For 2021, governments in Africa will focus on improving their revenue and ending the economic recession, way more than it will focus on managing the pandemic.
This article is part of the series — The Future of the Pandemic in 2021 and Beyond.
Africa’s response to the pandemic has focused more on dealing with the economic losses following the global lockdown to control the spread of the virus. Infection rate and death, regardless, has continued to rise, but not at forecast rates. Given prevalent social behaviour on the continent, studies to understand the reason for the low infection rates recorded on the continent against much dire predictions has become essential. Meanwhile, adherence to measures to control the spread of the virus including social distancing, wearing of face masks, screening at entry ports etc. has become questionable.
Data from the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention<1> (AFRICA CDC), the European Union Centre for Disease Prevention and Control<2>, and the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard shows that between 31 December 2019 and 9 December 2020, 67,965,261 cases of COVID-19 have been reported, including 1,557,616 deaths — a 2.2 percent case fatality ratio. Within the same time frame, Africa has recorded 2,288,856 cases with 54,524 deaths — a 2.3 percent fatality rate. For a continent of 1.3 billion people, Africa has recorded a sixth of the total cases captured in the United States, despite a higher fatality rate. This is also approximately a third of cases in Brazil, who has a 2.7 percent fatality rate. Meanwhile, North and South America have a 2.6 percent case fatality ratio. While the economies in Europe, America and Asia have somewhat held up well, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on even those with stronger health systems. Conversely, while African economies have shrunk, cases have remained within the global threshold, a departure from predicted infection rates.
Economies in the continent that are exposed to global markets and are reliant on commodity trading as well as tourism are struggling the most. The World Banks’ projected<3> -3.3 percent drop in productivity for Sub-Saharan Africa will push the region into a recession for the first time in 25 years. This will worsen an already terrible poverty situation, pushing another 40 million people in the continent into poverty. Countries such as Nigeria have already entered a recession — a second in three years — following the lockdowns introduced to control the spread of the virus, with a GDP contraction of 6.1 percent and 3.6 percent for the second and third quarters of 2020, respectively. South Africa has been on the brink for some years, due to economic underperformance. Following the pandemic, its GDP projections for 2020 stays at -8 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). With these in mind, was the lockdown the right strategy for Africa to control the spread of COVID-19? How do these circumstances help shape Africa’s outlook in 2021, especially around the narratives of a new normal?
A majority of the African workforce rely on daily pay to survive. It means that for every single day that the lockdown lasted, productive energies were not deployed, families were disposed to hunger, and they had little access to activities that will help them escape poverty. Meanwhile, government social investment programmes to cushion the impact of these lockdowns were poorly distributed and did little to help poor households. Nigeria offers a case study here, where protesters against police brutality exposed warehouses where politicians locked away COVID-19 palliatives. These have now added to already terrible growth and development indicators including malnutrition, poor access to healthcare, worsened education outcomes, insecurity, etc.
With the world on the verge of a vaccine, the global focus in 2021 would be on restarting stalled prosperity. But this would be after stock-taking, to determine exactly what needs to return to pre-pandemic status-quo. Projections in the global north that businesses will adapt to the new modalities of engagement, communication, and interaction — mediated by technology and tech tools — will not hold true for Africa. I am sitting in a hotel room in Kankan, 650 kilometres east of Conakry, the capital of Guinea as I write this. You can barely tell the world is going through a pandemic. There are very few persons wearing face masks, observing social distancing, or washing their hands. Artisans and day job workers are back on their till and narratives of a second wave or unchecked growth of infection rates are distant thoughts here.
The streets here and for most of sub-Saharan Africa are mediated by the drive to survive. Most households can barely feed themselves and are unlikely to spend scarce income purchasing a facemask. Lack of portable water makes handwashing a distant luxury. Of course, only a few can afford hand sanitisers. Communal habits never went away, and it remains a mystery that the spread of COVID-19 has been low. Africa has already left the coronavirus containment train and returned to grappling with its development issues now worsened by productivity shut-ins across the supply chains it leverages to survive. It is easy to predict that they will likely depend on international aid to get the COVID-19 vaccine to most of its 1.3 billion people.
COVID-19 has been considered an elitist disease. Malaria, Ebola, Yellow Fever, and Polio has had more impact on the continent. Ebola recorded 64 percent fatality rate. Africa has just been declared free of the wild poliovirus. Malaria has a 3-4 percent fatality rate. Thus, the pandemic’s effect on the continent has been felt more from an economic perspective, than from a health perspective. Policy responses focusing on economic recovery will take priority. For 2021, governments in Africa will focus on improving their revenue and ending the economic recession, way more than it will focus on managing the pandemic. Governments will try to spend their way out of the recession. Mining of raw materials and export of the same to global supply chains will increase as the world works to plug the gaps following the lockdown and the second wave in Europe. The news of a vaccine will certainly support this resolve. Ongoing international aid that supports the strengthening of public health systems on the continent will now have more to deal with, including the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine when they become available.
<1> Data from the Africa CDC Portal was accessed on 9 December 2020.
<2> COVID-19 Data from the EU CDC is updated daily. Figures used here were accessed on the 9 December 2020.
<3> October 2020 World Economic Outlook Press Briefing.
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