By The Africa Unusual Working Group*
COVID-19 has, in a matter of months, infected over a million people, torn apart families and societies, and destabilised economies. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) has revised Africa’s growth downwards, from 3.2% to 2%, and African economies will likely need a stimulus of $100 billion. This does not even take into consideration the pandemic’s psycho-social ramifications.
Unprecedented times such as these call for rapid decision-making, coupled with innovative and effective solutions that can address continually evolving challenges. In the past few weeks, several African countries have taken swift action to get ahead of this crisis by implementing a spectrum of measures, including closing borders, instituting curfews and lockdowns, providing public sanitation solutions, monitoring and treating cases, and providing relief measures for local businesses. It is evident that several African countries, which have been affected relatively later than some of their global counterparts, have learnt important lessons over the past few weeks and have applied these in their decision-making.
Yet, given the enormity and complexity of this problem, African countries should continue to observe and draw on regional, continental, and international best practices, while taking into account their respective local particularities. Now is the time for cross-sectoral collaborations, for top-down and bottom-up approaches, and for governments, private sector, NGOs, multilateral institutions, and individuals to all play their parts.
To supplement government efforts, mechanisms should be created to provide funding to African innovators, who are developing solutions to COVID-19 related issues. Crowdfunding platforms can be a potential solution, but only if regulators are able to fast-track requisite policies and regulations to enable them to function effectively. African professionals, such as lawyers, financial advisors and consultants, can be galvanised to donate their time to support industries and sectors that have been severely affected by this pandemic and help them implement mitigating strategies. Dalberg Advisors’ Safe Hands initiative, which is taking a multi-pronged approach encompassing inputs, manufacturers, funders, distributors, and policy to support the product and distribution of essential medical supplies at scale, serves as a case in point. Corporations should also be willing to reorient their talent pool and repurpose their facilities to address the most critical issues arising from this pandemic. Accra-based company DTRT Apparel is gearing up to manufacture a range of personal protective equipment (PPEs) to supply Africa and the rest of the world. Companies must work together in redeploying their employees who would otherwise be redundant to companies facing higher demand, akin to a brilliant programme proposed in Estonia.
Business continuity, especially for MSMEs who are particularly vulnerable during this time, is a critical economic consideration. Jobs need to be retained and national government must move quickly to provide relief measures for this. Countries like Kenya and Ghana have been deploying surveys to understand the difficulties businesses are facing as a result of COVID-19, including plunging revenues, disruptions in supply chains, inability to work remotely, and having business models that are simply untenable in the context of a global pandemic. Under such circumstances, governments can – and several have already done so – offer stimulus packages, including tax waivers and reductions; lower interest rates to make debt cheaper; provide low-interest intervention loans to vulnerable companies; defer statutory payments for a minimum of six months without penalties; amend policies on non-performing loans to prevent a systemic crisis among banks, and provide financial support to businesses that may otherwise go bankrupt/fail to recover due to the crisis. The latter is especially important for informal sector businesses that cannot implement remote working measures.
Good governance in times of crisis requires a combination of top-down directives and bottom-up solutions. In combating this virus, one of the challenges that African governments are facing is a lack of compliance with policy directives. In some cases, the lack of compliance is not a result of disobedience, but rather structural and systemic factors unique to African countries. For instance, preventive measures, such as social distancing, are difficult to implement in informal settlements and slums where in many cases, families of six share one 20 square meter room. Also, informal sector jobs cannot be performed remotely. In light of this, extreme measures are likely to cause widespread social and humanitarian problems, as seen in places like India, where a nation-wide lockdown was instituted with a mere four hours notice. In contrast, responses by several African countries, such as Angola, Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana, and Kenya, have been more measured.
For a more holistic approach, governments can offer free basic services to vulnerable communities, including providing survival packs that can cater to daily needs and working with existing organizations – private sector and NGOs – who have distribution networks that are able to deliver at the last mile. African governments should lobby for debt relief, and suspension of short-term payments on sovereign bonds to free up money for more urgent needs. African countries can also take advantage of regional and continental channels to collaborate with each other and exchange information on solutions that have proven/are proving to be effective. Countries that have extensive experience in battling tough epidemics, in particular, could offer valuable lessons.
Finally, it will not be possible to implement any solution without effective, broad-based communication. In places like the UAE, religious leaders and institutions have used their reach and influence to disseminate critical public health messaging. Community-level engagement using village and other community elders is likely to be effective in circulating messages on preventive measures, as well as monitoring key developments in a localized manner. Offering free mobile data and public internet access can support remote working and widespread access to information. The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA), for instance, has signed an agreement with Google Loon that allows Loon Balloons to fly over Kenyan airspace carrying 4G base stations with a capacity to provide wider internet coverage. Meanwhile, Roke Telkom in Uganda has launched a campaign to help businesses, education centers and individuals stay connected to education, communications, and productivity-enhancing applications and services at no extra cost.
COVID-19 is a test of leadership and our way of life at multiple levels – global, national, local, and even individual. In the face of an indiscriminate pandemic that has spilled across borders and impacted almost every aspect of our societies and economies, we must transcend existing silos and barriers – both real and perceived – to develop solutions that are holistic, inclusive, localized, and humane. And while we continue to grapple with urgent issues, we should also ask ourselves, what kind of world do we want to build when we come out on the other side of this? Because the answer to this question will also inform how we act today.