The Pandemic: Can African Countries afford to lockdown their economies given the dominant poverty amongst their citizens?
Crisis resulting from the prevalence of the coronavirus pandemic is plunging world economies into greater depths of financial struggle. This is evident in the decline in tourism, implementation of travel restrictions, border closures, increase in prices of commodities and disruption of foreign financial flows amongst others. Key African sectors such as the tourism industry, oil and gas sector, agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare and pharmaceuticals are areas that have been grossly affected by the pandemic.
Coronavirus statistics in Africa is currently tagged at 88,264 cases with 2,832 deaths and 33,898 recoveries. In response to the incessant increase in these numbers, several efforts have been made by African nations to reduce the spread of the virus. These responses have majorly been in form of imposition of lockdowns, border closures, quarantine methods and social distancing amongst others. Of all these, the strictest which is the decision to impose lockdowns, may have yielded positive results in some African countries, although it comes with its challenges.
Topping the list of such challenges is the daily struggle to control lockdowns which has become a herculean task for some African governments. Although visible efforts are being made to ameliorate incidents of the pandemic, a recurring question is: for how long can African States continue in this stead given the fragility of their economies?
While most nations of the world are confronted with the hard choice of lockdowns, Africa seems to be facing harder choices that are more severe than the lockdown itself. At a time when developed countries like the United States and Canada are distributing stimulus packages to their citizens, Africa is left to defend itself. The sad reality is that with a combined population of over one billion people, some African nations may not be able to comfortably pay their inhabitants to stay at home. From every indication, it would appear that the lockdowns and border closures may not end anytime soon, hence the coronavirus has left us all in a vicious cycle of extended lockdowns.
Furthermore, with eighty percent of Africa’s population living below poverty line, daily and low income earnersmay begin to view lockdown orders as some sort of hunger strike imposition. In fact, there have been complaints about lack of access to basic amenities such as food and water in some parts of Africa. Moreover, where more people stay at home without work, their living conditions may begin to deteriorate due to depletion of their financial wherewithal. As such, daily earners like the bus drivers, hairdressers and traders may begin to find life more difficult. Local farmers are also not spared, due to a reduction in public transport which may make it uneasy to transport their perishable products.
In addition to the above, while some Africans are battling with the strain on their financial income, a lack of adequate infrastructural facilities could also contribute to making life more hellish for them. For instance, with the constant power cuts experienced in some homes, staying at home could be unenjoyable and less productive. Not left out are those who may not be able to pay their house rent and others who are unsure if they will still have a job after the lockdown.
Nevertheless, it is safe to deduce that lockdowns and social distancing in most African countries are almost impracticable. For instance, in clogged cities like Lagos, shanty towns in Johannesburg, local communities in Abuja and other visibly crowded areas, the lockdown order seems to have been disregarded by citizens. A major observation is that with the extension of each lockdown comes a surge in the numbers of people who flock out to meet their immediate financial needs. Hence, the lockdowns may not be yielding its desired effects.
Moreover, in comparison to the western world, most parts of Africa seem to have a dissimilar social setting and this could be a contributory factor to the ineffective lockdowns. A good example is Nigeria where most basic financial transactions are done in cash. Hence, it may be difficult for residents to stay at home, without regular access to an automated teller machine or a bank for cash withdrawals.
There are also other unseen impacts of the lockdown, which may lead to undesirable consequences. It would not come as a shock that people could be dying from covid-19 induced stress and hypertension. In most cases, the indigent may not understand why they have to go through such hardship and this could breed greater problems like hooliganism and robbery. Recent cases have shown a spike in robbery incidents in some African countries where residents had to form vigilante groups to protect themselves.
Asides poverty, some other problems confronting African nations include the recent fall in oil prices, drop in tourism, and increasing security challenges. Oil price is currently at its lowest and major oil exporting African countries like Nigeria and Angola are in a precarious position since their economies are mostly dependent on oil exportation. To this extent, the International Monetary Fund projects that Africa will fall into recession this year. There may also be a downturn in Africa’s economy as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) has predictedthat the pandemic may reduce Africa’s expected economic growth from 3.2% to 2%.
Meanwhile, Tourism which has been a major source of economic benefit for countries like South Africa, Egypt and Morocco, is currently also at its lowest ebb. Prior to the covid-19 outbreak, Africa’s travel and tourism industry was contributing over $194.2 billion to the economy. As it is now, there is most likely a downfall in most tourism sectors across the continent.
Health care facilities and the need for revitalization of the African pharmaceutical industry also remain causes for concern. For a continent that imports about 70-90% of its pharmaceutical products from china and India, we are left to wonder if Africa will be able to cope with the surge in demand for medication required during this pandemic. The recent decision of India to reduce its exportation of medication to Africa has further exposed the inadequacies of the pharmaceutical industry in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, this should be great time for Africa to build pharmaceutical production and distribution, otherwise it risks experiencing gloomy days ahead. In view of this, the Economic Commission of Africa Executive Secretary, Vera Songwe emphasized that Africa would need about 10.6 billion in health spending before it can reduce the disease from further spread.
More importantly, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises are also in crisis due to recurrent bills which have been accumulated and less demand for their services during this pandemic. In contrast to some developed countries that have provided stimulus packages for similar businesses; most African businesses may not be able to get such from their government. A good example is the $480 billion stimulus package given by the US senate and the pay check protection programme for small businesses to help them pay salaries. Apart from South Africa which introduced the “SME Support Intervention” to the tune of R500,000 and R200,000 respectively to help business owners, it is unclear if many African nations have similar plans to support such businesses.
Notwithstanding the above, some African nations seem to be struggling with overburdened isolation test centres, lack of bed space and poor testing capacity. This seemingly weak attempt to handle the status quo could otherwise convince observers that there are countries in Africa that are struggling to keep up with the fight against the pandemic.
Undeniably, African countries have also employed other means asides lockdown, in the form of relief and safety net programmes, social assistance, unemployment grants and cash transfers. For instance, while South Africa introduced unemployment income grant, Ethiopia is providing a safety net programme for over 8 million rural citizens, Rwanda also has a relief programme through which it distributes food to impoverished households. While Tunisia gave $155 million dollars to indigent families and Nigeria adopted the fiscal stimulus package, countries like Botswana and Mauritius are also providing social assistance to their inhabitants.
Before the virus became as predominant as it is today, African countries like Rwanda, Togo, Madagascar and Sierra Leone had gotten foreign loans to support their economies. However, now that donor countries that provide grants are also dealing with similar economic issues in their economies, what will be the fate of these borrowing countries? When global partners can no longer assist with donor funding for emergencies, what happens next? To this end, the Chief Economist Africa at the World Bank, Albert Zeufack noted that Africa alone will not be able to contain covid-19 and its impacts on its own.
Consequently, the enforcement of lockdowns in African nations may carry a higher human price such that for the poorest of the poor, their vulnerability will heighten when their income falls. It would seem that total compliance to lockdown in some parts of Africa would remain impracticable as we are plunged into a never-ending waiting game. Asides the struggling low income earners, what happens to the daily vulnerable such as migrants, refugees and homeless persons?
Lastly, the fact that Africa has fewer numbers of covid-19 instances in comparison to other continents does not necessarily mean that Africa isn’t facing any risk. In fact, some African states may be sitting on ticking time bombs due to possibilities of inaccurate testing, underreporting, use of unreliable data and erroneous predictions of coronavirus cases. In all of these, the truth remains that the world will not be free from coronavirus if all countries are not free.