A worker produces face masks at the Kitui County Textile Center in Kitui, Kenya, which was converted to produce masks. Photo by Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images. Source: Washington Post.

A worker produces face masks at the Kitui County Textile Center in Kitui, Kenya, which was converted to produce masks. Photo by Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images. Source: Washington Post.

Three lessons Africa must learn from the coronavirus pandemic

If there’s anything that’s been affirmed with the coronavirus pandemic it’s that the African continent needs to take this as a wakeup call; for governments to shift their focus to the foundation of what should hold our countries together - our people, our systems and our structures. Here are some of the lessons we can learn from the pandemic.

Lesson one: We are inter-dependent

When push comes to shove, it is both the public and private sector through creative youth, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), local companies, who have stepped up and that governments have relied on during the coronavirus response. The impact of the pandemic for the private sector has been about the workforce that it relies on, thus the need to accelerate the return to business as usual and reduce the impact this crisis will have on their businesses. Besides the digital and technology industry which might be less affected by the pandemic, the majority of other industries that rely on the presence of the workforce in the office or ‘production sites’ are taking a major financial hit.

In Kenya and Uganda, breweries, textile factories and other manufacturing companies have switched to producing hand sanitizers and personal protective equipment (PPEs) to get to the needed scale. In Somalia, we are seeing youth and local technology companies developing software and applications for contact tracing as well as community education and information on available support services.

 Left: Twitter post showing collaboration between a mobile technology company, ministry of health and Oxfam in Somalia to facilitate 2-way communication on Coronavirus (Source: Oxfam Somalia twitter).

Since 80% of employment in the continent is reliant on SMEs, these kind of measures are not just about reducing the substantive negative effect on the workforce and but the ability to get back to business. Lengthy lockdowns do increase the losses multi-fold, therefore, it’s also about our economic survival as a continent.

The lesson that is already emerging is that these different players are inter-dependent, and the pandemic has served as a reminder of this. Going forward this relationship will need to be nurtured especially as we deal with not just the impacts of coronavirus but as we also face many other recurring and protracted crises that continue to plague the continent.

Lesson two: We are only as strong as our weakest link

While we have been busy building highways with the support of the international investors, we seem to have forgotten and created ‘critical weak spots’ that could bring the giant house of cards down. In most of our urban areas, there is high population density in informal settlements where many of our youth in urban areas live. A principal part during the preparedness and preventing the spread of this disease has been about ensuring these vulnerable communities have access to safe water and material for hygiene practices such as handwashing.

According to the last Joint Monitoring Programme report on the progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, 61% of households in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have access to basic water services with less than half of this; 25%, having some basic hygiene facility for handwashing. Urban areas are supposed to have better coverage for water; indicated at 85% but what this information doesn’t show is that, only 5% of this service is available to those living in the informal settlements and slums, often in the outskirts of these urban areas. Those living in informal settlements often spend more money to get a litre of safe water than their ‘richer’ neighbours.

‘Physical distancing’ is a laugh in the face of those living in cramped spaces with poor living conditions. The good news is that individuals, private sector, non-governmental organisations and governments have made targeting these areas a critical part of the coronavirus response focusing on the provision of safe water and handwashing material. In addition to the challenge posed by living conditions, many of those living in these households work in the informal sector. Their income generation capacity is limited by the restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the disease. People living in the informal settlements are providing very important services for our households (guards, house helps, nannies, etc.). To a large extent, we are connected and dependent on people living in informal settlements. This means that we are looking at a ticking ‘social & economic’ bomb centred in low-income areas.

As a strategic response, many governments in the region such as Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda have all set up emergency funds that will be rolled out to support households whose ability to engage in income generation has been impacted by the disease. In Rwanda, the president has directed that water and electricity be provided free of charge to all during this period.

The point is, we need to shift our focus to raising the most vulnerable populations to a higher level, focus on areas where those that drive the economy are living; and target access to basic services to them, that are critical not just to reducing the spread of diseases but also to ensure that they live with dignity. This means investing in infrastructure that targets low income earners-affordable housing with water, sanitation, electricity and other services. While there have been efforts made to target the poor, it is clearly not enough. Besides our efforts focusing on replicating solutions, we need to be identifying new products, services that address the unique needs that women, youth and children living in these areas have.

Lesson three: We do not stop with coronavirus

Governments in the Horn, East and Central Africa (HECA) region need to look at the in-country systems that have been set up as part of this response and consider scaling them up for providing support to marginalised and vulnerable populations especially women and youth. This includes the social protection and safety net programmes, targeting and dispersal mechanisms, crisis management systems, economic stimulus strategies and emergency mobilisation mechanisms. The role of the regional economic institutions in promoting collaboration between governments on mechanisms that promote better preparedness and response to future crisis; local or regional is critical. In as much as the focus of the different actors in the response is on getting back to normal, it will be important that we utilise the approaches and platforms from this response. Especially, for reaching and supporting the most vulnerable for scale up beyond coronavirus and adoption in various crises that we as a region deal with on a regular basis, whether it is droughts, floods, or locusts, among others.

In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit numerous donors and aid organisations signed onto the Grand Bargain committing to support the capacity of local and national organisations to facilitate effective and efficient aid interventions. This includes partners involved in financing and the delivery/implementation of development and humanitarian interventions on the continent as a result of recurring and protracted crises. Work focused on achieving the commitments in the Grand Bargain is even more critical going forward, and agencies will need to be committed, now more than ever.

The power of the private sector in contributing with speed and adaptability to the challenges that have emerged from this outbreak is a role they should continue to play in the future. They can help strengthen the systems required to make accessible basic goods and services to the most vulnerable whilst creating sustainable livelihoods for their workforce. The private sector is not separate from the ecosystem. This crisis has highlighted their role in working together with other actors, the government and development agencies to build solutions that last.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Oxfam.