Should the entire continent of Africa be in synchronized lockdown over the COVID-19 pandemic? That should be a matter of great concern, instead of narrow country-by-country actions.
In discussing this issue, some have suggested that those entrusted with keeping the keys or codes to the lock may not remember to unlock the region or even the security code when it was time to reopen, given the extremely weak institutional environment and memory across much of the region. To counter, there are suggestions to hand over the locks and security codes to the International Monetary Fund as the ultimate whip and disciplinarian.
The state of lockdowns in Africa
As at end-March 2020, a few African countries (including Ghana, Mauritius, Nigeria and South Africa) have imposed lockdowns but in different formats. Some are enforcing total lockdown or what Botswana has called "extreme" lockdown; some have imposed lockdowns of main cities with certain services exempted; some have curtailed intercity travel between main cities and hinterlands; some have dusk to dawn curfews while others are yet to enact such measure.
The Africa Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) reported that 31 countries have imposed full border closures, 12 have international air traffic closures, five (5) have travel restrictions to/from specific countries, and three (3) have entry restrictions for travelers from specific countries, as at March 29, 2020.
The poor and lockdown
Opinion leaders have pointed out the potential and painful impact of total lockdown on the region's poor, especially those in urban slums, who must venture out to their shit holes and public taps to draw water; buy cooked food from vendors; and, stand to lose out on daily wage earnings from their informal, micro-enterprises (usually hawking or serving as head porters) or by-day jobs at construction sites, among others. Should the lockdown be applied to rural areas, farmers would not attend to their fields and produce will rot, further depressing their meager earnings. Furthermore, the poor may not have sufficient financial resources to stock up on basic necessities for the minimum two-week duration that may be necessary for lockdowns to work. These, and many more, may be the plight of the poor.
It is good to see that issues of the poor in society are being considered central in formulation of health and security policy. Keeping Africa open in the interest of the poor or implementing disparate policies among the countries at this time of boundary-less insecurity could wreck greater havoc than a uniform application of carefully orchestrated policy that factors in the needs of the broad segment of the continent and in deed the world.
India has locked down its 1.3 billion people within about four hours of advance notice. Some 250 million Indians live on $2 per day and are considered poor. Surely, the adverse effects on the poor are being recorded, with the government acknowledging as much but asserting that in the matter of this pandemic, there is no better option.
Africa has nearly the same total population like India, at about 1.2 billion but nearly twice the proportion considered poor.
Policy can be dynamic, adjusted depending on the circumstances. Policy can also be selectively applied. Presumably, the poor can stock up on food items that are not perishable, like beans, cassava flour, rice, other grains and legumes, dried fish, what have you? But they are the same foods consumed by the middle class, except in different combinations. Presumably, the public shit holes are within the communities where the poor reside, and same with the public taps, i.e., within reasonable distance. As for the rural communities and agriculture as their main stay, a lockdown policy would allow households to go to their fields; today, most farmers are individuals or husband/wife and their children. What is more tricky is getting their produce to marketplaces and to retailers that may be in the communities where the poor reside. This, again, reflects Africa's poorly organized agricultural value chains, from fields to table, without reliable and truly networked trading systems, an issue that must be addressed when this pestilence passes, hopefully.
Migration and COVID-19 control
In trying to contain the spread of the virus, African states should appreciate that all residents within their boundaries become the subjects whose actions would determine success of control measures. Designation of citizenship status in testing and treatment of cases may cause illegal migrants to hide from authorities while interacting with their communities, creating pockets of viral load. It has already been reported that a group of illegal immigrants were recently apprehended, tested positive for the virus, placed in quarantine by the authorities with the threat of prosecution for illegal entry, whereupon one of them escaped into the larger community. Cases like that may cause more jeopardy than following the Portuguese practice of treating all migrants as citizens when it comes to COVID-19.
Social distancing is the new normal
All over the world, populations are being asked to stay home, and lockdowns will become common in Africa, it's a matter of when. Whether poor or rich, all of us must make sacrifices and be prepared to lose something. The poor are even more likely to come out worse than the middle class should the region suffer a catastrophic spread as is seen in other regions of the world today. In normal times, the poor had little access to anything near medical care to start with; it should be in their interest to sacrifice now than in a more difficult environment as the region has the least capacity to treat the condition. In educating the public on the need for social distancing, which may involve extreme lockdowns, it is the personal and primordial urge to survive that could be the compelling factor.
Africa needs coordinated response
True, African states are sovereign entities and each according to their own circumstances and leadership format. But there is a common threat. That requires a concerted and coordinated policy in order to sanitize the continental space, else laggards become petri dishes where the plaque would incubate and be unleashed even as others had already borne the pain of lockdowns.
It is in the interest of all who live in Africa that our leaders convene as quickly as possible, obviously by virtual means, to agree on common ways and schedules to contain the enemy while we are in the relatively early stages of community spread.
Africans should demand such convention of their leaders and formulation and enforcement of common codes, else the poor in countries that are taking stringent measures now will have to bear it again, as there are speculations that the pandemic may come in waves - this is the first wave, let's contain it but also avoid subsequent waves.
Should we or shouldn't we lock down Africa now?
SDG Africa Network is an independent, non-governmenal resource center, which is being operated by a team of experienced development finance experts on African-grown innovations toward achieving inclusive development outcomes.