By Ahunna Eziakonwa, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Regional Director for Africa
I have always been an optimist. Yet optimism is difficult when I consider the spread of COVID-19 on the continent of my birth. Africa will undoubtedly be hit harder than anywhere else on Earth, with long-lasting impacts that will be nothing short of catastrophic. At this point, only a few African countries do not have cases. Deaths are being reported and the likely trajectory is chilling.
COVID-19 is already hitting hard economically. Trade, Africa’s lifeline, has contracted sharply, with oil exporters facing losses of up to US$100 billion in 2020 alone (Economic Commission for Africa - ECA). Projected earnings from foreign direct investment have been revised downwards, with contractions forecast at 15 percent globally (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development - UNCTAD). Africa’s GDP will shrink from 3.2 percent to about 2 percent (ECA). Fears are mounting of a new debt crisis, as the continent desperately seeks resources to address the crisis. Remittances from the African diaspora will plummet, as the pandemic forces more developed economies to a halt.
Such dire macro projections pale, however, compared with the human suffering now unfolding in households and among individuals across Africa. Women have been hit hardest as institutional childcare options disappear, schools are shuttered, borders closed, and the livelihoods of small business owners and informal traders hang in the balance. Places of worship have closed, raising anxiety and psychosocial discomfort. Africa is fast catching up with the global pace of lockdown, without the infrastructure and resources to provide even a minimal buffer.
COVID-19 in Africa worries me deeply for two over-arching reasons. First, its trigger point, the health sector, is extraordinarily weak. Second, the multidimensional transmission channels of this pandemic will, without drastic measures, reverse decades of development gains, perpetuating extreme poverty and causing untold misery.
There are at least four country contexts in which COVID 19 is playing out in Africa: Those that have yet to record any cases of the virus; those that will place a premium on mitigation and contain its spread; those that will be unable to contain it; and those already so fragile or riven by conflict that COVID-19 will become one more cyclical catastrophe.
COVID-19 lands in Africa on some of the world’s least capable health systems, wholly unable to cope with a pandemic. The care seen in some of the most advanced countries, which are themselves struggling to cope, highlights the scale of the challenge for Africa: Intensive care units, testing kits, reservoirs of hospital beds, personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and sanitizers, and critical care treatment such as ventilators.
Africa’s weak productive capacity means these goods must be sourced externally. And here things get even more complicated.
Global logistics hubs have either shut down or will do so soon. Supply chains are broken because of factory shutdowns or export bans imposed by countries with large capacity and stocks—none of which are in Africa. If supplies were to become available, a critical but less discussed issue is whether African countries have capacity to operate them, as most struggle with too few health workers, now working within closed borders.
Prevention and mitigation measures—such as hand-washing and social distancing—must be prioritized, to help keep the number of infections from growing. But the effectiveness of some mitigation measures will be impacted by social, cultural, and religious practices in Africa. The Ebola epidemic taught us that cultural practices can accelerate community spread. It also taught us that adapting these very practices can play a vital role in driving down infections.
Ebola forced affected areas to find innovative ways to isolate people, care for the sick, and bury loved ones. These gains were the result of two critical ingredients: listening and trust. COVID-19 presents another opportunity to renew the social contract between State and society, so that social distancing, now existing by decree in several countries, can be embraced anew for its life-saving promise.
We must message widely, including through innovative digital technologies—taking advantage of the large number of Africans with smartphones—to drive that message home. A recent initiative by UNDP, UNICEF, WHO, and WhatsApp established the WhatsApp Coronavirus Information Hub which will help in spreading current, fact-checked information to health workers, educators, nonprofits, local governments, local businesses, communities, and their leaders.
Helping communities access basic resources such as soap and water should be central to our response. Yet some communities may not focus on hand-washing because when they have clean water, they will prefer to drink it. The COVID-19 pandemic must lead to expedited efforts to address the unconscionable lack of access to clean water in so many places.
Congested correctional facilities could also become hotspots for infections. Governments will need to approach this from the framework of human rights, ensuring prisoners are granted adequate protection. Concerns also remain about Africa’s over more than 10 million internally displaced persons, who are uniquely vulnerable. Solutions must be found to protect them.
Amid mounting fears of a global recession, vulnerable people worry about food supplies, shelter, and livelihoods. Many people are subsisting on informal daily wages. The sorts of bailout packages advanced economies have put forward for their businesses and people would be extremely difficult in the African context, whose nations are not yet among those putting in place measures for social protection (WorldBank, PDF). We must find a way to create social safety nets in Africa—to preserve livelihoods, people, and the planet we share.
A major implication of the shutdown is potential non-continuity in provision of essential public services. Several decrees have called for all to stay home and where possible work therefrom. Effectiveness presupposes digital readiness – for which, thanks to the growing penetration of internet in Africa, there is some capacity; but certainly nowhere near the scale required to keep governments open. Systemic power/energy deficits further constrain viability to remain in business consistently by digital means. Further, not all key public services are yet digitalized.
Keeping essential services open will require supporting governments with quick investments into capacities for remote work, especially in social service systems, to ensure this crisis doesn’t prompt social and civil strife.
African governments require financing to prepare better, fight back, and recover stronger from COVID-19.
At UNDP, where I serve as Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa, we will work with UN sister agencies, the private sector, and other partners to support African governments and communities to procure essential equipment—including protective gear, ventilators, and testing kits—while promoting mitigation measures and continuity of critical government functions and rapidly building capacity at the country level.
As financial resources become available, we must ensure these are in grant form and do not create additional debt burdens on a continent recently assessed as on the brink of a debt crisis. No one should profit from a crisis of this nature.
African business can play a key role in bringing critical supplies to households and governments. Now is the time to show up—not for profit, but for people—through innovation and philanthropy. Stories of Senegalese innovators partnering to develop 10-minute COVID-19 test kits speak to Africa’s potential. African innovators can and should lead the way. African philanthropists should put their money where their markets are by supporting response and recovery efforts.
It is time for Africa to boost its production of essential medicines and medical equipment, as a priority. This unprecedented procurement drive confirms market availability.
Africa should invest in sustainability by quickening implementation of the African Union (AU) blueprint for Accelerated Industrial Development for Africa (AIDA) and treaties such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Prioritizing key tariff lines central to COVID-19 treatment is low-hanging fruit that AU members can harvest as we look toward the 1 July start of trading.
I commend the important work of the AU Centre for Disease Control (AU-CDC) in rolling out its COVID-19 strategy. This must be fully supported by all partners, including the G-20. UNDP looks forward to working with the AU-CDC to support implementation.
UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner has made clear that our agency’s resources are fully directed toward fighting COVID-19, and we are working closely with governments, communities, and regional institutions to respond in ways that bolster health systems, strengthen economies, and guarantee livelihoods. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s call for an urgent global ceasefire is particularly relevant to Africa. It is essential not only to bend but to “break the curve” and defeat this virus everywhere.
None of us is safe until all of us are safe and no one is left behind. That’s already one of the major lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while the challenges ahead are unprecedented, we should all take hope in the words of Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”
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