Africa’s COVID-19 Resilience Must Not Lead to Complacency

Africa is confounding predictions of a COVID-19 apocalypse, but widespread anxiety remains. Valuable lessons must be taken forward from the successful national responses so far across public health, security, and the economy.

Expert comment Published 3 June 2020 Updated 15 September 2020 2 minute READ

Disinfecting a mosque as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus in Dakar, Senegal. Photo by JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images.

Disinfecting a mosque as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus in Dakar, Senegal. Photo by JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images.

COVID-19 responses across Africa built on lessons learned from combatting infectious diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and Ebola, using World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines tailored to local demands.

A rapid and evidence-led response has managed the tensions between saving lives and preserving local culture - for instance between tradition and the need for rapid burials. Credible communication is key to building trust and many states set up COVID-19 national taskforces to co-ordinate responses from governments, health organization, business, and the security sector, aided by community support networks, faith-based and religious organisations.

The importance of the informal sector to national economies also led governments to allow a level of self-monitoring, while making sanitisers and other equipment available, and encouraging mutual responsibility on social distancing. Initially seen by some as a possible ‘transmission belt’ for COVID-19, it has instead been recognised as a vital arena for containing the virus and also as a ‘starter motor’ for economic renewal.

Africa’s scientific community, coordinated by the continental Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has supported frontline health professionals, tracked COVID-19, helped provide objective data and advice, and be part of the global search for a cure.

But African governments and their partners must significantly increase their commitment to science and public health to prepare for future shocks, attract investors and protect tourism, and stem the flow of young public health professionals and scientists to jobs overseas. These are key to Africa’s economic growth, stability and security.

COVID-19 has also highlighted the role of African security forces in supporting public health efforts, sealing borders, enforcing quarantines, and maintaining public order. Despite tensions between the military and civilians, there has not been either a breakdown of law and order or widespread civic unrest.

Although fragile, the ongoing consensus between African society, the state and the security sector has proved surprisingly resilient. African militaries have directly supported national health responses, with Uganda, Senegal, Ghana and South Africa’s Medical Health Services Corps deploying military field hospitals and health professionals to support civilian health institutions.

Various militaries and police have tried to transition from enforcement of ‘hard’ security to fulfilling their COVID-19 mandate through promotion of ‘soft’ or human security. But by contrast some have been heavy-handed, with violence and civilian deaths occurring in a number of countries. The death of George Floyd and current US unrest does however also demonstrate that urban policing is a global, and not just African challenge.

African militaries also still have traditional combat roles as conflict and large-scale internal displacement have continued across Africa during COVID-19 and may even accelerate before the virus diminishes. And the global economic recession is likely to also impact peacekeeping and humanitarian budgets, stretching security sectors even further.

There is an urgent need to prioritize training in public order and crowd control, especially for police and in urban areas and informal settlements. A modern African peace and security architecture (APSA) needs to reflect the capability for African security sectors to re-purpose into broader public health and other roles.

Economically, COVID-19’s impact led the World Bank to project a 5.1% decline in sub-Saharan Africa’s 2020 economic growth, tipping the continent into recession. Fears of an economic shutdown in African economies already stung by falling oil and commodity revenues has prompted calls for an African debt repayment freeze for the next two years.

Some sectors, such as digital communications, mobile money and informal currency dealers, have found creative ways to survive or thrive during lockdown, but most African livelihoods have been severely impacted.

Africa’s global diaspora has played a vital role in moderating these impacts, providing a social safety net, sourcing PPE (personal protective equipment), medicines, and food, as well as providing remittances and fundraising for Africa’s COVID-19 response. And, with diaspora business mogul Strive Masiyiwa co-ordinating the African Union (AU)’s continental PPE and equipment responses, the partnership between the diaspora and the continent has been immeasurably strengthened.

But, given the severity of the mounting global economic crisis, this support is vulnerable with the World Bank predicting a ‘substantial’ fall in 2020 African remittances from the 2019 high of $700bn. There are no simple solutions but reducing money transfer costs from the diaspora to Africa could make a difference. Sub-Saharan Africa continues to have the highest average remittance costs at about 9% - much higher than the 3% target of the SDGs. Fair remittance transfer costs, including tax breaks, as well as diaspora remittances themselves need to be classed as ‘essential services’.

Despite public health constraints, widespread infectious disease, and poor nutrition, COVID -19’s toll on Africa has so far been less than initially feared. But the situation changes daily and significant uncertainties remain. The economic impact of COVID-19 may be longer lasting than the pandemic itself, and the comparatively low rates of coronavirus infections and deaths in Africa are in stark contrast to the high rates of infection and death of BAME people elsewhere in the world, for reasons that remain unclear.

It is vital that serious research continues and that the lessons learned from Africa’s and the diaspora’s first exposure to the virus are shared and reflected in future policy. Resilience should not lead to complacency, which, in itself, would become a major risk.