We should assume that COVID-19 is about to sweep across Africa. We should not assume that the response applied in East Asia, Europe, and North America is the right response in Africa. We need the leaders of the continent is key institutions to develop strategies that balance the unique risks and capacities in each country.
Why is Africa different? Africa is young – with a median age of 20 and mortality rates for COVID-19 are much lower for anyone under 60 years old. Over half the population is rural, which may slow the rate of transmission. Endemic shocks are likely to push people into extreme poverty, and poverty kills. Food systems are labour intensive, rather than managed by a handful of highly mechanized farmers and distributors as in industrialized countries. Hence, with a wide scale lockdown could rapidly constrain access to food, especially if coupled with regional trade restrictions. Health and social welfare systems are not robust enough to respond at the expected scale of demand. Underlying social tensions could trigger mass unrest under the inevitable additional stress.
Why does Africa need its own response strategies? African governments are currently guided by WHO advice, which understandably focuses on reducing transmission. This makes sense if the aim is to contain the virus. But in many countries, leaders need to ask if the second order impacts of any lockdowns might have a more devastating impact on Africa than the virus itself.
How to rapidly develop context-appropriate approaches? As elsewhere, African leaders must make decisions with desperately imperfect information. They need more options and models that project how their choices might not only contain the virus but also impact factors such as livelihoods, nutrition and conflict. Our key institutions have the expertise, but need linking together immediately to forge on integrated African response. There is enough expertise in regard to socio and online technologies to allow the quality thinking, dialogues and decision making to occur without taking away the valuable time that is needed to practically respond to the pandemic. However, quality thinking should not be replaced by mindless action. This is time for reflective praxis.
About the Author:
Martin Kalungu-Banda: Founding Director of Wasafiri, cofounder of Ubuntu. Lab and Visiting Fellow of the Skoll Centre at Oxford Universitys Said Business School.