Is Africa making good progress in containing and eventually defeating the COVID-19 pandemic as countries begin lifting restrictions?

WHO Africa COVID 19

Is Africa making good progress in containing and eventually defeating the COVID-19 pandemic as countries begin lifting restrictions?

So far, the picture is not clear and much more needs to be done to safely open up economies and societies.

Before African leaders engage in a mad rush to reopen all facets of society and economy, they should sufficiently assess their local and regional conditions and consider a few issues, else any negative effect of their decisions will be considered a reckless abandon, and haunt them into eternity, not only political oblivion. This reopening of economy and society comes at the time of rising positive cases of the virus on the continent, even if at a slower rate than experienced elsewhere. Except African leaders want to pursue herd immunity, for which preliminary results from elsewhere would suggest that to reach 60-70% of the population contracting the virus will be at the expense of several fold deaths than currently registered in the region.

 As African countries are poised to relax COVID-19 lockdown measures,

that is those that haven't yet done so, just as many western countries are doing, in spite of the poorer state of preparedness and weaker capacities in Africa. What does this loosening portend for the continent? South Africa's leader summed it up when he warned that the country's coronavirus outbreak is going to get much worse, while announcing that lockdown measures were to be eased (Coronavirus in South Africa: President Ramaphosa says outbreak will get worse. BBC online, May 25, 2020. Other African countries may not be so forthcoming; they could twist data to suggest they are on top of the pandemic and therefore loosening measures, and that comorbidities are largely responsible for COVID-19-related deaths. The real comorbilities, however, are the fundamental weaknesses of African economic and social structures.


If Africa focuses on testing, tracing and treatment protocols concerning COVID-19, we would be building institutions, organizations and capacity around health security. T

he knowledge and experience that ensued would spillover into ancillary sectors and services, which could lay the foundations to propel us into a more secured future.


So, here are a few issues that African leaders, especially those facing re-election in the near future, should consider in their decision making:

The decisions of African leaders should be guided by the now famous dictum of one of their own, Ghana's current leader, Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo Addo, that, "We know how to bring the economy back to life. What we do not know is how to bring people back to life" (President of Ghana provides much-needed perspective in these troubling times. The London Economic, March 29, 2020. This vision is translated into slogans like, "we'll take care of lives, then we'll rebuild livelihoods" and similar catchphrases on billboards in Ghana.


COVID-19 is happening in a different era than when HIV/AIDS ravaged Africa.

This time, Africans are equipped with smart phones and FM radio stations; they are more aware of the decisions by their leaders; they also know what the rest of the world is doing. The political environment is more matured, and governments have been turfed out through legitimate means, i.e., the ballot box, and the same can happen to incumbent governments at the next elections. The effects of their decision can't be  hidden - you have COVID-19 or you don't; a family member or other relation dies from the virus or doesn't. And, one person is responsible - the country's leader. On this matter, the Ghanaian president’s message in billboards is that it's his duty to protect citizens who also must do their part. There's never been a time in the recent era, when one issue characterized success or failure of government than in this pandemic. This places a huge burden on our leaders, but they have lessons of wise leadership in their own national history, faith and prior civilizations to guide them.


The precariousness of lives and livelihoods in Africa on the eve of the pandemic arriving on the continent - of extreme inequality, greed, hollow pride, and empty promises by elected officials - must give way to long-lasting institutional structures and mechanisms that lift up and transform Africans, not just economic sectors.


The current pandemic also presents opportunities for transformational changes, and things must change in Africa, post-COVID-19,  but it's not too late to demand that the change begins now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to contain and defeat the virus and to forge a brighter future. African leaders can take a cue from Rahm Emanuel, who served as the first chief of staff to President Barack Obama. You'd recall that President Obama took office as the United States and the world were in the throes of the Great Recession. Rahm Emanuel made the observation at that time, that, “Never allow a good crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible", which he recently recapped in an opinion piece for the Washington Post (Let’s make sure this crisis doesn’t go to waste. The Washington Post, March 25, 2020. President Obama took advantage to create his signature health plan, Obamacare, which in retrospect and if it had been built upon, could have made even greater impact in mitigating the pandemic in America. It's  also claimed that the Chinese character for 'crisis' is a combination of 'danger' and 'opportunity'. In this regard, the lasting impact of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (FDR) New Deal, which "may have emphasized the opportunity component, following the Great Depression, was not an end of the Great Depression itself but long term structural and institutional changes like social security, the securities and exchange commission, federal housing authority, ... that reshaped the American economic and social spheres for generations, making society more secure" (David Kennedy, in On Point, Looking Back to the 1930s: Lessons from the Great Depression, NPR, May 18, 2020).


The 'epicenter' of the pandemic has been a moving target - first in the China sub-continent, then Europe, North America and now Latin America. Whatever Africa does, it must ensure it isn't the last region to emerge from this pandemic, else the world would just shut its doors to Africans, locking us out of global reach.


On pre-school and basic education, African leaders would ensure that each school kid has the option of distance learning, since kids can't practice safe social distancing. Africa has had two decades to create infrastructure for virtual learning, and this pandemic is in a measure a period of reckoning. The option of distance learning or home-schooling for the pre-school and basic levels would help ensure that 'no child is left behind', whether parents choose to have their kids attend school in person or virtually.


Very little scientific analysis has come out of the continent regarding how the virus is attacking human cells, organs and bodies, and how specifically we are treating patients and mitigating community spread of COVID-19. Sure, progress is being made in data collection and presentation on the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa, with number of tests, rate of positivity, deaths, etc., but beyond that, little analysis has been made public regarding the nature of the effect on those who have contracted it. Even when it comes to community spread, many countries are only presenting provincial level cases while the spread needs to be reported regularly as far down as unit level. That much is necessary because Africans are very much on their own in managing the virus, given that these countries have little infrastructure to cushion lives and livelihoods. In some countries, unverifiable sources have released their own 'hot spots', as the official channels have created a vacuum on such information. In some cases, numbers are kept in some vaults and released as and when the state desires, which have undermined credibility of the state in managing the pandemic. On April 20, when Ghana partially lifted its three-week lockdown of only four major urban centers, the country had about 1,000 cases; that number has since grown by about 7,880 as at May 31, but with no public information as to where the high growth rate is coming from - barber shops, open markets, public transport, offices, etc. Still in Ghana, sadly, a single positive case led to infection of more than 500 co-workers at a fish processing plant, like their counterparts at meat packaging plants in the United States. But any impact that the positive cases at the Ghana fish cannery had on their families, other household members, people they commuted with, markets and barber shops they may have patronized, is unknown. There's a lot of secrecy about test results in Africa while the world knows the names and faces of some high profile individuals, including elected officials and monarchs in the western world who may have been exposed to, contracted, or even died of the virus.


Much of what we know in Africa about the virus and its effects is from the western media, which air even preliminary findings. See, for example, Coronavirus: 'Baffling' observations from the front line (BBC online, May 23, 20200). And from western media, we know their risks of contracting and even dying from COVID-19 (Coronavirus: How scared should we be?, BBC online May 24, 2020). From western media, we are learning about the consequences of lifting restrictions on movement too early, based on preliminary findings. We know the potential of further waves of cases due to contamination at places of work, services, worship, entertainment, education, etc.


But we know little about those parameters in Africa. All that African decision makers need is a few good data analysts to collate and analyze data for their informed decision, but if they would create their own alternate realities, then they would own the outcome of any politically selfish decision.


We, however, know a few things about the African environment regarding the virus. For example: that in spite of anthems such as Africa rising, [African] lions on the move, etc., pre-COVID-19, majority of Africans, in some cases as high as 90% of the population, remain trapped in the informal sector, must go out daily to eke out a living, couldn't save against a week of rainy days, let alone three or four weeks of lock-down, to buy their staples of legumes, pulses, grains, root and tubers, and vegetables, a situation that compelled some countries to either not impose restrictions at all or to lift them prematurely. Even when the state must feed the vulnerable, such event had the potential as source of viral spread due to the antithesis of social distancing, that is, upon all the apparent democracy structures of unit committees and unit or district assemblies, handing out of social benefits must come directly from central authorities. Much of Africa does not have anything close to formal trade channels of food being moved from farm gate to a shop around your corner. Africa should build on the Coca-Cola model of linking bottling plants to sub-national distribution centers down to the district and zonal enclaves that characterized early post-independence African economies. Instead our newly found democratic practices mean we spend more on national legislatures than on solid structures to deliver services to citizens. These legislatures however have little influence on the excesses or lapses of the executives, because more often than not, the political party of the executive is the same as the majority in parliament.


We have also learned that applications of the information society, like in teaching, learning, health care and other service delivery and social mobilization have been woefully deployed and under-utilized in the region.


African political leaders should have the audacity to cede management of the pandemic to a regional technical team. In so doing, they would gain political capital in shifting any mismanagement of the crisis to 'an elusive regional technical team' and not being tagged directly with the deaths, sickness and deformities their people may suffer from their decisions and choices to lock down, prematurely relax restrictions or not having enough capability to care for those who fall seriously ill. Where opposition parties are strong in Africa, come the next parliamentary and/or presidential elections, the regimes in charge at the time of import and spread of the virus could be made to own the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially if there are bad outcomes of their decisions; one way or the other, they would render an account on how they managed the crisis. But which African leader would so gladly suffer a fool's idea like this one, to cede management to a regional technical team?


We insist that a regional response is required. As New York State governor Cuomo would see it, "the virus anywhere is the virus everywhere". Nowhere is that more applicable than in Africa, with invariably informal borders. East African countries are already under pressure as trucks move from coastal states to landlocked ones and creating a potential COVID-19 track route. No African state should be fooled; there would be no nationalization of the virus; COVID-19 doesn't know artificial borders and comparisons between countries on how best one is handling the situation, especially to confound citizens that they are doing better than their neighbors, is quite an exercise of illusory. In such futility, some leaders have sadly been caught up in mis-use of data. Can a country, except island nations, really be at ease if they controlled the virus but their neighbors do not?


African leaders, understandably, seem desperate in their strive to facilitate domestic economic activities while attempting, woefully, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Those facing re-election soon may tempt fate by opening up all sectors of economy and society too soon, claiming unfounded data and science. Some are touting Africa's potential in discovering drugs and vaccines against COVID-19 even though there's no record of an African vaccine against any of the myriad of ills that plague us. There are pharmaceutical shops every few meters in some African cities, and this could be attributed to the growing number of pharmacy graduates who are not in factories or laboratories undertaking drugs discoveries but using their certificates to market drugs imported from western and Asian countries. Where then lies the capacity of African states to develop and manufacture vaccines? About a decade ago, a group of African scientists in the drugs industries of the advanced economies and global health institutions like the World Health Organization, came together to pool their expertise and networks in support of a strong drugs research and development industry on the continent. Our network was helping to facilitate realization of this laudable enterprise, as part of our services on the World Bank African Diaspora engagement platform at the time. Several round tables at the major Africa regional institutions ensued but the effort came to naught. Where then lies the indigenous African capacity to develop vaccines and treatments against this powerful pandemic, without the expertise of such African human resources with global experience?


There is no need to prescribe new ways for Africa to address its chronic ills that are now more visible in the wake of the pandemic. African countries have signed on to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) prior; they have gone through a series of poverty alleviation strategies; they are part of regional trade agreements; they have undertaken to ensure mechanisms to promote the business environment, gender and local empowerment programs, youth and development programs, decentralization schemes, digital economy frameworks, plans to close the infrastructure gaps, industrialization schemes, improving service delivery, and what have you? Political parties have campaigned and presumably elected on key development issues. What remains is the focus on delivery, results and a strong machinery of civil society and independent think tanks to critically assess performance and disseminate the findings to educate the electorate for informed choices the next time around at the ballot box.


Africa's leaders should be guided by the Ghanaian leader's perspective: we know how to bring back economies, but we don't know how to bring back lives lost. And based on that, why rush madly to reopen society just  because other regions better equipped are doing so? Instead, Africa should first stamp out the virus and then rebuild the economies, the latter of which our economists know how or borrow from successful countries.


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