what he is already; you'd be wasting your time and energy. It has always been like this, it is as it always has been, and will be again after this pandemic. What is happening to us, in Yopougon or Koumassi, where populations have ransacked COVID19 screening centers, is not the fault of anyone in particular, even less of a government. It is a collective fault due to our nature of Ivorian and African, a nature which after sixty years of independence, still tends to maximize a certain social entropy, as soon as the least obstacle appears. This kind of attribute, this level of civilizational evolution, just like the level of education of our masses, it doesn’t get out of a people with a simple wand. During this crisis, I expect neither the worst nor the best from the Ivorian. Let him stay alive; that’s all that matters, and that’s all we can wish him.
Nor do I believe that this COVID19 is the ultimate test of our government in particular. We live in a global village. With a few slight variations, the measures applied by African governments are strikingly similar, for one very simple reason: our economies are almost identical. It is even highly probable that African heads of state consult each other before imposing on all of them a common timing for implementing the fight against COVID19. However, to say that these African economies are profoundly different from European ones is an obvious thing to say. The proof is that no government south of the Sahara has so far been able to cut and paste the Italian-style complete lockdown stay-at-home policy. Those who dare to do so will be described as brave one day, to be called criminals the next day by the same people, when the country is unable to feed all its confined citizens. Likewise, those who do not do so immediately will first be accused of being cowards, and when they dare to do so later, criminals, by those who, deep down, fear this possibility. My observation is that at all times, and whatever the regimes which have governed them, the relationship between the Ivorians and their rulers has always been akin to that of a people of Israel in the desert, guided by a Moses; one day we love him, another day we hate him. One day we beg him to be firm, and another day we find him a little too barbaric.
In such a state of affairs, well, we manage; we manage at best; on sight some would say, but we manage. We manage time, we manage emotions, we manage the care of the first patients who report, and all over sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, we manage an uncertain supply of medical equipment, we carefully manage our modest financial resources, like a good father, because no one knows for sure how long the crisis will last.
The management of the COVID19 crisis, in all countries of the world, whether they are developed or highly indebted poor countries, follows a classic pattern. Everything, and absolutely everything in the management of this crisis makes me think of this sacrosanct principle that we teach in many incubators of startups: when the horizon is shifting and unstable, put away your Multi-Year Business Plan, and make yourself mini business plans, with shorter horizons.
It is this theory that all African governments apply in the fight against COVID19, they manage the situation. I can not blame them for that, I who taught these principles to dozens of young Ivorian entrepreneurs, residents of the incubator of the Digital Youth Foundation, based at VITIB. However, the corollary of this principle is the absolute need to have an extraordinary ability to adapt. "Sailing by sight" requires thinking outside the box when you have to, and daring to do things differently. Think outside the box.
The real victory against COVID19 will come from countries that dare to break out of the classic schemes and innovate. Cutting and pasting others solutions will not help us, nor the rhetoric of methods and practices from the past, much less the theories we learned in school. The innovation I'm referring to here is not just technological, far from it. It covers all sectors of our society. All our ways of doing, thinking and acting must be reviewed, questioned, scuttled, and altered because, the world after COVID19 will not be the one before COVID19. Already, some warning signs are palpable.
Take for example the issue of international security. So to commit a terrorist act today and really do damage to a state, there is no longer any need to hijack planes on September 11. Too expensive, too complicated to organize. The new genre terrorist may be more stylish, more subtle, but highly dangerous. He will only have to imbibe a contaminated vial, undetectable by the scanner of all airports, and wander without apparent symptom in public places, stadiums, concerts, restaurants, to distill his venom. Do you think that the anti-terrorist agencies of the Western countries are really ready to face such a threat? That no. They have an obligation to innovate, to adapt to the possibility of a new kind of bioterrorism.
In Toronto, Canada, the Association of Auto Parts Manufacturers has reconverted its factories to produce ... protective masks. Production will reach One Million masks next week. Thanks to COVID19, the Canadian remembered that before China became the factory of the world, North America manufactured Wrangler or Levi’s Jeans, which were exported all over the world. Canadians suddenly rediscover industrial skills that thay had voluntarily neglected and left to others. This transformation speaks to me particularly, since I have lived thirteen years of my life close to the Ford Windstar vehicle manufacturing plant in Ontario. This ability to adapt is the key for any society that wishes to cross the COVID19 pandemic, and end up with a functional economy after it.
Another example: Medtronic, a giant in biomedical equipment, and also manufacturer of respirators, offers the design of its respirators free of charge to anyone who wants to make them. To hell with the expensive patents they funded. Do you think this gesture is pure philanthropy? I doubt. This company quickly understood that the thorny issue of the availability of respirators will inevitably restructure its market, and prompt the creation of dozens of new manufacturers, all potential competitors.
Closer to home, in neighboring Ghana. On March 16, 2020, the President of the Republic of Ghana invited all of the country's drug manufacturers to ask them a simple question: what can you do to help Ghana with COVID19?
The day after this meeting, Ghana redefined its protocols, so as to allow all manufacturers to see their factories and products certified and approved by the Ghanaian regulator of the pharmaceutical sector, in record time. Dozens of locally produced pharmaceutical products, used in the fight against COVID19, obtained their certification in twenty-four hours. Chloroquine, Azithromycin, Paracetamol, etc., were approved by an express procedure. Because of this reactivity, the Ghanaian very quickly understood that in wartime, we do not behave as in peacetime, but above all, that the coronavirus pandemic could be an opportunity to develop a local, strong pharmaceutical industry, and independent of external supply.
And what about teleworking, which we all experience because of COVID19? Few business leaders will tell you openly, but they all know that this experiment is a real test of the productivity of their staff in a given configuration. For my part, a fundamental question deserves to be resolved: the physical proximity that we require of our employees, the obligation that we make them to endure three hours of public transport per day to get to their place of work, do they guarantee the company better productivity? If, in teleworking, the company’s lawyer writes as many contracts, and if the accountant analyzes as many client accounts, as when they are physically present at the company's headquarters, the General Manager that I am is entitled to question the very need to rent a company’s headquarters, pay monthly bills of water, electricity, internet, and maintenance, give fuel coupons and additional transportation bonuses to employees.
If the telework test is successful, why should I insist on bringing all the staff of VITIB SA back to the headquarters of the company, once the COVID19 crisis is over? At VITIB SA, we live in a brand new headquarters we recently built, but we only occupy a quarter of the office space in the building. The rest of the building was fully rented to our customers, six months after its inauguration. Well, if it turns out that the telework experience is successful, why not reduce our own spaces, keep half the staff outside, still in telework mode, and make even more income by renting additional offices to other ICT companies wishing to set up in our free zone? If it weren't for a certain virus called COVID19, I wouldn't be making such income projections. However, given the looming recession, I have no choice but to find, at all costs, alternatives to the nice budget that I had adopted at the start of this year.
Who knows, maybe this COVID19 will succeed in changing our labor laws, or better yet, make the air of Abidjan much cleaner to breathe. Four weeks after the detection of the first case of COVID19 in Côte d'Ivoire, we are recording four deaths, aren't we? On the other hand, I am certain that the self-containment of the Ivorians, and the air quality that ensued, saved the people in Abidjan a lot of bronchitis, respiratory problems, the stress of public transport, and saved hundreds lives during the same period, due to the positive impact of this crisis on ecology. Yes, as bizarre as it may sound, a Corona virus doesn't just kill; it also saves lives.
Even the “schools on national TV” that we discover on national television, could be a lasting solution to the overcrowding of the classes in our school system, why not?
Finally, crisis communication is an art, a very delicate art. These days, many of us declare ourselves communication experts. In fact, this quasi-national expertise that each of our fellow citizens seems to have, moreover legitimate, is the result of wide access to the Internet, and truly free social networks, all of which today, allow the average Ivorian to know in record time what is good and not so good around the world, and to oppose to his government methods and models applied elsewhere. In Africa today, the government informs and educate the people, and vice versa. This is also the other innovation, or rather the other innovation requirement in terms of crisis communication, due to COVID19. In terms of communication, the governments that will survive are the ones that let themselves be informed by the populace, let themselves be guided, even remote-controlled, and agree to have the people as co-pilot in the cockpit.
On this aspect, like all Ivorians these days, I get up some mornings, of a rather critical nature towards this or that decision. But when evening comes, when in the 8 p.m. TV news, I realize the immense responsibilities that weigh on the shoulders of the Minister of Health and Public Hygiene, I stop for a moment and feel a deep desire to pray for him and his collaborators, for all the work they do tirelessly, so that they do not get discouraged and continue our fight to all. I express the hope that he and his collaborators will always be inspired, and that they will INNOVATE constantly, in the face of a new and truly changing situation. Pandemics, there is only one per century. It’s like rebellions, coups, first pregnancy, or marriage. There is not really a pre-written manual applicable at all times. Whatever you do, nothing will always be perfect, and there will always be criticism. It is not easy to satisfy and save this Ivorian whom I described above, an Ivorian at the same time demanding and unpredictable.
Like some Canadian industrialists who find themselves having to quickly adapt to face COVID19, Côte d'Ivoire also has to make its own reflections. My best advice to my government, is to constitute a think tank, ideally non-partisan, which will have to stay away from the feverishness of the current fight against COVID19, in order to think in all serenity, the Ivorian society of after COVID19. It would be the innovation of innovations, said Think tank having for main mission to release the intrinsic genius of the Ivorian, and to formulate Cote d’Ivoire’s own macro-solutions to the problems of the Ivorians, current and future. Unlike the Afro-pessimists who want to predict a catastrophic scenario at all costs, Africa can very well get away with it, and play a better score in a post-COVID19 world.
We need to analyze this crisis at higher levels. The real challenge facing the world, and Ivorian society is no exception, is the challenge of innovation, of thinking beyond preconceived patterns, beyond the rampant anxiety that invades us. Whether it is technology, ecology, international relations, communication, general policy, work organization, social policies, health, our industrial fabric, pharmaceutical or agricultural, or the pillars of our economy, please, think, think, innovate, but above all, do not reject these revolutionary ideas that germinate in us.
No, the real threat to our health, to our society, to our way of life, and to our ambitions, is not this tiny virus. This damn virus will undoubtedly be a thing of the past, annihilated or at least under control, through science and research. The real threat is this form of generalized fear, anxiety and stress, which, if we let them run, will end up controlling us, petrify us, and prevent us from thinking and having faith in a bright future for our country and our continent.
Philippe A. Pango, Ph.D
Managing Director of VITIB SA
Information Technology and Biotechnology Village
Free zone and Mahatma Gandhi Technological Park of Grand- Bassam,