Coronavirus in Africa: A complex reality

Misinformation, opportunism and a myriad of day-to-day issues may dwarf the threat of COVID-19 in Africa, says UNSW expert.

Last week, the spotlight turned to Africa as the World Health Organization warned that the continent could become the next epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic leading to 300,000 deaths and 30 million being pushed into poverty.

This warning followed hard on the heels of other dire predictions that if the virus gets out of control, Africa could, as a continent, be facing an existential threat.

An examination of Africa’s vital signs does indeed suggest there is a lot to be concerned about and that the future may not be looking rosy. Yet existential threats are many where Africa is concerned and as some have pointed out, coronavirus is but one of the many calamities that are currently being faced.

Where public health is concerned, the problems are clear. For John Nkenasong, Director of the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, they start with a woeful lack of testing (only 325 persons per one million people being swabbed), followed by a health system that is simply not up to the task.

But, while it may start with a health system that is under-resourced and lacking critical supplies, it does not end there. There is also the challenge of achieving social distancing in areas of informal settlement such as urban slums and refugee camps, where staying away from vulnerable people just is not a viable strategy.

In Africa, as commentators suggest, threats to life do not only come in the form of a virus. They arrive in the guise of Africa’s political leaders who have also contributed misinformation and opportunism to an already dangerous cocktail of issues.

In a move strangely reminiscent of Donald Trump, President John Magufuli of Tanzania has suggested that the population steam themselves as a fumigation measure before setting off to church to pray the virus away. Mike Sonko, Governor of Nairobi, has suggested a less pious solution, including bottles of Hennessy in food parcels, as a way to ward off the disease.

Idiotic though these ideas are, they represent far less of a threat than the opportunism shown by some of the continent’s dictators, who are now using lockdowns to repress the population, beat rivals unconscious and pursue political agendas in the absence of any opposition.

Elsewhere on the continent, swarms of locusts have destroyed crops and are threatening to regroup. Government spraying has not proved all that effective and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is now predicting a second round of swarms and hopper bands to encroach on large parts of East Africa.

Yet, for all of these serious problems, the key to analysing Africa’s response to coronavirus is to understand the challenges of everyday life. And here there is no competition whatsoever about what matters: it is economic survival and putting food on the table.

In this respect, understanding the economy and food security through the lens of the West is a mistake. In Africa, one of the outcomes of economic breakdown as a result of poor governance, structural adjustment, and other issues such as conflict, has been to throw 85% of workers into work in the informal or flexible economy sector.

As David Ndii, Managing Director of Africa Economics points out, the army of jua kali (small enterprise economy) workers such as hairdressers, mechanics and tradespeople do not have anyone to lay off. Mama mboga, the neighbourhood green vegetable seller will be least affected of all, since everyone still needs sukuma wiki with their dinner.

The people who will be hardest hit are those in the formal wage economies in the cities, where the shutdown has removed their income completely.

Looking at the statistics so far bears this out. Some of the hardest hit areas are those which are the most developed: South Africa, Egypt and Morocco. They are also some of the areas that are the most urbanised and crowded. It is in these places where the effect of government inefficacy is brought into sharp relief, and where few benefits, harsh lockdowns and curfews to prevent people moving around thereby make the effects of coronavirus most keenly felt.

It bears pointing out then, that the post-COVID world in Africa may not see the resumption of more of the same. Faced with the harshness of life, some workers may opt to do what they usually do in their holidays: to return home from the large cities to their rural villages to live lives that involve farming and a subsistence economy.

This may mean a slower life with less economic growth, but for many, the promise of upward mobility and economic development in crowded cities has proved to be little more than a shallow dream.

The existential threat, as it turns out, may not be to the general African population. It may be to the post-colonial systems of governance, technocracy, inequality and indifference to the population’s needs. It may be to the political opportunism and to the development speak that promises so much but delivers very little. It may be to the urbanisation rate brought on by trying to keep up with the development trajectories of western countries.

And to the West’s dire predictions of COVID-19? I am not trying to minimise them, because they do represent a serious threat. The problem is that in a world full of threats, plagues and other problems that bring into question the very ability of the population to survive, coronavirus will inevitably be given its own place: at the back of a very long queue.

Associate Professor Anne Bartlett has worked on Sudan, South Sudan and East Africa for over 18 years. Her research centres on a number of key areas: conflict, humanitarian crises, forced displacement and its impacts on land use, resource extraction and urbanisation. She is President of the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific.

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