Why social distancing is a big challenge in many African countries

Working from home, distance learning, online shopping – many African countries cannot easily adopt rich nations’ measures against the coronavirus. Isabel Günther calls for international solidarity in the pandemic.

Isabelle Günther

South Africans watched in horror and amazement when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a nationwide lockdown on 23 March. With only 274 officially confirmed COVID-19 cases at the time, many felt this measure might be too excessive. As it turned out, many African states declared lockdowns with much lower case numbers than in Europe.

Monrovia, Liberia
Aerial view of Monrovia, Liberia. (Bild: UN Photo / Christopher Herwig / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

African governments’ rapid reaction

While African countries have acted decisively to prevent large outbreaks, the conditions of many people’s everyday lives there could make a Swiss-style lockdown difficult to enforce – and, even more importantly, highly inequitable. A virus does not distinguish between poor and rich, but it is much more difficult for the poor to protect themselves.

Lockdowns are intended to “flatten the curve”: to slow the spread of COVID-19, and thereby ensure that the health system is not overwhelmed at any one point in time. Given many African countries’ weak medical infrastructure and capacity to handle severe COVID-19 cases, their curves need to be flattened even more aggressively.

Moreover, although Africa has a much younger population than Europe – which could limit the number of severe COVID-19 cases – millions of young Africans already suffer from HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, tuberculosis, and other respiratory infections, which might make them more vulnerable.

Informal settlement
Behavioural measures against the virus are inestimably more difficult to implement in Africa. PJS informal settlement in South Africa, before Easter. (Image: Thabile Tsitsa, research assistant in South Africa for the ETH Development Economics Group)

A privilege few can afford

A large share of Africa’s urban population lives in crowded informal settlements, with small one- or two-bedroom houses. Differences across the continent are large, but on average, 45% of households share toilets with their neighbours and for 17%, their only access to water is from a communal tap. To expect people living in these households not to leave their homes is more than impractical; it is simply unrealistic.

Social distancing immediately jeopardizes many poor people’s livelihoods. Many are street vendors or workers who rely on a daily wage to make ends meet – so they lose their incomes from one day to the next. About 80% of the population work in the informal sector – without contracts of any kind, let alone unemployment insurance or the possibility of continued salary payments if work suddenly dries up (Kurzarbeit / short-time work).

“The coronavirus does not stop at national borders, nor should our action to confront it.” Isabel Günther

Lockdowns will have devastating effects on poor people’s ability to put food on the table and to stay healthy. According to a new study by UN-WIDER, the number of people living in extreme poverty (living on less than 1.90 international dollars a day) could increase for the first time in 30 years because of the economic impacts of social distancing.1

With all African schools currently closed, children’s educational prospects may now also be at risk.2 My son’s school in Zurich is able to support the continuity of his education by sending educational material via email or video. For most schools on our neighbouring continent, however, limited internet access makes this impossible. In times of social distancing, the digital divide will further increase the global learning gap.

We are in this together

In most African countries, with fewer reported cases3 (even if underestimated), early social distancing measures seem to have restricted the spread of the virus to poor, densely populated areas. However, it is likely that the virus will eventually spread. In any case, poor people are living in conditions that already leave them disproportionately affected by the global lockdown.

As a society, it is our responsibility to show the same solidarity with people living on our neighbouring continent that we currently show with our neighbours in Switzerland. The coronavirus does not stop at national borders, nor should our action to confront it. Social distancing calls for social protection measures to ensure that poor people around the world are not bearing the burden of slowing the virus.

To ease the consequences of the pandemic, we should support health systems and expand cash-transfer programs, which offer an effective way to improve people’s lives, in particular when facing income loss. In the longer term, we should support African societies to build up the preconditions needed to cope with pandemics – and to ensure decent living conditions for all.

Last, we currently pay a lot of attention to global numbers of COVID-19 cases. In the future, we might want to expand our attention to global numbers on various other infectious diseases, access to water and soap, and people living in extreme poverty.4

Isabel Günther wrote this blog post together with Antoinette van der Merwe, a doctoral student in the ETH Development Economics Group. Antoinette was visiting her family in South Africa when airports closed due to the lockdown.

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