African policymakers face a dilemma when it comes to COVID-19. The first hope is to prevent the virus from gaining a foothold at all, and many African states have significant experience of managing infectious disease outbreaks. The establishment of the Africa Centre for Disease Control highlights the hugely increased focus on public health in recent years.
But capacities to track, test and isolate vary wildly, notably between neighbours with porous and poorly controlled borders and, in most cases, sustained national-level disease control is difficult. Initial clusters of COVID-19 cases are already established in many places, but a lack of testing capacity makes it hard to know the full extent of transmission.
It is not obvious what African states should do as a response. Lack of information about COVID-19 means the proportion of asymptomatic or mild cases is not known, still less the ways in which this is influenced by human geography and demographics.
Africa is an overwhelmingly young continent with a median age under 20. But it also faces chronic malnutrition, which may weaken immune responses, and infectious diseases such as malaria, TB and HIV are widespread which could worsen the impact of COVID-19, particularly if treatment for these diseases is interrupted.
Complex and unknown
Ultimately, how all these factors interact with COVID-19 is complex and remains largely unknown. Africa may escape with a relatively light toll. Or it could be hit harder than anywhere else.
What is clear, however, is that cost of simply following the rest of the world into lockdown could be high. Africa is relatively rural but has higher populations living in informal settlements than anywhere in the world. Many live in cramped and overcrowded accommodation without clean water or reliable electricity, making handwashing a challenge and working from home impossible.
And the benefits appear limited. The goal of lockdowns in most places is not to eliminate the virus but to accept the economic and social costs as a price worth paying in order to ‘flatten the curve’ of infection and protect healthcare systems from being overwhelmed. But this logic does not hold when many of Africa’s healthcare systems are barely coping with pre-coronavirus levels of disease.
Africa suffers in comparison to much of the rest of the world in terms of access to quality and affordable healthcare, critical care beds and specialist personnel. For example, in 2017, Nigeria had just 120 ICU beds for a country of 200 million, equating to 0.07 per 100,000 inhabitants compared to 12.5 per 100,000 in Italy and 3.6 per 100,000 in China.
The pandemic’s ruinous economic impacts could also be more acute for Africa than anywhere else. The continent is highly vulnerable to potential drops in output and relies heavily on demand from China and Europe. Many states are already facing sharply falling natural resource revenues, and investment, tourism and remittances will suffer - all on top of a high existing debt burden.
Analysis by the World Bank shows that Africa will likely face its first recession in 25 years, with the continental economy contracting by up to 5.1% in 2020. Africa will have scant financial ammunition to use in the fight against COVID-19 with currencies weakening, food prices rising, local agri-food supply chains disrupted and food imports likely to decrease as well. A food security emergency appears a strong possibility.
So, although several states have imposed national lockdowns and others closed major urban centres, lockdowns are difficult to manage and sustain, especially in places where the daily hustle of the informal sector or subsistence agriculture are the only means of survival and where the state has neither the trust of the population nor the capacity to replace lost earnings or meet basic needs.
Of course, this is not simply a binary choice between lockdown or no lockdown - a range of intermediate options exist, such as some restriction on movement, curfews, shutting places of worship, banning only large gatherings, or closing pubs, schools and borders.
A significant number of African states have so far taken this middle path. This will not prevent the virus from spreading nor, in all probability, be enough to ensure adequate healthcare for all Africans infected with COVID-19. But it may help slow the spread and buy invaluable time for African states and partners to prepare.
How this time is used is therefore of paramount importance. Popular trust in the state is low in many African countries so strategies must empower communities, not alienate them. Africa’s experience of previous epidemics and long traditions of collective resilience and community-based crisis response - which persist in many places – are significant strengths.
The right messages must be carried by the right messengers, and policies - including cash transfers and food distribution - implemented sensitively. If not, or if responses become militarized, public consent is unlikely to be sustained for long.
Ben Shepherd, Consulting Fellow, Africa Programme and Nina van der Mark, Research Analyst, Global Health Programme.