Darren Harvey M.A.
Researcher, Africa Program, Center for International Policy

Doctors in Somalia, Source: AU UN IST/ Tobin Jones

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a new warning that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is yet to come, especially for Africa, even as some of the world’s most well-resourced health systems strain under the weight of COVID-19. In Africa, factors such as high levels of poverty, under-resourced healthcare systems, overcrowded informal settlements and lack of access to clean water, threaten to exacerbate the consequences of the pandemic for many nations. So, what is Africa’s plan? The gravity of the coronavirus is not lost on the continent’s public health community and the speed with which many of its officials acted in employing preventative measures can be attributed to extensive past experiences with disease outbreaks.

From the start of this global crisis, African institutions have shown a readiness to implement collaborative measures to mitigate both the health consequences and the potential economic fallout from COVID-19. The government of Ethiopia in partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) launched the “Addis Ababa Humanitarian Air Hub” with the objective of transporting medical equipment, humanitarian workers, and personal protective equipment (PPE) across the African continent. Nations across the globe have expressed the urgent need for medical supplies but in Africa the need is especially acute with the WHO stating there are “fewer than 5,000 intensive care unit beds are available across 43 of the continent’s 54 countries.”

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “a specialized institution of the African Union,” plans to distribute 1 million COVID-19 test kits across the continent in the coming week as many countries still have limited access to testing. To reduce the projected economic fallout, the African Development Bank has launched a $10 billion COVID-19 response facility as well as provided a $2 million emergency assistance package to the WHO. The African Union drafted a guiding document (the “Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19 OUTBREAK”) to promote the coordination of efforts of member states and international agencies while reducing duplication.

Across the continent, public health experts, government officials, and civil society have demonstrated an ingenuity and solidarity that should be applauded around the world. Innovations in mobile apps have helped with effective public health campaigns. Instead of competing in the global market for scarce resources, countries have turned inward to their tertiary level institutions and private companies to manufacture PPE for domestic distribution. African countries were among some of the quickest to implement movement restrictions and border closures despite the slow progress of the coronavirus so far on the continent. Several countries targeted their most vulnerable populations with mitigation strategies like cash transfers and food deliveries. There has also been critical knowledge sharing between countries’ task forces, as experts utilize their collective experiences in the public health field and their cultural and contextual knowledge to develop tailored public health actions.

Africa’s plan should be to stay the course and bring innovative ideas to scale while sharing knowledge between countries and across regional communities. Keeping in mind the importance of context specific interventions, leaders need to prioritize the informal sector. Many of the current lockdowns have the potential to exacerbate poor health conditions for those with subsistence livelihoods but curfews and crowd controls are among the few effective approaches to reducing the spread of the virus. However, in the wake of several reports around the continent of security personnel killing people in the enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions, there needs to be greater oversight and accountability to ensure security forces are protecting citizen rights. Governments will also need to support civil society in efforts to secure vulnerable populations and utilize domestic expertise. Lastly, African institutions will need to continue to provide leadership for determining what strategies to employ when and where and for how international cooperation can most usefully be deployed.

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement

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