What to do when “social distancing” and “better personal hygiene” is a privilege?
On the 14th of February 2020 it was confirmed that the first case of the novel coronavirus had reached Africa. Fast-forward a couple of weeks and almost all 54 countries in Africa now have reported cases of the virus.
Health crisis: Stopping the spread of the virus in Africa
From a health care standpoint the news regarding the arrival of the virus in Africa is a nightmare. Undoubtedly, each country will have its own specific challenges but on a whole it will be a very tuff fight. At first glance it would appear as though Africa is relatively well positioned to suppress the novel virus. After all African countries have;
- relatively young populations and thus a relatively smaller vulnerable group,
- won the fight to prevent the ebolavirus from spreading across the continent,
- relatively low coronavirus infection rates.
However, upon closer inspection one realizes that these advantages do not weigh up to the many challenges that Africa will face in its fight against the coronavirus.
First, take the argument regarding Africa’s youthful population. While Africa does have a youthful population, difference in cultural norms in Africa could mean that relatively more elderly people are infected. An example of such a factor is the fact that in Africa there is a higher chance that multiple generations live in one home.
Secondly, even though countries managed to stop the ebolavirus from spreading, this virus is fundamentally different. The ebolavirus had a different way of transmission, namely physical contact whereas the coronavirus is airborne. This makes the novel coronavirus significantly more contagious.
Thirdly, the low infection rate could be a reflection of weaker testing capabilities on the continent. Bulstering up its testing capabilties is proving difficult in the face of and enormous rise in gobal demand for these tests.
Given the context outlined above, combatting the coronavirus in Africa will be especially difficult. The standard advice ‘to practice social distancing and better personal hygiene’ may well be almost impossible to implement on certain location within countries. For example, several rural villages and urban slums do not have access to readily available sanitary facilities. Other obstacles include weak health care systems and crowded living conditions.
Economic crisis: Surviving the lockdowns in Africa
All of the issues mentioned earlier call into question the efficiency and effectiveness of the recently enacted nation-wide lockdowns across Africa. But even if the lockdowns prove to be effective they risk dragging the continent into an unprecedented economic crisis. This because the coronavirus has now led to a unique supply and demand shock the likes of which have not seen since the global oil crisis of the 1970’s.
On the demand side, African economies received two demand shocks from the virus. The first one was a decrease in export demand for African commodities to China, which among other things, led to weaker national currencies, capital flight and un-employment. The second shock was a decrease in consumer spending due to recently imposed curfews and obligatory closures of certain sectors of the economy, as governments try to persuade consumers to stay home.
On the supply side, the virus caused supply chain disruptions. At least in the short-run, this is resulting in asymmetric input and output shortages. Case and point is the effect of a fish import ban that was issued by Kenya regarding Chinese fish. Following the ban, the local price of fish in Kenya increased prompting a price decrease on the domestic Chinese fish market.
Several countries (including African states) are opting for ‘fiscal stimulus’ to help their economies survive dual-shock cause by the outbreak. However, trying to stimulate an economy during a lock-down is at best inefficient and at worst ineffective.
Without relaxing lock-down restriction no amount of stimulus will enable people to go out shopping and eating in restaurants if these are barred from opening. Also, without relaxing lockdown restrictions no amount of stimulus will make goods magically reappear if there are no production inputs (e.g. Labor).
Policy makers would do better to provide economic support that is less akin to a stimulus package and more akin to a disaster relief program.
The coronavirus poses specifically grave challenges to the African continent. Standard health and economic policy prescriptions could prove to be inefficient, ineffective and impractical in combating the virus. Thus, in addition to a health crisis the virus also risks turning into an economic crisis. Policy makers should be quick to recognize that they will need to reach outside of their normal toolkit.
Elward Valstein has experience as policy researcher for among others the Dutch Government, local and international NGO’s. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his clients.