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Africa needs an African contextual response to COVID-19

Compiled by Moreblessings Chidaushe-Norwegian Church Aid Southern Africa Regional Advocacy office

30 March 2020

As more African countries are implementing lockdown measures as they make concerted efforts to contain COVID-19, panic is spreading at many levels across the African society.  On March 25,2020 having entered a state of emergency a few days earlier, the South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa initiated a compulsory 21-day National Lockdown. A few days later, Zimbabwe followed suit and many more SADC and Africa Union member states will be expected to do the same in the coming few days. Evidence is already showing that lockdowns are critical in containing the virus and we desperately need them.

In South Africa the response to the lockdown has been wide and varied depending on one’ social status and where one resides. Inequality has once again reared its ugly head in the response to COVID-19. It must be highlighted that even before the President’s announcement, sensing that the country was headed towards a lockdown, many middle class, upper middle class and rich people were able to quickly stock up supplies in bulk that can last them for several months. For those who depend on month to month salaries, they had to wait until payday which in several cases fell on the other side of the lockdown. Those dependant on government support were not spared either and unfortunately fell in the same boat as those that are paid at the very end of the month. This meant that a huge percentage of the country’s population had to begin the coronavirus lockdown without stocking any food supplies. This segment of society is now having to – in the midst of the lockdown – go out and buy food supplies and from what we have seen – further exposing themselves to contracting the disease, as, in panic and desperation, social distancing is hardly being practised. We have seen the same too with public transport services where the ordinary citizens have not had the luxury of practising social distancing.

Street vending: a source of livelihood for many

There are millions of people who rely on street vending and for those, eating what they kill is the only way to live. If they are not able to be on the street to sell their wares, it means they cannot feed their families and again in the absence of social safety nets a 21-day lockdown will be a tough time for them.  Truth be told, it is a torrid time for the poor and hundreds of millions across the African continent compelled to quarantine for 21 days most of them in a small one room shack with an average of seven  to 10 people of all ages without the luxury of running water, electricity and inside toilets. At any time of the day, if any one family member needs to relieve themselves, they will have to walk some distance to find the nearest toilet.  The same applies to several families within concentrated blocks of neighbourhoods, the same goes for other services such as water which is only available at communal water points.

The harsh reality for Africa is that millions of people live in extreme poverty with no basic services, cannot afford health care services and do not have sustainable livelihoods. Overally, poverty increases the chances of poor health.  Most of the poor depend on going out each day for piece jobs, engage in trading selling small commodities just to be able to secure food for the next day. For these people, life is pretty much lived one day at a time. Hence, a blanket lockdown model which assumes that people have access to good basic services while very well intentioned may not yield the same results.  There is growing frustration in South Africa that populations living in high density areas are defying the national lockdown and the government efforts to quarantine the citizens in a move to contain the pandemic. They have been numerous allegations that people in most such areas are continuing with their usual daily lives and not taking the basic necessary precautions such as social distancing and hand washing.

Some call them shacks, for some these are their homes

In this we should also acknowledge that there are some who are just blatantly ignoring the compulsory lockdown. While it is easy to judge and react harshly to this response to the lockdown, it is also important to consider the realities of this group and use these circumstances to craft the best response for the African context. Within a few days of deployment in the South African streets, the army is alleged to be responding harshly mostly to people living in high density urban areas like Khayelitsha in Cape Town. In a suburb in Johannesburg, there are media reports that a man has been shot down by the police accusing him of defying the lockdown guidelines.

Asking for a continent – as modern-day lingo goes – How should Africa successfully fight COVID-19 in the absence of the most basic social services such as health, no reliable supply of potable running water, secure livelihoods and decent housing?

Africa’s problems are numerous, and this sad reality is biting in the face of efforts to address the current pandemic. The African Union will urgently need to take leadership and decisive actions in crafting an effective COVID-19 response. Families are having to choose between buying sanitizers or food to feed their families. Many are scared they will die of hunger inside their homes as they adhere to the compulsory 21day lockdown.

Given this reality, blanket responses will not assist Africa much to fight the pandemic – our context is very different from the rest of the world especially given the high levels of poverty, inequality and vulnerability to external shocks. While international guidelines such as those issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) are critical in fighting the pandemic, Africa must customise these guidelines to address the home contexts and realities if it is to succeed in this battle.

Regional coordination in dealing with COVID-19 is even more crucial to ensure a coordinated response. At this point it will not help one country to fortify itself while others are not, given the high mobility between and amongst our countries encouraged by our extremely porous borders. Regional, continental and international solidarity is very important – resources should be harnessed for collective response efforts, if we are to succeed in this endeavour.

The United Nations General Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in his address on the 28th March made clear his fears that the COVID-19 will kill millions of people across Africa due to its fragility and vulnerability. “We can still prevent the worst in Africa but without a massive mobilisation we will have millions and millions of people contaminated, which means millions of deaths,” adding that Africa’s booming youth population will not be spared.  

Regional blocks such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) led by African Union need to take heed of the UN’s advice and urgently step up their response actions to prevent the further spread of the virus, and they must act fast for the virus is not waiting. African Union needs to come up with an urgent African customised response to this pandemic which has brought the world to its knees.

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