Moving forward, things cannot go on as usual in Africa and the world – Lessons from COVID-19


Compiled by Moreblessings Chidaushe (16 April 2020)

COVID-19 has become the greatest calamity of our time, at no point in our lifetime have we ever witnessed an event of this magnitude, speed, impact and disruption, one that literally grounds the whole world, like the WHOLE WIDE WORLD and leaves it speechless. We are all inundated and overwhelmed having to face and deal with such a great unknown especially without adequate resources and the luxury of time – responding is proving to be long and painful and so will recovery and moving on. Life as we know it will never be the same again and we have to live with the reality of a new world order and prepare ourselves accordingly to adjust.

The pandemic hit hardest amongst the poorest and exposed the harsh reality of rampant inequality in our societies. It has left the world and especially the African continent fully exposed of its long periods of weak planning, poor public systems and services, weak capacities,  poor response mechanisms, poor coordination, weak human rights frameworks, reactiveness rather than pro-activeness and poor governance – all of which have left the continent’s poor citizens more vulnerable and marginalised. National governments have proven their limited capacity to defend the masses from the pandemic. On the 6th of April, the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa made the following sentiments, This global pandemic has exposed the fragility of inward-looking and insular political, economic and social systems. It is leading some to call for ‘a new moral economy’ that has people and their welfare at its centre. It has opened up space for critical action around social spending and equitable access to health care. It is challenging widely held preconceptions about the abilities of developing countries to respond to national emergencies.”

The African leadership has a real challenge of knowing and deciding how best to respond to COVID-19 especially in the context of widespread poverty, inequality, lack of service delivery and basic services, food insecurity, lack of water and basic sanitation, housing, high unemployment, social safety nets, severely limited capacity to respond.  Everything seems to be a challenge hugely undermining the efforts to respond accordingly. If some of these very basics were in place – some of the responses would have been much easier and this would have contributed to better coping and faster and easier handling of the COVID-19 responses. In the absence of these basics, the task seems insurmountable.

COVID 19-The world is changing

In recent weeks we have witnessed a lot of planning and re-planning, adjustments, trials and experiments, retractions from statements and actions, copying and pasting of responses despite varying contexts, uncoordinated piecemeal experimental responses, violations of human rights as excessive force is used– all an indication of the absence of a clear strategy and capacity required to respond appropriately. We were all caught unprepared and unawares by COVID-19– but should we have been? What lessons will Africa take from COVID-19 moving forward?

Disasters like tsunamis, hurricanes such as Katrina, earthquakes, droughts, cyclones, floods, HIV, Ebola and many others have occurred many times before and although at a much smaller scale than COVID-19 these should have prompted the world and especially Africa to learn lessons and better prepare for larger disasters.

 The SADC region is vulnerable to severe weather which has lately been further exacerbated by climate change, the region has been increasingly experiencing severe catastrophic droughts and floods, most recently Cyclone Idai which swept through Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi and caused large-scale devastation and loss of lives. In that instance, once again, the SADC region was caught unprepared and struggled to respond. But even with smaller scale recurring disasters it seems we tend to be unprepared as well. In Southern Africa, we have experienced floods before but when Cyclone Idai came, we were still caught unprepared and had to start afresh. The responses were largely inadequate, uncoordinated and politicised with severe consequences on human life. Former President George Bush back in 2005 made the following remarks, “Leaders at every level of government have a duty and responsibility to confront dangers before they appear and engage the people on the best course of action” as he warned of the urgent need to prepare for a pandemic flue well before it appeared else the consequences of unpreparedness would be catastrophic. one day many lives will be needlessly lost because we failed to prepare ourselves today,” he further warned in 2005 Clearly, no one took heed of the advice and we find ourselves here. It seems we are never prepared and have to start from scratch each time a disaster small or large occurs. As the African adage goes, you must not clean your house only when visitors come, your house must always be clean. The world should learn from this adage.

 Africa and indeed the world should never again wait for a pandemic to occur before preparing for it. Using the lessons from COVID-19, the time to prepare for the next pandemic is now, well before it occurs. COVID-19 is wiping away decades of progress at many levels for example the skills and capacities being lost through the deaths of hundreds of doctors and nurses across the world will take several more decades to rebuild, the global economies too, will take a long while to recover. How much more we will have lost by the end of the pandemic and how long the world will take to recover remains to be seen.

Enormous resources are required now to deal with the pandemic and much more will be required to deal with its aftermath and to prepare adequately for the next pandemic. The world and Africa must ensure to allocate the appropriate resources. In the rush to respond to COVID-19, we have seen most African leaders look up to the international community for assistance. Africa has once again been caught without its own resources to respond. In March the African Union announced “We have established an African Union COVID-19 Response Fund, to which AU Bureau members have already committed $12.5 million. Funding to the Africa CDC, which is driving the continental health response, will be increased, with an additional $4.5 million already committed”, (African Union April 2020). This is way inadequate for a comprehensive response across the continent. What is required is hundreds of millions if not billions for the continent to deal with COVID-19, money the continent does not have.

Pleas have gone out to individuals, foundations, celebrities and others for crowdfunding, private sector and other actors for resources to be mobilised. While there is nothing wrong with this, this should not be the first port of call, these should come in as complimentary to the government’s own resources. African governments do not need to beg for resources as a first call, if Africa could capture the nearly $100 billion that it loses annually through  Illicit financial flows, it would have a significant amount of its own domestically mobilised resources to deal with such challenges and to finance its own development. Africa too has enormous mineral resources – which if well governed – would go a long way in mobilising further resources for such purposes. These resources should be managed in a transparent and accountable manner for the benefit of all.

Reactionary measures are much more expensive and open up room for massive mismanagement, corruption and exploitation of the available resources and the citizens. It should not take an emergency or a disaster of any sort for our governments to take care of their people. Adequate social safety nets and basic service delivery should be readily accessible right to all citizens – rich or poor at all times – pandemic or no pandemic. it should be a norm – a way of life – as opposed to a privilege for a few.  In the absence of these basics, the poor are more exposed to the pandemic and the response becomes more complex to implement. In some densely populated townships in South Africa and Zimbabwe, lockdown has been near impossible to implement because the people do not have the basics such as clean water and sanitation, electricity, food, housing, lockdown conditions are unbearable hence compliance to lockdown has been very low. It is not because these people are  opposed to the lockdown and that they do not know and understand its importance or value their lives – it is because of the conditions they have to endure under lockdown hence they risk their lives and of those around them. Running battles with the police and the army are daily occurrences in these areas leading to violations of the rights of the people who are caught on the wrong side of the law defying the lockdown regulations. If the basics are well in place, the poor would be cushioned from the severe impacts of the disasters, they would be on the rights side of the law and it would be way easier and less costly for the governments to respond to the pandemic.

The call goes beyond the urgent need for comprehensive health system – health systems have been severely strained and found wanting – but the call for a holistic approach to human development where all human development indicators are taken into consideration as these are closely interlinked. For example, a good health system should be complimented by a good energy, transport education, communication and other systems to respond appropriately. The lack of an accessible communication system has added to the learning divide. Children from poor backgrounds and communities are suffering more as a result of COVID-19 induced school closures. During lockdown, it is the children of the rich who have been able to continue with their normal schooling through access to internet and various technologies while the poor children have to wait out COVID lockdowns to continue with their schooling further exposing the inequality divide. No-one knows for sure how long the COVID-19 related school closures will take but no doubt it will have long-term impacts on schooling for the poor pupils

Access to basics such as education, housing and health are constitutional rights which national governments must take measures to provide to all citizens. COVID-19 is showing that by failing to provide these rights, national governments are in-fact violating the constitutional rights of poor citizens.

As we move forward in the post COVID-19 era, we have many lessons that we have learnt from this experience that we must use to ensure that the world is never again caught unprepared for such. A lot can be done differently in future. It should not be unrealistic to expect that future catastrophes will be handled much better. There is need to document all the big and small lessons from COVID-19 and use them to make change in future. These are some of the lessons, in no particular order;

  • The time to prepare for the next pandemic is now – pro-active rather than reactive action is crucial
  • There is need Africa to mobilise its own domestic resources to respond to pandemics and to finance its own development – curbing illicit financial flows is a good point to start
  • There is need for timely, decisive, clear, coordinated and comprehensive responses by leadership
  • Collaboration is key between and amongst countries and the international community
  • Access to basic services should be a fundamental right and normal part of life for all not a privilege for a few
  • A holistic approach to human wellbeing and socio-economic development is key in order to cushion citizens from the harsh impacts of pandemics, inequality and other disasters
  • As they are the most impacted, the citizens must be actively involved when making key decisions to respond to disasters, emergencies and pandemics
  • Resources should be managed in a transparent and accountable manner – citizens can play an active role in tracking the use of the resources
  • All sectors of the economy and development are interlinked and crucial in responding to pandemics.

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