The political economy of the fight against COVID19 in Africa

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The global outbreak of COVID-19 has created worry and heartbreak across the world. The virus has defied the usual modern stereotyping of spreading from the global south to the north, with the United States and many European countries recording the highest number of cases. Almost all the cases recorded in Africa were imported from these countries. At present, Africa is one of the least affected parts of the world. This is good news, because with the current estimates of about 20% and 3-5% of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalisation and ICU respectively, no country on the continent would be able to manage a widespread crisis.

In spite of the lack of evidence of rapid spread, African governments have been accused of copying and pasting the strategies used in the global north, creating a double burden of economic and political crisis. It is therefore important to review how African countries are responding to the pandemic, and to reflect on the opportunities and threats that the virus represents for policy and practice. I argue that unless African countries understand the unique socio-demographic realities of its people, they will lose another historic opportunity to further their development agenda.

Responses to the Disease in Africa

While there is great variation in the types of strategies adopted in Africa – with some countries such as Tanzania taking a much more relaxed approach – many governments have enacted lockdowns or curfews to restrict the flow of the disease. Governments have activated State of Emergency powers, as in the case of Ghana’s Imposition of Restriction Law. Other countries like Kenya, Guinea Bissau and Uganda have passed similar laws that have generally legitimised the restriction on movement of people and good. The question is whether these measures are warranted given that virus has been relatively slow in spreading on the continent, with fewer hospitalisations and deaths.

Of course, questions have arisen about the validity of the number of cases reported around the world, since many asymptomatic patients and those who recover on their own are not captured in available statistics. Moreover, African countries have done the least number of tests, with Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, conducting 116 tests per a Million people and recording under 4000 confirmed cases by end of first week of May this year. Ghana and South Africa are among the few exceptions that have conducted more than 5000 tests per million people; with Mauritius being an outlier, conducting over 47,000 tests per million people. That is compared to the United States and Belgium, for instance, that have conducted over 26,000 and 44,000 tests per million people and recorded over 1.3 million and 52,000 cases respectively. The difficulty and cost of getting test kits in Africa account for the low number of tests.

Whilst knowledge about transmission is evolving, there remains an ongoing debate about whether and how coronavirus will impact the continent. One school of thought posited that widespread poverty, inefficient healthcare systems and unplanned urban populations would make the virus spread faster with more devastating impact than happened elsewhere. Another school of thought instead suggested that high temperatures, sunshine, a median age of under 20 years, and a history of resilience for past epidemics like Ebola and HIV/AIDS would make the continent more prepared to manage the spread and devastation. While this debate continues to rage, it is obvious that so far the spread of COVID19 has been slower than expected, perhaps because the population is more resilient.

Consequences of the Lockdown Strategies

The Ghanaian government was the first on the continent and the world to reverse its partial lockdown after three weeks, citing the economy and health care capacity – test data and vigorous contact tracing – as the main reasons for this decision. Ghana’s confidence in taking this decision – even as cases increased from less than 30 to almost a 1000 – due to its health system demonstrates why it is imperative that African states adopt a tailor made strategy.

Some countries, for example, are already struggling to keep pace with other equally deadly seasonal diseases, like the Cerebrospinal Meningitis in northern Ghana and Lassa Fever in Nigeria – which threaten to be lost in the fight against COVID19. Whilst each country is unique, there are some similarities in the political economies of these states that it is useful to draw together for planning purposes.

First, the informal sector that employs more than two-thirds of urban dwellers – petty trading, craftwork, and transport – is getting crippled. This hurts the most vulnerable members of society, women, migrants, and minority groups – who are less likely to benefit from government economy packages to offset the impact of the disease.

Second, many of those working in the formal sector have lost their jobs, increasing poverty levels. In turn, this has implications for resilience to the disease, as immune systems will be weakened due to improper nutrition. Some acts of defiance by people in search of basic needs has also undermined social distancing and security in some cities.

Third, the use of emergency powers are harming democratic freedoms and stability in many countries. Kenya’s curfew crackdown, for instance, has led to extremely high mortality at night as the police uses excessive force to implement it. Concerns over the danger posed by the disease has dampened the usual civil society and international critique that follows such abuses. This is worrying, considering the history of authoritarianism in many African states.

Fourth, the crisis is triggering rent-seeking behaviours that can be detrimental to sustainable development. The search for credit facilities to curb the spread has become the norm, with less emphasis on transparency, efficient use of resources, and innovation. The recent stories about corruption in procurement of COVID-19 kits in Zimbabwe where massive prices seem to have been paid to companies linked to those related to the president exemplifies this

Forward-Looking Recommendations

African countries will therefore deal most effectively with COVID-19 if they contextualise their responses. This means recognizing that it may be less virulent than in other parts of the world, but also using this opportunity to secure easy access to international finance to build states that can withstand future health crises. All stakeholders, civil society, government and ordinary citizens have a role to play in this, and should consider implanting this five point plan:

  1. Moderation: A lot can be done to turn the tide in favour of African countries without adapting harsh lockdown measures. Instead, governments should encourage citizens to moderate between staying at home as much as possible, observing social distancing, taking personal hygiene seriously, using alcohol-based sanitisers where available, and staying home when sick. Prohibitions of economic activity should be kept to a minimum.
  2. Enhanced Public Education: Moderation should be combined with a complementary strategy of extensive public education about the symptoms of the disease, what to do when one detects symptoms, and how to stay safe. Stigma against infected persons should be discouraged and, where possible, the stories of recovered patients should be amplified to alley people’s fears in a range of languages.
  3. Accountability and Civic Participation: Civil society has an active role to play in this process, but must be as focused on pushing forwards accountable, transparent and law following government as it is on alleviating the economic impact of the disease.
  4. Manufacturing and industrialization: The transition of many economies to producing health products that are needed in the fight against COVID19 creates an opportunity for African states to boost their manufacturing and industrialization agendas. In addition to serving domestic markets, these products can be exported. This will be most effective if it goes hand-in-hand with the mechanisation of farming and adoption of more effective methods to preserve farm produce, reducing the vulnerability of countries to food shortages.
  5. Intra-Africa Partnerships and Diplomacy: It is high time that the continent utilised challenges such as the coronavirus to reverse the colonial legacies that continue to constrain its economic growth. Senegal, for instance, has done substantial innovation in testing and treating COVID-19 patients; such innovation should inspire the development of African solutions to global problems across the continent. In a similar spirit, African governments should pursue the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA) of the African Union so that they can operate as a larger economic bloc and renegotiate their trading relationships with the rest of the world.

If African countries can do this, they can turn the scourge of COVID19 from a threat to an opportunity. Creative, forward-looking policies are necessary that harness new technology while also taking into account the needs of the poorest members of society. A balancing act that takes into account the economy, wellbeing, health, security and safety is required. This is challenging, but as the innovative success stories of countries such as Ghana and Senegal demonstrate, it is well within the continent’s grasp.


Clement Sefa-Nyarko is a Doctoral Candidate at La Trobe University, Australia.

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