The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic seemed to spare the African continent in February and early March, when the rate of infections and then fatalities escalated globally. Based on the SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome pointer that COVID is inactivated by high temperatures (above 26 degrees), some alluded to the sun as Africa’s saving grace. Alas, this was wishful thinking as the pandemic rolled across the Continent by April. Since then, there have been varied response measures and it is clearer by the day that COVID will impact communities for the foreseeable future.
The good news is despite the daunting task policymakers face, countries are showing leadership in managing the pandemic’s fallout. In South Africa, for example, in conjunction with a 100-day lockdown with varying intensities, the Ministry of Health in collaboration with the private sector commenced countrywide contact tracing and mass testing, facilitated in part by mobile sample collection units reaching people in remote areas.
So far more than 1 million tests have been taken, putting South Africa ahead of all other countries on the Continent. By having a clear picture of COVID hotspots and trends, policymakers are able to move swiftly to curb its spread and economic impact.
The role of private sector has been a key leverage point, whereby the business community has stepped in quickly to assist governments in developing effective solutions – from local production of personal protective equipment (PPE) and manufacturing rapid test kits, to use of humanoid robots in hospitals as in the case in Rwanda. Civil society, NGOs and resident associations have also played a critical role as the boots-on-the-ground mechanism, reaching the most vulnerable with information, PPE, handwashing stations, food and financial support.
In Kenya, while there is no strict lockdown, the government moved swiftly to provide directives on social distancing, defining essential services, suspending mass gathering, and restricting movement by putting in place a curfew (initially from 7pm to 5am and later 9pm to 4am) and defining “hot spots” to where travel was limited to commercial vehicles. This kind of “smart lockdown” or quarantine of hotspots is adaptive to the African reality, whereby a majority of the population derives their income from daily activities, and more than 200 million live in slums.
Swift Fiscal and Monetary Policy Interventions
Several governments foresaw the long-term impact of COVID-19 and moved to consolidate budgets to free up capital for social safety net programs while treasury teams and central banks reallocated funds to cushion economies. A wide range of monetary policy interventions were introduced in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, among others, which included the lowering of policy rates and, in some cases, the reduction of cash reserve ratios in order to increase liquidity in the market. Governments also established credit guarantee programs targeted at micro and small-sized enterprises in an effort to forestall job losses. Without these interventions, the African Management Institute estimates that about 87 percent of entrepreneurs face the risk of closure while the rates are more dire in informal settlements where 90 percent of traders will need government intervention to remain in business.
In terms of keeping the public informed, most African governments seem to be doing well. Continuous communication by health officials has been the hallmark of the COVID experience. A number of countries provide daily updates, including the position on infections, fatalities and testing, as well as, the geographic distribution of cases. Such transparency has enabled the handling of the COVID pandemic to be rooted in reality.
Digital Accessibility Gap Broadens
As with all socioeconomic crisis events, COVID has shed light on the fault-lines within the public sector. Due to weak tax collection, corruption and misappropriation of funds, and unsustainable wage bills, policymakers are grappling with how long fiscal measures can prop up health systems and the economy without heavy reliance on multilateral and bilateral aid.
Sadly, the pandemic has unmasked the desperate state of health services in most African countries and in particular in rural and poor communities where healthcare services have long suffered neglect and underinvestment. In some countries, the pace of testing has been very slow, worsened by a shortage of hospital beds and ventilators while ICU facilities in most rural areas are limited or non-existent. Moreover, public health workers have had to work in poor conditions with relatively low pay for the risks at hand.
Another sector that has seen severe disruption is education. African countries almost unanimously closed schools and colleges as soon as cases emerged. In exchange, some governments have introduced digital learning, based online and via public radio and TV. However, the impact of these interventions has been limited by affordability and accessibility of devices, as well as, a lack of reliable access to electricity and the Internet. COVID has therefore broadened the digital accessibility gap — and in turn, the education divide — between the rich, and poor and rural households. Africa is the least Internet connected continent with just 28 percent actively online (compared to more than 50 percent active users in the Americas, Europe and Asia). Most citizens do not have computers at home and those that do tend to only have one machine while the average household size is four.
In some countries, in an effort to impose social distancing, police and army officers have used excessive force, which has created more anxiety and mistrust at a time when citizen confidence in government is critical. Meanwhile, domestic violence and teen pregnancies are at an all-time high. Accountability systems therefore need to be enhanced and police officers should be trained on how to effectively engage citizens who are dealing with mental health concerns.
Despite this picture, Africa’s challenges are not insurmountable, and its citizens have demonstrated ingenuity — from home-made masks to low touch handwashing stations. That said, in order to be successful, governments, private sector and civil society must align and utilize the data available to avoid duplication of efforts and inefficiencies. New policies need to be introduced with the learnings from COVID. For example, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) of South Africa is advancing a policy to introduce free basic access to the Internet to broaden internet access while 3D printing has been used to make ventilators in Senegal and Ghana.
All governments should consider such policies that will help citizens catch up with the new digital-first reality that was ushered in by the fourth industrial revolution and has now been cemented by COVID.
Indeed, countries, have been forced to look inward for solutions, particularly within the health system, and this has exposed historic overreliance on donors and offshore health facilities, for those who could afford it. Export markets and global value chains have been cut off overnight, resulting in tremendous waste and unemployment. It is, therefore, time for Africa to refocus, leveraging on the Africa Free Continental Trade Area framework to create sustainable solutions for the Continent. It is time for Africa to redesign its own economic rulebook and investment template; one that puts Africa and its people first; one that makes use of its vast arable land and resources, and its burgeoning population in order to create a livelihood for the African people.
From city centres to villages, there are numerous high- and low-tech examples of Africa’s resourcefulness in the midst of this health crisis. Through the African Union, countries can align and set up centres of innovation where industrial technology anchored in indigenous know-how is developed into solutions that work for the African context. The informality of economic structures must also be addressed, and a critical mass transitioned into the formal economy where they can benefit from access to government services, financing and a continental marketplace while also contributing to the tax base.
Health sectors must be well funded to ensure optimum capacity, as well as, constructive labour relations with health workers. This also means that there needs to be a dedicated clamp down on corruption which often leads to funds not reaching their intended sectors. Indeed, African governments and the African populous need to stop paying lip service to anti-corruption rhetoric but start to make dents at its eradication; both at the public and private sector level.
Lastly, while climate change may seem displaced by COVID as a policy focus, global warming remains Africa’s greatest threat. Governments should continue to prioritize mitigative measures by having a greater focus on food security, water and sanitation as they chart their economic recovery pathways.
Africa’s COVID experience has been an arduous balancing act of safeguarding lives and preserving livelihoods. In 120 plus days, the Continent has learned and unlearned how best to respond to pandemics. Thus, a “COVID Kairos” has opened up for governments to leverage this health crisis into comprehensive sustainable economic development policy that leaves no one behind.
About the Authors
The writers are Eisenhower Fellows and advocates for sustainable development and social justice. They can be contacted via email at [email protected]