Article by: Kirembwe Andrew
With the current coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, policymakers are confronted with decisions that may prove to be among the most difficult of their careers. To contain the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented measures are being taken globally.
Health systems may be unable to cope up with the fast-paced increase in infections. How long can the African economies sustain a lockdown? Will the 2030 SDGs deadline be met?
Covid-19 threatens to undo progress achieved towards sustainable development by many African countries over recent decades. Even before the current crisis, most African countries were unlikely to achieve the SDGs, which emphasizes as a core principle “leaving no one behind”, including the most marginalized countries.
Any further obstacles mean the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will almost certainly be missed without far-reaching policy responses. This article reviews some of the main health, social and economic impacts of Covid-19 on Africa and makes a series of policy recommendations.
What is the Impact of COVID-19 on Africa and the Existing Strategies?
Underdeveloped health systems
As of 11 May 2020, the World Health Organization reported 66,952 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 2,330 deaths in Africa, affecting all but Lesotho. Together, African countries account for a small but rising 1.58 per cent of global cases and 0.82 per cent of global deaths. But these low figures do not reflect the true picture: a low rate of reported infections is often the consequence of Africa’s lack of testing capacity.
With coronavirus spreading within Africa, prospects are dire. Covid-19 is overwhelming public health systems even in many developed countries. It will almost certainly wreak havoc in countries with underdeveloped health systems.
There are on average only 104 hospital beds per 100,000 inhabitants in Africa, around 80 per cent below developed countries. Even the most basic public health interventions like frequent hand washing are impossible for many people in Africa.
African countries especially the landlocked countries that had closed their borders as part of containment measures risk infection as they allow people to cross their borders especially truck drivers.
Lockdown to save lives
According to a report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, at least 42 countries have imposed partial or full lockdowns on the movements, and activities of their people. Experience around the world suggests that such interventions effectively suppress the spread of COVID-19.
However, these lockdowns pose considerable economic costs that, in turn, threaten lives, put livelihoods at risk and worsen poverty. These measures can also force economies into recession.
ECA estimates that a one-month full lockdown across Africa would cost the continent about 2.5 per cent of its annual GDP, equivalent to about $65.7 billion per month. This is separate from and in addition to the wider external impact of COVID-19 on Africa of lower commodity prices and investment flows.
A full lockdown is assumed to involve the continuation of only essential services (such as food services and grocery shops, and health and security services), with the significant curtailment of other economic activities. Private consumption, investment and labour supply and demand drop significantly while government consumption and trade operate at a relatively normal level.
There is no real alternative. The strategy of “testing, tracing and isolating”, which would allow economies to operate with minor interruptions by restricting only the people actually infected or those who have been in close contact with them, have proven unfeasible for most countries.
Africa lacks not only the necessary testing capacities but the technologies and governance structures to effectively and efficiently trace and isolate the infected. A social immunity strategy would help stop the virus from spreading sooner but would cost many lives and cause social devastation. Hoping that effective vaccines or medicines will be available soon is widely seen as untenable.
Suppressing the spread of the coronavirus through lockdowns and milder forms of social distancing are far more difficult to implement in Africa, particularly in slums or in refugee camps. Whereas developed and more advanced developing countries are able to shift at least some production to employees’ home offices, the different types of jobs and the lack of information technology infrastructure makes working from home impossible for most people in Africa.
Many vulnerable populations in Africa lack access to a social protection system so that the economic lockdown necessary to save lives will immediately increase poverty, hunger and destitution. Among those most exposed to the immediate social impacts of Covid-19 are young people, and in particular young women, who tend to be over-represented in LDCs’ sizable informal economies, lack access to savings, and work in the economic sectors that have been most impacted by social distancing restrictions.
Some of the longer-term risks of lockdowns may also be more severe in Africa. Existing economic, gender and social inequalities are exacerbated. Combined with a loss of household income, millions of women are confined with their abusers, with limited options for help and support.
The unequal distribution of unpaid care and domestic work increases because women and girls spend even more time than men and boys performing these care activities—a significant barrier to gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.
Extended school closures could have more drastic effects on human capital, particularly for girls and young women, and therefore future economic growth due to the impossibility of remote schooling.
Exit Strategies and Options
The unprecedented economic crisis in Africa caused by the coronavirus requires decisive and swift action, both by affected countries and by international development partners, who could create a targeted package of international support measures.
Support for public health systems
Many African countries often lack the productive capacity and financial resources to acquire the necessary health equipment, they need immediate support from the international community, in addition, to support for the long-term strengthening of the health sector.
All governments should refrain from restricting exports of essential medicines and health equipment, while vulnerable countries need to ease existing import restrictions. Marginalized countries stand to benefit from increased global efforts to develop vaccines and effective medications against Covid-19. Such efforts should consider vaccines as global public goods and ensure they will reach the most vulnerable first.
Contact tracing and mass testing
Identify those who have the disease and everyone they have come into contact with, then isolate, test and monitor those people. Typically requires considerable human, financial and logistical resources. Effectiveness could be supplemented with advanced surveillance technology, such as TraceTogether (Singapore).
Typically, some technologies require mobile phone Bluetooth or GPS data and may be difficult to design and administer in African countries with limited mobile phone penetration.
Promote local innovation
The Ministry of ICT and National Guidance of Uganda recently, through its National ICT Innovation Support Program (NIISP), launched a call for local innovators to come up with ideas and innovations on how to combat COVID-19 and its impacts.
Such calls can also be implemented in sectors like health and commerce, because crises generate a lot of energy that, if harnessed constructively, can be a great source of innovation. The COVID-19 response is producing inspiring innovative responses proving that, indeed, necessity is the mother of invention.
What has emerged already and during previous crises provide lessons for our near-term response, but also highlight the underlying and more critical long-term need to better resource and institutionalize strategic innovation in global health.
Support affected households and businesses
In addition to increasing budget allocations for the health sector, most African countries have already adopted or are developing programs and measures to provide income or food support to their unemployed and vulnerable populations.
Unfortunately, this is far more difficult than in advanced economies, as social protection systems are often lacking. Even where they exist, they often fail to reach workers in the informal economy, who are the most vulnerable and often constitute a majority.
New policy measures could include extending social protection. For example, through basic social security guarantees for workers in the informal sector, and by involving local government and non-state actors.
Bank of Uganda recently reduced the Central Bank Rate (CBR) by a percentage point in order to mitigate the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring financial sector stability, and facilitating the financial intermediation process during the pandemic period.
Other countries have also adopted or developed support programs that provide loans, guarantees, or tax relief for firms that are temporarily affected so that workers continue to receive wage income or at least to ensure the firms still exist if the economies reopen. While some of these countries have been able to use domestic resources, many others rely on development partners for funding.
Restart economies smartly
There is a need to think about restarting economies in a smart way. In the absence of medical treatment or vaccines, or the capacity for “testing, tracing and isolation”, loosening social distancing provisions will facilitate the emergence of the second wave of infections.
Hence, there is an urgent need for the international community to support vulnerable countries in developing and implementing strategies for restarting their economies that take the limitations on capacities and public health systems into account.
There is also a need for global coordination on loosening economic lockdowns. For example, tourism-dependent economies have limited benefit from lifting restrictions on foreign arrivals if lockdowns in developed and advanced developing countries continue to depress external demand.
Restarting African economies should go beyond addressing emergency measures and include policies expanding productive capacities to address the root causes of limited economic resilience, lack of economic diversification and failure to create decent and productive jobs. Such policies should be based on strengthening national development governance that incentives the allocation of domestic and foreign resources (public and private) for industrial and technological upgrading while ensuring social and environmental protection.
It should acknowledge possible impacts on global value chains from the Covid-19 crisis for the structural transformation of African countries, for example by strengthening emphasis on regional approaches to overcome small domestic markets.
Transform societies for achieving the SDGs
The crisis has revealed again the vulnerability and inequalities inherent in current development models and the global economy. Hence, rebuilding economies will require placing the SDGs and the principles of human rights and gender equality at the centre.
A post-Covid-19 world must protect the gains made on gender equality and the empowerment of women and ensure that recovery is based on approaches that are gender-transformative, ecologically sustainable and leave no one behind. Building back smarter must mean that societies are healthy, clean, safe and more resilient, in particular for the most vulnerable.
Coronavirus lays bare the reality that African countries will not be able to become resilient without enhancing their capacities in the health sector and beyond. Global cooperation is all-important in health, economics and elsewhere. Effective multilateral cooperation that benefits the most disadvantaged countries is a fundamental prerequisite for getting back on track toward the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Author: Kirembwe Andrew
Andrew is a young, enthusiastic, and self motivated individual who loves sports and enjoys writing and sharing informative content about business, tech, lifestyle and entertainment. He is also an entrepreneur by trade.