Op-Ed Series – Vol.1 Issue: 3
April 24, 2020
Absorbing the Shocks or Irreversible Damage? The Impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s Political Economy
- In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, countries have adopted lockdowns, virus testing regimes and social distancing measures. African countries have followed suit, mostly with ‘copy and paste’ versions of these actions, resulting in profound social and economic stresses on their people.
- What is immediately evident is that without creativity, contextualisation and civil participation in political decisions, African countries will struggle to weather the storm and resuscitate after the pandemic.
- It is important that the interventions, particularly lockdowns, are implemented without the brutal repression of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
- Agriculture is a key economic driver for Africa. This crisis presents an opportunity for African countries to harness potential in this sector and innovate across various industries.
Without question, the COVID-19 pandemic has created chaos, panic, and hopelessness for people across the world. Markedly, and for the first time in recent years, an infectious disease has ravaged the global north defying modern stereotyping of contagious diseases. There is no known cure or vaccine yet for this disease. As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads throughout Africa, we must ask, will the continent be spared or left reeling from the fierce blows being dealt to all aspects of social, economic and political life across the globe? How is Africa absorbing the shocks from the disease and resultant policy responses? What will the policy responses produce when the economies are weak, the majority of citizens rely on the informal sector, contested legitimacy forces the state to largely rely on the use of force to enforce the responses, democratic rights and freedoms are routinely violated, citizens distrust the state and sophisticated corruption networks are embedded?
What is immediately evident is that without creativity, contextualisation and civil participation in political decisions, African countries will struggle to weather the storm and resuscitate after the pandemic. In response, countries have adopted lockdowns, virus testing regimes and social distancing measures. African countries have followed suit, mostly with ‘copy and paste’ versions of these actions, resulting in profound social and economic stresses on their people. Admittedly, the radical lockdown and social distancing measures are meant to avert health crises, and rightly so. However, owing to deep underlying socio-economic and political disparities, these policies will, and are, bound to cause significant harm.
At the time of writing, Africa had confirmed relatively few infections and deaths. The Australian Department of Health estimates that globally, only about 20% and 3-5% of COVID-19 patients will require hospitalisation and ICU respectively. Should these numbers be applicable in Africa, disaster will strike. Very few African countries have robust healthcare systems that can deal with such a situation. Even South Africa, the most industrialised country on the continent, declared a National State of Disaster to increase its preparedness in the face of serious impediments like limited availability of ventilators. This has exposed the inequalities in that country and evoked ethical questions on which members of the population can access certain health services. Moreover, countries must simultaneously respond to other equally deadly seasonal diseases, like Cerebrospinal Meningitis in northern Ghana and Lassa Fever in Nigeria. Other crises like war in South Sudan, internally displaced populations in Cameroon and Ethiopia and increased urban poverty in Kenya and Nigeria complicate the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The informal sector that employs more than 75% of urban dwellers – petty trading, craftwork, and transport – will be crippled in many ways. This involves the most vulnerable members of society, women, migrants, and minority groups. Within two weeks of Ghana’s lockdown, the Finance Minister presented a scenario of a dead economy. The pre-COVID-19 annual finance gap for small-scale enterprises (SMEs) in sub-Saharan Africa stood at USD331 billion in 2019; this will now be exacerbated. Many of these SMEs are neither registered nor organised, thus, no reliable data exists to ensure that they benefit from government support programmes. African economies are largely cash-based, few citizens are bank or mobile money account holders, thus affecting financial inclusion. Any attempt to provide direct support to individuals and households that does not take these factors into account will fail.
Large scale loss of incomes will wipe out livelihoods of the masses and result in hunger and lack of access to food as already reported in Lagos after Day One of lockdown. People live in penury under lockdown, with implications on health and resilience of the immune system. Distribution of basic goods and services by governments and NGOs have instead undermined the social distance strategies because of stampedes and clashes with police. Ghana has recently reversed a partial lockdown of two cities after three weeks, citing the economy, data and science. Coupled with the Finance Minister’s already mentioned bleak outlook, this is a demonstration of the inherent bottlenecks of the strategy.
The activation of sweeping State of Emergency powers to legitimise the restriction of movements is harming political stability and democratic freedoms. Kenya has recorded an alarming death toll following curfew crackdowns, and in Guinea-Bissau, journalists have been harassed under lockdown laws. With few exceptions, civil society voices have widely been muted by concerns of the rapid spread and the need for immediate action. Africa’s history of post-colonial authoritarianism and abuse of power, make this a worrying trend with fears that such COVID-19-related governing powers will not be reversed timely and responsibly afterwards. This is likely to erode some of the democratic gains which have been made in Africa.
Relatedly, the crisis has fostered an environment for extending the tentacles of corruption in the continent. Rather than take advantage of the global meltdown for broad based economic innovation, African governments are courting the IMF and World Bank for credit facilities, which, without transparent processes in place, lend themselves to misapplication. News about how COVID-19 funds are being misappropriated reverberates across the continent and diminishes citizen trust in governments as evidenced by an extravagant launch of a COVID-19 tracker in Ghana which attracted widespread criticism as a misplaced priority.
To mitigate these harms, African countries will for one, need to intensify efforts towards instilling behaviour change through social distancing, staying at home, use of protective clothing when outdoors, and practising personal hygiene. Simultaneously, it is important that the interventions, particularly lockdowns, are implemented without the brutal repression of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Extensive public education on the facts of the virus, its prevention, spread and management, produced and disseminated in local languages, is vital to mitigating policy response impacts. People must know what to do when they develop symptoms. Stigmatisation should be categorically discouraged and myths debunked as these derail early reporting and self-isolation efforts. The Ghana Health Service uses a COVID-19GH short code that circulates SMS information using the hashtag #SpreadCalmNotFear, among others. Such messaging must continue and be pushed vigorously on all media platforms across the continent. Edifying stories of recovered patients should be shared alongside other messages to inculcate a positive attitude towards recovered persons. These mass communication strategies must be complemented by civil society action to push for accountability and transparency in the use of emergency powers at this time. Human rights must be preserved even during such a crisis.
Agriculture is a key economic driver for Africa. This crisis presents an opportunity for African countries to harness potential in this sector and innovate across various industries. Two-thirds of economically active people in Africa are employed in agriculture. As the global supply of goods and services has been strained and disrupted, agrarian communities can still produce food to meet the value chain needs of populations; this would complement the African Union's Africa Continent Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA). Countries are already adapting and utilising their comparative advantage. Ghana and Nigeria have begun producing healthcare equipment that would otherwise be imported. Factory specifications have been modified to meet domestic needs, as reported in Kenya and South Africa. Such initiatives must be expanded to include the agro-industry and other non-health sectors. This means that governments must continue to engage stakeholders to explore ways of supporting the private sector.
The COVID-19 pandemic has largely caught states across the world unprepared to respond to it. In the post-COVID-19 era, governments must prioritize the development of national databases for individuals and households – a shortcoming of this crisis – which would be a useful tool for engaging citizens during these times. This would have the added advantage of promoting the financial inclusion of citizens and for better planning and handling of future pandemics.
* Clement Sefa-Nyarko is a PhD Candidate at La Trobe University, Australia. His doctoral research aims to reframe the natural resource curse discourse in Ghana using political and historical theory analyses. Clement is an alumnus of the African Leadership Centre-King’s College London’s African Scholars in Peace, Security and Development Fellowship programme.