Five months have passed since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). Although Africa is the least affected so far, the number of confirmed cases and deaths in the continent is quickly rising—with 1.6 million confirmed cases and more than 39,000 deaths at the time of writing. Several African countries are bracing for what could become a full-blown health emergency, while at the same time strategizing on how to contain COVID-19’s devastating economic impact; ramifications of which affect far more people than the coronavirus itself.
Despite the challenges many African countries continue to face, the response to COVID-19 has been replete with admirable displays of agency, innovation, and ingenuity, demonstrating clearly that they are not waiting to be saved from the coronavirus. African agency is often dismissed in international relations and international development, yet the early preventive measures of several African countries are hard to overlook. By early March, many nations had already closed their borders, activated new or pre-existing health infrastructures and repurposed existing capacities (human and industrial resources) even though caseloads remained very low. Many in the continent observed the evolution of the outbreak in China, Europe, and the US, and recognized they would need more than an economic plan to respond effectively to the pandemic.
With only a few countries boasting capability to test citizens, procure, and transport supplies at scale, African countries turned to the convening power of the African Union (AU) and the African Center for Disease Control (Africa CDC) to address their shared vulnerabilities. By coming together, African countries worked to overcome their shared challenges—some related to the global market for medical supplies. They set up a joint procurement platform to help African countries bypass the highly competitive global market for personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical equipment, a system which continues to be characterized by price gouging and government protectionism. By resorting to collective and coordinated action against COVID-19, the continent’s response demonstrates the true power of solidarity; not just as a conceptual ideal underlying multilateralism, but a key element of effectiveness when responding to a pandemic or other public crises.
The response to COVID-19 in Africa goes beyond the remit of the state, however. African researchers, civil society, and individual citizens have galvanized their knowledge, finances, social capital, and ingenuity to address their needs. Citizens in Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria self-organized to establish food drives and food banks to help support those disproportionately affected by the economic depression. On social media, examples of African innovation and ingenuity proliferate, from touch-free handwashing tools, home-made ventilators prototyped in Somalia, the manufacture of testing kits under a dollar in Senegal, using drones to drop off testing kits in hard-to-reach places in Ghana, and repurposing production lines to manufacture PPE in Morocco, Ethiopia, and Kenya.
These positive developments have to be contrasted with the popular skepticism in many countries of the existence of coronavirus in Africa and its threats to Africans. This skepticism, combined with public negligence and the difficulty of maintaining social distancing continue to contribute to the growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the continent. Nonetheless, the various innovations and acts of ingenuity from across the continent prove that local solutions for local problems are more effective than “copy and paste” imports. They also demonstrate that African solutions can sometimes respond to global problems.
The fight against coronavirus for most African countries focuses not just on devising national strategies for prevention, but also continental and global responses. Continental representatives are collectively weighing in on the global response to COVID-19, and negotiating with major global players to secure their interests—most notably vis-a-vis COVID-19 vaccine development and access to global capital to manage the economic impact of the pandemic.
African representatives at the United Nations have joined like-minded blocks, such as the European Union, to advocate for the framing of any future vaccine as a universally affordable and accessible product for the global public good. Efforts are underway, in collaboration with global scientific communities, to ensure that clinical trials are conducted on the continent to ensure their effectiveness in African communities.
The pandemic is projected to have a devastating impact on African economies. Currently, economists estimate that the continent will need between USD100 billion to 150 billion to finance its economic recovery. With this looming financial burden, debt relief and access to capital are essential to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic in Africa. The AU has been at the forefront of the global debates about economic recovery, insisting to global creditors and financial regulators that the global economy, as well as local African economies, cannot be rescued without a focus on these critical issues. Through its four special envoys, the AU has been negotiating debt relief and access to capital for African economies struggling to service their debt while simultaneously repurposing their budgets to respond to the costs of the pandemic.
The picture at the national level is rather mixed. Governments are trying to balance responding to the health challenges of the pandemic while simultaneously minimizing its economic impact. At the same time, the pandemic has also laid bare pre-existing governance problems such as corruption, gender based violence, state-sanctioned violence against citizens, diminishing civic and political space, and extension of party/presidential terms.
The picture of how successfully Africa has combated COVID-19 to date may be up for discussion, but the innovation and ingenuity demonstrated in the continent’s response to the pandemic deserves to be reflected in writing on the global response.