While Africa is the least affected region by Covid-19 so far, the number of confirmed cases and deaths on the continent is quickly rising. Despite the challenges many African countries continue to face, the African response to the coronavirus pandemic displays innovation and ingenuity.
This text was first published at "Africa is a Country".
Five months have passed since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). While Africa is the least affected region so far, the number of confirmed cases and deaths in Africa is quickly rising. The continent has surpassed 1.6 million confirmed cases and has recorded more than 39,000 deaths at the time of writing. Several African countries are bracing for what could become a full-blown health emergency, while at the same time strategizing on how to contain COVID-19’s devastating economic impact; ramifications of which impact far more people than the coronavirus itself. Despite the challenges many countries continue to face, Africa's response to COVID-19 has been replete with admirable displays of agency, innovation and ingenuity, demonstrating clearly that Africa is not waiting to be saved from the coronavirus.
While African agency is often dismissed in international relations and international development, the early preventive measures of several African countries with regards to the coronavirus are hard to overlook. By early March, many nations had already closed their borders early, activated new or pre-existing health infrastructures and repurposed existing capacities (machinery, human power, factories) even while caseloads remained very low. Many in the continent had observed the evolution of the outbreak in China, Europe and the US and recognized they would need more than an economic plan to respond to the pandemic effectively.
Africa clearly demonstrates that the continent is not waiting to be saved from the coronavirus.
With only a few countries boasting capability to test citizens, procure and transport supplies at scale, African countries turned to the convening power of the African Union (AU) and the African Centre for Disease Control (Africa CDC) to address their shared vulnerabilities. By coming together rather than going apart, African countries worked to overcome their shared challenges - some of which relate to the global market for medical supplies. They set up a joint procurement platform to help African countries by pass the highly competitive global market for personal protective equipment (PPEs) and medical equipment, a system which continues to be characterized by price gouging and government protectionism. By resorting to collective and coordinated action against COVID-19, the continent’s response demonstrates the true power of solidarity; not just as a conceptual ideal underlying multilateralism, but as a key element of effectiveness when responding to a pandemic or other public crises.
But the response to COVID-19 in Africa goes beyond the remit of the state. African researchers, civil society and regular citizens have been galvanizing their knowledge, finances, social capital and ingenuity to address their needs. Citizens in Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria self-organized to establish food drives and food banks to help support the most vulnerable in their societies, those disproportionately affected by the economic depression. On social media, examples of African innovation and ingenuity proliferate, from touch-free handwashing tools, home-made ventilators prototyped in Somalia, the manufacture of testing kits under a dollar in Senegal, using drones to drop off testing kits in hard to reach places in Ghana, and repurposing production lines to manufacture PPE in Morocco, Ethiopia and Kenya.
These positive developments have to be contrasted with the popular skepticism in many countries of the existence of coronavirus in Africa and its threats to Africans. This skepticism, combined with public negligence and the difficulty of maintaining social distancing continue to contribute to the growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the continent. Nonetheless, the various innovations and acts of ingenuity from across the continent prove the point, once again, that local solutions for local problems are more effective than the ‘copy and paste’ solutions that are often imported to Africa. They also demonstrate that sometimes, African solutions can also respond to global problems.
The fight against coronavirus for most African countries focuses not just on devising national strategies for prevention, but also continental and global responses. Continental representatives are collectively weighing in on the global response to COVID-19, and negotiating with major global players to secure their interests - most notably vis-a-vis COVID-19 vaccine development and access to global capital to manage the economic impact of the pandemic.
African representatives at the United Nations have joined like-minded blocks such as the EU to advocate for the framing of any future vaccine as a universally affordable and accessible product for the global public good. Efforts are underway, in collaboration with global scientific communities, to ensure that clinical trials are conducted on the continent to ensure their effectiveness in African communities.
African solutions can sometimes be the answer to global problems.
Moreover, the pandemic is projected to have a devastating impact on African economies. Currently, economists estimate that the continent will need between 100 billion to 150 billion USD to finance its economic recovery. With this looming financial burden, debt relief and access to capital are essential to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic in Africa.
The AU has been at the forefront of the global debates economic recovery, insisting to global creditors and financial regulators that the global economy, as well as local African economies, cannot be rescued without a focus on these critical issues. Through its four special envoys, the AU has been negotiating debt relief and access to capital for African economies struggling to service their debt while simultaneously repurposing their budgets to respond to the costs of the pandemic.
The picture at the national level is rather mixed. Governments are trying to balance responding to the health challenges of the pandemic while simultaneously minimizing its economic impact. At the same time, the pandemic has also laid bare pre-existing governance problems such as corruption, gender based violence, state-sanctioned violence against citizens, diminishing civic and political space, and extension of party/presidential terms. The picture of how successfully Africa combatted the pandemic is therefore unclear. Nonetheless, the innovation and ingenuity demonstrated in the continent’s response to the pandemic needs to be reflected in writing on the global response to COVID-19.
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