Africa locks down but lacks the keys to respond to the rapid spread of coronavirus

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Africa locks down but lacks the keys to respond to the rapid spread of coronavirus

Linda Nordling

24 Mar 2020

4min min read
  • Public health

Africa is stepping up its efforts to deal with the novel coronavirus pandemic, but resourcing this response will be a mammoth task.


n 23 March, South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country would ‘lock down’ to try to curb the rapid spread of the new coronavirus that is sweeping the world. Only essential services like food shops, pharmacies, and banks would remain open for a 21-day period starting at midnight on Thursday night. 

Ramaphosa also announced a raft of economic mechanisms in an attempt to alleviate the blow the coronavirus outbreak has already dealt the nation, and to try to help businesses stay afloat. These measures ranged from a temporary relief scheme for businesses struggling to pay their employees, to tax reliefs for small and medium-sized companies. 

The government’s actions will have “lasting economic costs,” Ramaphosa warned, but said that the price of inaction would be higher. “We will prioritise the lives and livelihoods of our people above all else, and will use all of the measures that are within our power to protect them from the economic consequences of this pandemic.”

South Africa moves quickly 

South Africa has been quicker to move to lock down than many Western countries, with implementation occurring exactly three weeks after its first case was reported on 5 March. As this article went to press, two days before the lockdown, the country’s official number of confirmed cases of Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, was 554. 

In contrast, China’s Hubei province, where the virus emerged, was locked down on 23 January after 17 people were confirmed to have died from the virus and nearly seven weeks after the Chinese government officially announced its first case to global health authorities, such as the World Health Organisation. So far South Africa has no registered deaths and 12 cases have reportedly recovered. 

Similar, Italy began its national lock down on 9 March after 463 people had died and with 9,000 confirmed infections after regional quarantines failed to contain the spread. Italy’s first case was reported on 31 January. Many countries with higher infection and death rates than South Africa, including the US and Sweden, have also failed to impose strict lock downs in communities.

"So far South Africa has no registered deaths and 12 cases have recovered. "

Other African countries have responded even more swiftly than South Africa. Many closed their borders last week as the continent’s case tally began to climb. Some, like Uganda (currently nine cases), banned travelers from high-risk countries like Italy and China before even diagnosing a single case. 

As this article went to press, Africa had recorded over 2,000 Covid-19 cases and 58 deaths spread across 43 countries—however those numbers are changing quickly.

How equipped is Africa to combat the virus?

The continent’s public health needs are enormous, as evidenced by the World Health Organisation’s recently released detailed information on the readiness of various African countries to tackle the pandemic. 

A quick review demonstrates that the continent is devastatingly short of intensive care equipment to treat the very sick. South Sudan has no ICU capacity, for example, while Zimbabwe only has such facilities in referral hospitals and not infectious disease hospitals. Sierra Leone has “essentially no ICU ventilation facilities”. Ventilators, which help patients breathe, is a key tool for keeping those very ill with Covid-19 alive.

Resourcing any response will be a mammoth task, not least because many African countries were in precarious situations even before the outbreak hit. Former International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn wrote in The Africa Report this week that a combination of climate vulnerability and tight finances will limit Africa’s ability to respond to Covid-19. The continent needs help, he wrote, including a massive debt write-off to free up resources.

"South Sudan has no ICU capacity and Sierra Leone no ICU ventilation facilities."

Others think so too. African finance ministers meeting virtually on 19 March agreed the continent needs an emergency stimulus package of US$100 billion. They suggested that Africa’s creditors waive interest payments on loans this year of US$44 billion,  including interest on public debt and sovereign bonds.

But even such vast sums might be an underestimate. While 23 countries in Africa reported to WHO that funds can readily be allocated for Covid-19 emergency preparedness and response, another 25 countries say this will be difficult. In Malawi such funding needs to be “resourced from different stakeholders”, and even in Nigeria funds “are not readily allocated for this”.

There might only be limited help from abroad, since most countries around the world are scrambling to fight Covid-19 on their home fronts. Still, a number of philanthropists have come to Africa’s help. Jack Ma, founder of the AliBaba group, announced on 16 March that his foundation would donate 20,000 testing kits, 100,000 masks, and 1,000 medical protective suits to each of Africa’s 54 countries. On 17 March, the charity of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a US$40 million programme to tackle Covid-19 in low- and middle-income countries, with a “strong focus” on Africa. And last week Liverpool soccer forward Sadio Mane announced he would donate around US$50,000 to fight Covid-19 in his home country Senegal.

Any support is welcome. In South Africa, Rampahosa has announced the creation of a “solidarity fund” into which South African and foreign business and individuals can funnel their support. The government will seed this fund with R150 million (US$8.5m). Two wealthy South African families have also pledged R1 billion each (US$57m) to assist small businesses and their employees.

Still, a key challenge moving forward is how to ensure that the resources raised through all these efforts—from unemployment benefits to medical face masks—reach the people who need them the most. The most vulnerable are often the hardest to reach. 

Late last week Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention director John Nkengasong told The Africa Report, for example, that the collapse in intra-Africa air traffic was “absolutely” hindering the continent’s Covid-19 response. Ma’s shipment, he said, was due to arrive in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. Moving it on was going to be a struggle, he said. “Any delays in delivering any of these supplies and diagnostics will be catastrophic.”

(Main image: A staff member at the Parirenyatwa Hospital screens and gives hand sanitiser and hand wash to visitors entering the hospital as the country tries to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Harare on 23 March 2020 as the country registered its first COVID-19 coronavirus death - Jekesai Njikizana/AFP via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.