We should assume that COVID-19 is about to sweep across Africa. We should not assume that the response applied in East Asia, Europe, and North America is the right response in Africa. We need the leaders of the continent’s key institutions to develop strategies that balance the unique risks and capacities for each country.
Why is Africa different?
Africa is young – with a median age of 20 – and mortality rates for COVID-19 are much lower for anyone under 60 years old. Over half the population is rural, which may slow the rate of transmission. Endemic poverty means that the financial resilience of households is very low. Economic shocks are likely to push people into extreme poverty, and poverty kills. Food systems are labour intensive, rather than managed by a handful of highly mechanised farmers and distributors as in industrialised countries. Hence wide-scale lockdowns could rapidly constrain access to food, especially if coupled with regional trade restrictions. Health and social welfare systems are not robust enough to respond at the expected scale of demand. Underlying social tensions could trigger mass unrest under the inevitable additional stress.
Why does Africa need its own response strategies?
African governments are currently guided by WHO advice, which understandably focusses on reducing transmission. The Africa Task Force for Novel Coronavirus – AFCOR, launched by CDC is a good example of an important initiative overseeing the public health response. This makes sense if the aim is to contain the virus. But in many countries, leaders need to ask if the second order impacts of any lockdowns might have a more devastating impact on Africa than the virus itself. We must develop strategies that manage the pandemic, whilst maintaining the other fundamental human systems – such as food, security, health, education and energy. Indeed, Africa’s own diversity will demand different responses in each country. Whilst South Korea battled the virus by “Test, Trace, Treat” and Italy has responded with mass lockdown, perhaps in some contexts it may be preferable to adapt the UK’s initial strategy of isolating those most-at-risk whilst seeking to build immunity amongst the healthy majority.
How to rapidly develop context-appropriate approaches?
As elsewhere, Africa’s leaders must make decisions with desperately imperfect information. They need more options though and models that project how their choices might not only contain the virus but also impact factors such as livelihoods, nutrition and conflict.
Key institutions across the continent have this expertise, but need linking together immediately to forge an integrated African response. These might include WHO Africa to oversee the pandemic itself; the African Development Bank for the economy; Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa for food; African Union for security; and Regional Economic Communities for trade. Such experts could for example, report into a High-Level Task Force of respected cross-sector leaders that can endorse the advice, promote it to governments, and provide some reputational cover to the political leaders who have the unenviable role of making life-and-death decisions for their citizens.
At all costs, Africa’s leaders must avoid the temptation of knee-jerk reactions and imported solutions. This is the time for rapid and reflexive praxis to build on the continent’s vast intellectual, human and material resources, to inform an African response to a global problem.
About the author
Martin is one of Wasafiri’s Founding Directors, and serves as co-faculty of the Presencing Institute, Visiting Fellow of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Co-Founder of Ubuntu.Lab. He is also faculty for the Executive Leadership Programs of the Rand Merchant Bank, Mastercard and the Global Alliance for Banking on Values.