Pandemic Arrives in Africa
By the end of March, the World Health Organisation had confirmed 4,351 cases of Covid-19 and some 135 deaths across Africa. The continent's under-resourced health services has made the virus’s spread in the continent of particular concern. WHO says its statistics are “likely to significantly underestimate” the true number of cases. Forty-six countries have been affected on the continent. A number of African governments, such as Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Zambia, have responded quickly to the disease and arguably better than some Western governments.
Some African countries can also draw on their experiences and knowledge of handling epidemics like Ebola, Lassa and other viruses in the recent past. Ebola, for example, led many African communities to recognize the need to overturn traditional family proximity and isolate individual family members. Many governments have experience in setting up large field hospitals to handle surges in patients. K. Riva Levinson, a US lobbyist on behalf of a number of African governments, has written that African governments have protocols and training already in place to handle epidemics but desperately need funds and equipment – Liberia she notes has only three ventilators. However, Covid-19 differs from Ebola in important ways, notably the former can be transmitted through air which the more lethal Ebola virus could not.
Intra-African travel by air and sea has come to a virtual halt with a number of major airlines including South African Airways and Air Maroc have either grounded all their flights or banned international flights. Most African countries have put in travel bans on countries with over 100 confirmed virus cases and at least five are in complete lockdown.
Below are a number of ways which the pandemic is impacting the continent, politically, economically and even culturally.
South Africa Lockdown : South Africa has a third of the continent’s cases though this may reflect the country’s relatively better testing and hospital capabilities. The country's health minister, Zweli Mkhize, said the number of coronavirus cases had passed 1000 with a handful of deaths. South Africa went into a strict 21-day lockdown at midnight on March 25 in an attempt to avoid what its president, Cyril Ramaphosa, termed a "catastrophe of huge proportions.” Ramaphosa wore military camouflage when visiting security forces and told them they were protecting their country from an “invisible enemy.” South Africa has barred dog-walking, running and alcohol sales. Like many other countries it has closed it borders to human traffic. Police minister, Bheki Cele, said two people with the virus have been charged with attempted murder because they didn't obey orders to isolate themselves.
South Africa’s lone gold refinery, Rand Refinery, has said it is unable to ship bullion to the main international gold market, London, adding to instability in world financial markets. It cited the lack of commercial flights between the two countries following coronavirus-based travel bans.
Ethiopian Elections : The pandemic is adding a layer of difficulty to Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed’s plans to win the country’s elections in August and complete [his planned] overhaul of the country’s political system. His plans have already been put under strain thanks to a new ethnic insurrection among part of his own Oromia people.
Ethiopia has been ruled by Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of ethnicity based parties, since the civil war that brought down the earlier Marxist military regime. Ahmed recently launched a new Prosperity Party which will campaign as a single nationalist political party. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, one of the smaller entities of the EPRDF but dominant in the security services, has already refused to join Ahmed’s new party. The two sides are now in a competition to woo the various components of the EPRDF as well as an array of new smaller ethnic political groups that have sprung up.
A complication has been the rise of an insurgency in Western Oromia, spearheaded by armed factions who have left the existing political parties. Ahmed has responded by unleashing a brutal crackdown by Ethiopian security forces. The Covid-19 pandemic has made things more complicated. The government has already begun an assessment to see whether the August election date is even feasible. The economic consequences of the pandemic will play a major role since his governance record and the economy’s strength has been one of the president’s political selling points.
Ebola Redux : West African countries are using community health systems set up after the Ebola outbreak of 2014 - 2016 to fight Covid-19. After the Ebola epidemic, countries like Senegal have trained workers to check for symptoms and share health information in remote place that lacked access to the internet or government services. "The people that we're targeting are rural communities that typically aren't within a close distance to a health post," said Nickie Sene, programme head of the charity Catholic Relief Services in Senegal. "The majority are illiterate. The information they're receiving are rumours from WhatsApp or word of mouth.”
Zimbabwe's doctors and nurses went on strike on March 25 over a lack of protective gear against Covid-19. "Right now we are exposed and no one seems to care," said Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association president, Tawanda Zvakada. Zimbabwe’s public health system is close to collapse, battered by years of economic mismanagement and recent political turmoil. It is not uncommon for patients to provide their own gloves and water supply in a hospital.
Army Orders : The Nigerian Army is preparing to forcibly transfer sick to hospital, enforce curbs on people’s movements, lease equipment for "possible mass burial," according to an army memo. The memo from Army headquarters, reported in the media, also outlines plans to protect government food storage from looters as Africa's most populous nation braces for the pandemic. "Following the rise and continuous spread in cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Nigeria, the (Chief of Army Staff) has deemed it necessary for all to take protective measures to ensure the safety of (Nigerian Army) personnel and their families," the memo said. There are currently 65 confirmed cases in Nigeria, but the infection has hit the top levels of society, infecting President Muhammadu Buhari's chief of staff.
Africa’s wealthiest man, billionaire Aliko Dangote, has teamed up with one of Nigeria’s largest banks, Access Bank, to set up isolation and treatment centres across the country. The initial plan is to set up a total of 1,000 beds.
Musical Awareness : A number of African political leaders have turned to music to rouse popular awareness of the pandemic. Musician Bobi Wine, a rising political force in Uganda, worked with fellow artist Nubian Li to release a song about the importance of personal hygiene. "The bad news is that everyone is a potential victim," Wine sings. "But the good news is that everyone is a potential solution." Liberian footballer-turned-president George Weah also released a song on how to protect oneself against the virus. In Senegal, activist hip-hop group Y'en a Marre have recorded a rap about washing hands, disposing of used tissues and avoiding crowds in their latest release, called “Shield against Coronavirus.”
Dibango Dies : The pandemic claimed the lives of two prominent African musicians, Cameroonian saxophone legend Manu Dibango (86) and Congolese soukous artist, Aurlus Mabele (67). Both died in Paris. Dibango, best known for his 1972 hit “Soul Makossa,” fused jazz and funk music with traditional sounds from Cameroon. He was among the first African musicians to leave a lasting impact on American dance music, collaborating with numerous artists over a long career, including US pianist Herbie Hancock and Nigeria's Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. Dibango filed a lawsuit in 2009 saying Michael Jackson had stolen riffs from Soul Makossa, in his best-selling album, Thriller. Jackson settled the case out of court. He filed a similar case against Rihanna for a 2007 single, “Don’t Stop The Music.” Mabele's music was defined by a fast beat, arpeggio guitar and his own body movement. Mabele defined the Congolese soukous, a close cousin of the rumba and his songs were known for their long instrumental sections.
Emergency Funding : The International Monetary Fund, in a blog by Karen Ongley and Abebe Aemro Selassie, says the pandemic will impact the economy of sub-Saharan Africa in three ways. One, social distancing and closures will mean “less paid work, less income, less spending, and fewer jobs.” Two, the fall in global demand will disrupt trade, limit access to finance and mean slower investment and development project work. Three, the sharp decline in commodity prices will “hit oil exporters hard, compounding the first two effects.” The blog recommended that because finance during a shock makes supportive policies hard to carry out, the international community needs to ensure emergency funding is available to African governments. The IMF, therefore, was “making $50 billion available via rapid-disbursing emergency facilities, including $10 billion on highly concessional terms for low‑income countries.” The IMF hoped to being disbursing funds by April. Governments already facing extreme debt problems would be able to get relief through the IMF’s Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust.
The pandemic means Africa needs an immediate emergency economic stimulus of $100 billion and almost half of that could come from waiving interest payments for countries on the continent, says the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. The waiver of interest payments, estimated at $44 billion for 2020, and the possible extension of the waiver to the medium term, would provide immediate fiscal space and liquidity to the governments. The UN commission said this after the continent’s finance ministers had a virtual meeting on March 19 to discuss the crisis. Government debt as a percentage of gross domestic product in sub-Saharan Africa has doubled in the past decade. A number of countries which were planning new Eurobond issuances will have to put off such plans because of surging yields. External debt payments consumed an average 13 per cent of African governments’ revenue, says the UK-based Jubilee Debt Campaign showed.
The African Development Bank announced the sale of $ 3 billion worth of bonds to help the continent fight the pandemic, terming this is the largest “social bond’ issue in the world.
Ratings Downgrade : Ratings agency Fitch has warned that the pandemic will have a downside risk for short term growth for sub-Saharan African, particularly for countries like Ghana, Angola, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Zambia, South Africa, Gabon and Nigeria – all countries that export large amounts of commodities to China. African mining companies producing lithium, cobalt, copper and iron ore have already noted decreasing demand from China. It warned that a Covid-19 outbreak in Africa’s crowded mining centres could result in the resumption of mining activity more difficult later. Governments like that of oil-rich Angola have already seen their credit-ratings reduced to C level.
Petals Plucked : Africa’s flower exporting industry has been badly affected by the pandemic. Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa, the largest flower exporters of the continent, have lost millions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs because of a loss of demand in Europe and flight cancellations. Kenya, which earns over one billion dollars from flower exports, has seen thousands of farm-workers being sent home and the destruction of millions of flowers, many destined for the huge flower selling hubs in the Netherlands. The Kenyan industry association has warned many of its members would face bankruptcy within a few weeks.
Pangolin Trade : A belief that wildmeat markets in China may have been responsible for the Covid-19 outbreak has led to a focus on similar markets in Africa. Pangolins, an endangered ant-eating animal which may have served as a virus vector in China, is also a popular meat source in Africa. Environmental groups like WildAid have called on Nigeria, one of the largest pangolin trading hubs in Africa, to crackdown on the so-called “bushmeat” trade and the hunting of pangolins in particular. Nigeria was linked to over half the pangolin scales seized globally between 2016 and 2019. The scales are prized in China and Vietnam for supposedly medicinal properties. So far, there has been no reaction in Nigeria though other countries, like Gabon, have recorded a drop in trade because of virus fears.
Tech Instruments : Governments and startups are trying to shift a greater volume of payment transactions toward mobile money and away from cash, a possible conduit for the virus. Kenya, the continent’s leader in digital payment technology, saw the country’s largest telecom firm, Safaricom, waiving fees on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa. Ghana’s central bank directed mobile money providers to waive fees on transactions of less than $18 and placed restrictions on transactions to withdraw cash from mobile-wallets.
The South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases has asked the country’s telecom firms to provide cellphone data so that it can track the movement of people and use that data to target anti-coronavirus programmes. Like India, South Africa saw large-scale migration from the cities to the townships and rural areas in the run up to a lockdown. The data will be anonymous, ensuring the privacy of the individuals is not compromised said the institute. A number of telecom firms have already agreed to provide the data.
In an example of how Africa is applying technology to fight the pandemic, a testing device that takes one dollar and 10 minutes to test for coronavirus is being rushed into testing by a Senegalese research institute working with a British company. The prototype being produced by Dakar-based diaTropix and the UK’s Mologic, using technology similar to a home pregnancy kit, has already begun a validation process and the test could be rolled out by June if the trials are successful. While the pocket-sized test would be made widely available, it is aimed at stemming the spread of the virus in Africa in particular. It will also be used in trials in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the pandemic first broke out. The test employs a saliva-based virus antigen test and a blood-based antibody test.
(The views expressed are personal)