On the surface, it may appear that CRES hasn’t been affected: everyday colleagues continue to work hard to inform decision-making, juggling work and family commitments. But crisis management is a challenge within CRES, just as it is within the government. The pandemic was a surprise and is causing enormous damage that no one could have anticipated. Here I provide an overview of the situation in Senegal, and how our think tank is responding – both at the management level and through our research – and look at some of the areas we feel there is a need for further research evidence in Senegal.
The situation in Senegal
COVID-19 turned the world upside down. Africa, although currently the least affected continent, is no exception to this exceptional situation.
In Senegal, the first case was recorded on 2 March. As of 4 August, we had 10,432 cases declared positive, including 214 deaths, 6,920 recovered and 3,297 under treatment, with thousands of people quarantined everywhere, particularly in hotels.
Political measures to combat the pandemic take into account the country’s economic context. For example, it is unthinkable for Senegal to implement some of the general containment measures of some countries, for lack of resources.
Other measures have been adopted, such as: promotion of ‘barrier gestures’ (measures people can take to reduce risk of infection, such as regular handwashing or only using a tissue once), closure of schools, a curfew at night, and most recently the compulsory wearing of masks.
Other policies introduced are designed to support struggling populations. These measures are expensive and so it’s important that they are based on scientific evidence – evidence that the current context has not favoured. This raises many concerns about their impact now and future repercussions.
Changing working practices in CRES
For CRES management, promotion and respect of ‘barrier gestures’ have been the priority. In particular:
- Promoting staff awareness of barrier gestures
- Facilitating safe distances between colleagues in the office
- Enabling curfew compliance – stopping work at a reasonable hour to allow staff to arrive home in time
- Supplying antibacterial gel and masks for staff
- Wearing masks on CRES premises and especially during coordination meetings
- Using distance- or tele-working, in particular for executive management who, given their age, are at higher risk
- Suspending contact activities, like fieldwork interviews (which in some cases led to the termination of projects)
- Postponing project launches
- Delaying deliverables.
Like many other think tanks, CRES is not a large institution and it doesn’t have permanent funding. CRES activities and expenses – such as staff salaries – are funded by contracts won (projects and programmes).
As the crisis worsens, the future is uncertain. Many of our projects have been suspended. We do not know if we will be able to fulfill our donor commitments and risk repercussions on future funding. Meanwhile, CRES’ operating costs continue.
The question is: how long can CRES bear these expenses in such an uncertain context? Especially as reduction of staff is prohibited by order of the President of the Republic of Senegal.
Nonetheless, our donors have demonstrated their confidence in CRES, through ongoing support and initiating work with us, even in the crisis and with all the risks this entails.
Informing Senegal’s crisis response
We have made available over 40 documents with expert commentary on the impact of COVID-19 to inform decision-making. The documents were produced by researchers with different areas of expertise (lawyers, economists, etc.). This multidisciplinary approach is very much in keeping with CRES’ approach. We have shared these resources via our social media networks, in particular LinkedIn.
Another CRES initiative underway is a collection of mini videos on COVID-19. The series invites researchers to communicate on the crisis in a short video, giving visibility to researchers’ position and enabling them to propose solutions.
CRES experts also contribute to the public debate on the crisis through participation in TV programmes on specific issues, such as: COVID-19 and sport, or compliance with barrier measures.
Future research questions for the Senegal context
In addition to work already done, CRES has identified several research questions that deserve to be explored in greater depth to support decision-makers to prioritise actions, by providing evidence on different strategies, costs and health risks. These areas include:
- Education: closure of schools and universities was one of the first steps in the fight against COVID-19. While students in the private sector continue their school curriculum online with regular supervision, those in public schools are largely left to their own devices. How will this affect academic performance, especially those in examination years?
- The impact of closures and curfews on trade, tourism, import-export and other sectors. Does the state, in its role as regulator, include in its action plan support for struggling sectors – particularly in terms of tax reduction? What would be the impact on public finances and reallocation of resources?
- Financial support to the public through payment of bills: the State has said it will pay the water and electricity of people whose bills are less than 20,000 francs). However, the Senegalese family is characterised by large sizes where only one or two people have a decent job and are responsible for the running costs of the whole extended family. These people do not qualify for support as they have an income. But their income divided by the number of people they are supporting leaves them with similar living conditions to those with low or no income. What is the optimal threshold for support, taking into account our socio-cultural realities?
- Local remedies: In Madagascar the head of state announced a ‘cure’ for COVID-19 – an organic herbal tea based on Malagasy plants, including mugwort, known as a cure for malaria. After this, the President of Senegal ordered the product and congratulated Madagascar’s president. Senegal has its own Artemesia with therapeutic qualities. Madagascar’s example promoted faith in local expertise and consumption of local products – an example that Senegal must follow, as for the moment there is no reliable vaccine. Should Senegal advocate for use of its Artimisia in accordance with advice of authorised experts? Does Senegal have enough Artimisia to meet national demand? What would be the cost and impact of generalising the use of Artimisia?
- Curfews and informal sectors: curfews have a big impact on the informal sector. For example, many women stay home during the day and start informal sector activities in the evening to pay for the next day’s expenses. What measures has the state taken, or could the state take, to reduce the impact or support informal sectors affected by curfews?
- Mask wearing: mask wearing has become compulsory in Senegal. Why do we import masks, instead of supporting our craftsmen to produce high-quality masks that meet health standards? What are the risks of contamination among people who use so-called ‘artisanal masks’? What would be the cost of requiring the wearing of medicalised masks in Senegal?
- Reopening of schools and universities: scheduled reopening of schools sparked a major debate in the country. All the reasons that led the government to close them are still there – in fact positive test cases continue to increase exponentially. What provisions are being made to protect the health and safety of children? Some people think that a ‘blank year’ may regularise the disparities in the education system. What would be the cost of a ‘blank year’ for the Senegalese economy?
Looking to the future
Senegal’s COVID-19 crisis management strategy highlights the fragility of our economies and calls into question development practices, beliefs and policies. The country’s capacity for resilience in the face of crisis raises many concerns.
Today, more than ever, scientists and social scientists must join forces to produce relevant research to inform and support public decision makers.
CRES, in its role of supporting decision making, will continue to produce scientific evidence on the impact of COVID-19 in different sectors and advocate for its recommendations.
What is the situation in your respective countries and institutions? What do you think of the COVID-19 crisis action plan in your country? How has the crisis affected your think tank? How do you plan to measure the impact of COVID-19? Which sectors are most affected by the crisis? What will be the future consequences of the strategies to fight COVID-19 in your country?