BUSA JEREMIAH WENOGO
PORT MORESBY - As the spread of coronavirus claims thousands of lives throughout the world it has also brought economic hardship to many countries.
Businesses and governments face a bleak future with economic activities shutting down and the movement of people becoming more restrictive.
In Papua New Guinea the government recently introduced a state of emergency after a foreign mine worker travelling to PNG’s second biggest city Lae tested positive for the virus.
As a result roads in cities and towns are half empty and schools and most businesses have been forced to close down.
While a few businesses like shops are still open, albeit under strict rules, the 14 day partial shutdown period will no doubt test the social and economic fabric of the country.
Experience from other countries show that the implementation of this sort of measure will require the government to put in place some sort of economic or social safety net package to help citizens sustain their livelihoods and keep businesses afloat until normalcy returns.
Already in Australia thousands of newly-unemployed citizens are queuing to access welfare benefits.
If the PNG government does introduce a stimulus package for businesses, it should also cover informal micro-enterprises.
In PNG it is estimated that almost 80% of the population are engaged in the informal economy with about 20% of them comprising formal sector workers who use income from informal economic activities to supplement their wages.
The bulk of these activities are in small trades and primary production, that plays a vital role in supplying food to urban centres.
In the USA the government has expanded its economic stimulus package to cover self-employed people.
A large part of PNG’s private sector comprises self-starters in the informal economy - table mamas, street sellers and market vendors.
These groups earn their income through daily sales and interactions with the public. Their income supports their children and puts food on the table for their families.
The state of emergency has the potential to cripple their ability to earn incomes and jeopardise their livelihood just like any other business.
While major markets in Port Moresby, Lae and Mt Hagen still open under tight scrutiny, there is a need to set up temporary markets for vendors who regularly trade outside the recognised markets.
In these markets the responsible market and urban authorities should undertake simple measures such as curtailing or modifying certain activities (e.g., street sales and cooked food) to reduce the potential for transmission of the virus.
The fresh food chain of fruit, vegetables and fish clearly needs to proceed to safeguard both essential food supplies and household incomes, especially in urban areas.
Markets need proper sanitation and hygiene – soap, washbasins, face masks and gloves - augmented by appropriate social distancing between sellers and buyers.
To ensure coordination the government should work with the various informal vendor associations. The National Capital District, for instance, has 13 or 14 already set up in some markets.
More needs to establish them elsewhere in PNG as they play a vital role in linking the government with the informal economy, although there’s no time for this now. But if the state of emergency is to be extended and in preparation for future epidemics, the government needs to start planning.
Global experts say a vaccination for coronavirus is still 12-18 months away. This leaves almost 80% of our nation’s workforce in the informal economy in a dire situation.
Unlike workers in the public and private sectors, informal economy workers do not have the same benefits and protections such as superannuation to support them when things turn out for the worse.
This is where the government must not overlook their well-being in this perilous time.
Busa Jeremiah Wenogo is a development economist who specialises in the informal economy. He has been at the forefront of policy reforms in the informal economy in PNG for many years.