Joubert has a point

Gondwana, a respected tourism group, in Namibia is first among equals in the tourism industry for empowerment, training and skills transfer, promotions on the basis of performance and a wildlife/conservation focus that is important to Namibia. The outspoken CEO of the Gondwana Collection Group, Gys Joubert sent a letter to the Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres. He is fired up about World Health Organization protocols and their vastly negative impact in Namibia.

The angered CEO says he is tired and battle weary of having to fight for his 1,102 employees and their jobs and for the financial viability of his company. He waves the suffering of the Namibian people and says the one-size-fits-all approach of the WHO has done more damage than good.

While we have not seen the entire letter sent by Joubert and only have access to excerpts, we are forced by reality to rise in support of what Joubert has reportedly sent to the SG of the UN.

It is unorthodox and arguably presumptuous for the local business leader to communicate directly as an individual to the Secretary General of the United Nations representing over 170 member states, as if what happens in Namibia is more dire than what is happening all over the world. Namibian officials might not be happy about being overlooked for such letters as the first port of call. Nevertheless, the points he makes are valid.

We have been writing editorials for months decrying the programs coming out of the Ministry of Health. We are keenly aware that those driving such non-Namibian based programs and requirements are not from here. They are imported UN or global health officials that are calling the shots in a major way for the Namibian economy. We have speculated that this is being allowed because our government wants to do the right thing by its people. Fair enough. We applaud this people-centred focus.

But, we bristle at having methods best suited for New York, Quebec, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing, Madrid or Rome imposed on Namibia. We are 2.5 million and that counts pregnant women! We are a developing country with major economic issues BEFORE COVID-19 hit. The majority of our people by a vast margin are under the age of 40. Younger people without immunocompromised conditions are not fatalities of this disease (according to recent reports) if they catch it.

We are one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world with our people living largely spread out in rural areas. And yet, thanks to the WHO and CDC and whatever other development partner that was offering our health ministry money for programs, imposed strictures as if our reality was non-existent.

We have been through a lockdown protocol and state of emergency phased system that was over the top. Was everything we did, absolutely necessary? Was the option death by COVID or death by poverty (HEV is on the rise again as is TB and the social ills and diseases that come with destitution and poverty)? At this point, this is not far off the mark of what Namibia now faces.

The nightmares that are going on in other larger, more urban populated and relatively older population (average ages) countries did not happen here. The tens of thousands taking up hospital beds and needing expensive imported treatments did not happen here. The surge in infections now happening all over Europe, likely will not happen here.

When anyone dies, it is a tragedy. But, looking at the entire situation, we have not had the huge numbers of deaths due to COVID as predicted by our dear foreign consultants.

We do not have the infrastructure, skilled personnel already in place, communications systems and other neat systems as developed nations. And yet, these officials from the outside, UN officials included, dangled needed finances above the heads of our empty coffers and pressured this nation into implementing plans and programs that ticked boxes for the funders as a first priority. These programs were not researched about their efficacy for NAMIBIA! In this, we paid a price for COVID that was extreme.

It is hard to prove a negative. We cannot say that lives were saved because of the programs imposed on Namibia by the UN and CDC. We can assume this is so and we thank God. But, we can point to the massive and debilitating unemployment and earthquake to the ailing economy that certainly WILL cause the death, loss of quality of life, increases in crime and social ills, and economic disaster (in terms of attracting foreign investors) and say that our heavy-handed response to COVID exacerbated this.

Countries with resources can err on the side of over-caution. They have the money to subsidize, offer relief packages, suspend rental payments, give tax relief, pay the salaries of their hospitality industry workers even if they are closed and other wonderful things. Namibia does not have any of this and yet, we imposed the same governmental interventions as the countries who had such benefits to help their people when we had absolutely no capacity to do the same.

Let us face that reality. We think that is the point of Joubert’s frustrated letter. It has merit and must be addressed.

What’s done is done. The state of emergency was done; borders were closed and for the past several months entire sectors of the country were destroyed. The big boys and those with overdrafts or outside investors or resources may muddle through this mess. But, the vast majority who were hanging on by their finger nails already, won’t make it out the other end.

Some will survive, but emerge weaker and smaller in terms of productivity. Others will merge with equally ailing former competitors. And others, might find a sugar daddy investor to save them from the fire. The result is that economic recession ongoing before the pandemic, will be economic depression and social meltdown very soon.

Government cannot bail out the tourism sector; it is a shame that there was a package announced early in the lockdown phase that included millions that were supposedly earmarked for the travel and tourism sector. When a ship is sinking and you direct some survivors to a place where a life boat is supposed to exist and it doesn’t, that is not a good thing.

While we do give a nod to Joubert, we also are more interested in hearing survival plans, than pointing fingers. If Europe is on lockdown again and only Ethiopia air and Eurowings are flying these days (and these two may well close again until the resurgence passes) Namibia is in no position for make potential travellers find ways to come here. Ultimately, Namibia can open everything and roll out the welcome mat, but if the overseas tourists are afraid to leave their homes (as is the case according to the UNWTO and the World Travel and Tourism Council), what can Namibia do more than what it has done?

Surely Joubert doesn’t suggest that we cut money from housing, PEPFAR, UNAM, NUST, and hospitals so that tourism companies can get subsidies? This is unfair, we know it. But, our point is that there is no money. There are no funds to bail out the tourism industry. There will be no checks in the mail for fired tourism employees or tourism companies struggling to make their bank loan payments. Something has to give if money is made available on the level needed to help as many as possible (not just the mainstream tourism companies, but even the new entries into the sector and Black or women-owned SMEs).

As the UN and CDC ‘advisors’ board their flights, collect their guarantees salaries (paid in hard currency) and go back to their offices overseas, they leave us with a mess. They met their targets and will do glowing reports about what they achieved here. Those of us here must pull out the shovels and clean up the streets after the horse parade has passed by.

We support Joubert and respect his passion, but like government, we are at a loss as to what additional solutions are possible in the short/medium term (with other countries going back to various stages of travel bans) to alleviate the horrid pressure The Gondwana CEO is suffering. We know that the future is bleak for his company and many others, not just in the tourism sector. We know that there will be those who have not yet closed down, that will downsize or disappear. That is 2020 and likely 2021. We need to dig in, pray a lot, close our eyes and cut to the bone to save our core businesses, and get a second job to keep food on the table.

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