Two days ago, I received an urgent plea from Massimo, a good friend and a highly respected Italian journalist based in Rome. His message was simple, urgent and straight to the point.
“Please Victor, pay attention” he urged. “This virus is not ‘just a flu’ as some still insist it is. Keep your distance. Wash your hands regularly. Don't touch your face, eyes and mouth. Avoid crowded places where you cannot maintain the required social distance ... pay attention my friend!”
Massimo knows first-hand what’s at stake. A few hours earlier, he had lost a professional colleague. His country, Italy, which has a social culture very similar to Africa's, now has more than 13,000 deaths from COVID-19. It is the highest number of fatalities anywhere in the world.
The coronavirus body count is still rising
Italy has given the rest of the world a tragic glimpse of what a complete lockdown looks, especially for countries that blink and fail to take action fast.
Lockdowns have caused mayhem. Family and social relationships have been strained. Significant events have been cancelled at great costs. The economic, financial and psychological fallout has been devastating.
Italy’s experience, as with many other countries, is an urgent wake-up call about the importance of swift and decisive action.
Africa has had some lead time to learn important lessons from others including China, Italy, Spain, the UK, the United States. To Africa's credit, long before the first reported COVID-19 cases appeared on the continent, many countries had proactively approached the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other multilateral institutions, to put containment and preventative measures in place. Rapid lessons are being learnt.
While others have wasted precious early moments, some countries and cities have been exemplars of what it takes to counter the spread of COVID-19. Rwanda for example, was the first country to take swift containment actions by placing portable sinks with running water in public spaces in its capital city and backing it up with a public awareness campaign. The Governor of Lagos State, Nigeria's commercial hub, was also quick to convert a local stadium into an isolation and recovery area. Last week, Nigeria’s President Muhamadu Buhari placed the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja, Lagos and two neighbouring States, under lockdown for two weeks. Ultimately, Nigeria with a population of 180 million, will have to lock down for an even longer period of time.
Several other countries are following suit. Innovations from citizens, the private sector and international organisations across all spectrums, have been stellar.
But many others are woefully lagging behind. There is still an unwillingness to acknowledge that not taking decisive and painful short-term action, will have devastating long-term consequences.
For such countries, the end result is a cost that will be too high to pay.
COVID-19 has exposed Africa's systemic weaknesses
In spite of Africa’s best efforts, more must be done. The outlook for the continent is grim unless swift proactive actions are taken. For now, the pandemic is exposing deep cracks and systemic weaknesses across the board.
Africa is dealing with multiple challenges including a general lack of emergency preparedness, weak social networks and governance, and political, economic, social, cultural and health threats.
Millions of Africans live on less than two dollars a day. The implication is simple. A lack of access to money, food, water and electricity, means extended lockdowns will not be easy to implement.
High levels of poverty and other communicable diseases were already impacting health and wellbeing long before the arrival of the coronavirus. A shortage of well-equipped and well-funded healthcare facilities is just the tip of the iceberg. Everything from doctors, clinics, hospitals, beds, medical supplies and intensive care units are in chronic short supply. A recent study by the Journal of Intensive Care, indicates that no African nation is on the list of countries with the highest numbers of intensive care beds per capita.
Africa’s social and communal culture, could be a threat if social distancing and self-isolation protocols are not strictly followed. The Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and Liberia and collaborative action by African leaders and global partners, shows that where there is a will, there is always a way. While our societies are not wired or configured to cope with sudden or extended periods of self-isolation or lock-downs, both measures are urgent and necessary.
COVID-19 could not have arrived at a worse time for Africa. A crash in global commodity prices and a glut in the oil and gas markets has seen revenues drop precipitously. Further threats from nature, including the impact of devastating weather patterns such as Cyclone Idai and Henry and a recent plague of locusts, have to be managed alongside the pandemic.
Economically, the private sector and financial markets have taken a beating. The sudden reversal of fortunes is in stark contrast to a more positive projection in the African Development Bank's 2020 African Economic Outlook when it was released in January 2020.
The bandwidth of fiscal headroom is very thin. Commodity-sensitive economies are reeling under the effects of sudden price drops and the altered market reality of reduced global demand. Crude oil prices which now hover at $22 a barrel, have fallen more than 68% since January 2020. Non-oil commodity prices in natural gas and metals have also taken a nosedive.
Threats of potential social unrest as a result of COVID-19 second order effects
Extended lockdowns carry inherent potential threats of their own and these must be managed. Along with underlying systemic weaknesses, the pandemic could unleash social unrest, the explosions of which will be as unprecedented as the virus itself.
As I noted in my recent article Africa Urgently Needs an Ubuntu Plan, all lockdowns are not equal. Asia, Europe, and the United States have an abundance of hard and soft infrastructure and the resources required to support limited lockdowns. Even then, for them, it is turning out to be a Herculean undertaking. Imagine then, what will the impact be for Africa if we fail to act fast?
We must act fast and think authentically. Africa has its own particularities and to a certain extent, local contexts will require locally suited solutions, while drawing from global lessons. Recent videos of local communities forcefully resisting law enforcement and sanitation teams are already emerging. Such scenes are inevitable, for reasons of poverty, a lack of knowledge, and a chronic mistrust of authorities.
Concerns about informal settlements, some of the largest in the world, are a cause for worry, as is terrorism, economic and social exploitation and fragility.
Physical and psychological impacts of a pandemic
Along with business and financial challenges, Africa's leaders must prepare to address the social, physical and mental health fallouts from unavoidable lockdowns, social disruptions, the loss of basic human dignity, threats to civil life, and worse, the loss of life itself.
Several governments have grasped this and are stepping up, although time is not on their side. In many cases they have imposed limited two-week lockdowns in the first instance. The goal is not to alarm their citizens. But this is unlikely to be sufficient as the virus apparently has its own agenda, pattern and timing!
Realistically, beating COVID-19, is likely to require 6-10 weeks of total nationwide lockdowns, at a minimum.
To not do so, is to sell an illusion. To not do so, is to delay the inevitable. To not do so, is to raise false hopes. To not do so, is to be complicit and irresponsible in the spread of this most virulent and devastating virus. Worse, it will be suicidal, not just for countries but for the continent.
Dealing with Africa's harsh realities when it comes to COVID-19
We must therefore deal with hard reality, scientific facts, current simulations and real global lessons. Cosmetic approaches will not work when surgical precision is required. We must marshal every resource in order to save lives ... every life and especially those already living on the margins of society.
The underlying ethos of Ubuntu which says – “I am, because you are,” must be unleashed with full force to save lives. We have to be brutally honest, in order to be kind to ourselves!
The bottom line is that this is not a time for test runs.
Urgent action is needed now, not tomorrow. This includes -
- Making tough and seemingly unpopular leadership decisions that will ultimately save lives and society.
- Using every communication platform possible to increase public awareness and promote containment and preventative measures.
3. Stepping up testing and reducing the wait time between tests and test results.
4. Mobilising the support of public influencers including traditional, religious, civil society, entertainment celebrities, women and youth leaders.
5. Introducing measures to secure food and medical supply channels, fixing basic food prices, and curbing hoarding and panic-buying.
6. Re-purposing public spaces including conference centres, stadiums and open spaces for use as isolation and recovery centres.
7. Leveraging every available advantage, by focusing on low hanging fruits. For example, regional economic communities could re-organise manufacturing and target the supply of critically needed medicines, equipment and medical supplies, as well as food packaging and processing.
8. Delaying debt obligations and buying time with global creditors through forbearance or payment postponements. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated one third of African countries were at risk of debt distress. Post-crisis, the numbers will be significantly higher.
Given the dire situation that lies ahead, Africa must urgently think through how to meet the needs of its 1.2 billion people. The continent has successfully done this before with other threats. It can do it again.
I am my own, and inherently your keeper
For now, Governments and citizens must humbly yet urgently come face-to-face with a blunt reality. Pandemics and other global crises do not respect boundaries, titles or positions, creed, faith, gender, culture or hierarchy.
Together, we must therefore commit to reverse negative ethnicity, inequality, decades-old public profligacy, corruption and the chronic lack of investment in education, electricity, roads, water and sanitation projects.
Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister and 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate rightly tells us: “COVID-19 teaches us that we are all global citizens connected by a single virus that recognises none of our natural or man-made boundaries.”
We are in this together, regardless of where we call home. "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” I am because you are.