The world’s youngest continent has not been able to avoid the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Africa, where almost 60% of people are under the age of 25, the economy is expected to lose tens of billions of dollars. The risk of food insecurity has increased and the reliance on the informal sector has made many particularly vulnerable.

In the face of these challenges, however, young people have found new ways to survive and transform their lives and communities. In many cases, they have done so by harnessing the power of digital technologies. These innovations have both helped them respond to the current crisis and could shape the future for the better with the right support.

Here are three areas in which young people are utilising technologies in ways that could have positive repercussions going forwards.

1) Amplifying action and accurate information

Accurate information is essential to help counter the risks of COVID-19 and, in many places, the youth have proven crucial in this.

In South Africa, young people have mobilised through choirs to send prevention messages. In Liberia, youth started a prevention campaign and are sewing masks from African wax prints. Rural Uganda has seen young members of village health teams sharing vital health information through radio, TV and social media. And in Ghana, young health workers and volunteers are visiting high risk areas to spread health messages and, where possible, test residents.

It is essential to ensure young people are provided with new technologies that can help them build on existing networks and disseminate knowledge about issues such as public health.

Technology and digital platforms can also enhance other forms of young people’s mobilisations. They can allow youth-led networks, associations, religious groups and cooperatives to strengthen individual actions and act as catalysts for new forms of civic participation.

In an interview earlier this year, Dr Shakira Choonara, a member of the African Union Youth Council, said: “I don’t think Africa needs leaders, I think Africa needs activists”. Many youthful activists have mobilised during the pandemic. Their efforts must be supported and could be enhanced through investments in young people’s digital literacy and development.

2) Innovating businesses

Around the world, businesses have had to find ways to adapt to the current situation. For many companies, this has meant turning to delivery services and finding ways to operate remotely. In Uganda, for instance, several restaurants, supermarkets and online shops have been able to continue operating through delivery applications such as Jumia and SafeBoda. These apps are mainly accessed, used and operated by young people.

Digital platforms such as these are thriving in Africa and more than 80% of them are homegrown. This is a positive trend given that one in four young people say they are planning to start their own business in the next five years.

Across the continent, youth have also responded to the current crisis by starting new businesses. In Ghana, young people have been making reusable masks and designing automated, contact-free and solar powered hand washing facilities using local materials.

The recession that will be caused by the coronavirus, however, poses many risks for start-ups. Some governments have unveiled stimulus packages, which may help protect people’s livelihoods, but young people’s agency and business innovation also need to be nurtured. Ghana’s Coronavirus Alleviation Programme Business Support Scheme to micro, small and medium enterprises is an example of how this support could be provided.

3) Digital payments

Unbanked young people have traditionally struggled to access financial services that are often too costly, located too far away or simply ill-suited to their needs.

By contrast, mobile money accounts are booming. In 2019, there were nearly 500 million mobile-money users in sub-Saharan Africa. They collectively carried out 23.8 billion transactions last year worth a total of $456 billion. This figure is over triple the value of transactions recorded in South Asia, the second highest ranked region for mobile money services.

The pandemic has only accelerated this trend as people increasingly switch from cash to mobile payments. Mobile telecommunications networks such as MTN and Airtel in Uganda have facilitated this development by reducing transaction charges during the pandemic.

This presents an important opportunity. Our research has found that, with some financial management training, young people can significantly increase their savings and success in accessing business loans. Teaching financial literacy and entrepreneurship skills through digital tools can be crucial in helping youth plan their lives as well as start and manage businesses.

At the same time, governments will need to take seriously the increased risks of cybercrime and phone scams. Collaborative efforts will be needed to tackle these dangers, including by implementing effective online security measures and digital IDs to prevent fraud.

After COVID-19

Young people will be central to both tackling the coronavirus crisis now and rebuilding economies after the pandemic subsides. Technologies and digital platforms have the potential to help in the process, such as by reducing costs and facilitating access to new opportunities. For this to reach its full potential, however, investments will be necessary in areas such as infrastructure, digital skills, online security and social protection for gig workers.

As the importance of young people’s initiative and technology are highlighted during the COVID-19 crisis, this is the perfect moment of governments and international partners to prioritise the digitalisation of the economy, education and financial sectors.

Source: African Arguments 

Burundi’s main opposition candidate in this week’s elections, Agathon Rwasa, exudes confidence. His rallies are well attended despite violence meted out against his party members and the threat of COVID-19, which the country’s politicians have largely ignored.

In a letter to the electoral commission ahead of the 20 May vote, Rwasa points out serious irregularities with the voters roll and the distribution of voting cards. His consistent complaints about vote rigging and the unlevel playing field could indicate that he is preparing for an even bigger complaint about the credibility of the polls.

Research this year by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Burundi showed a tense atmosphere in the run-up to the vote, given political violence in the country for several years now. The fact that President Pierre Nkurunziza is stepping down after 15 years opens up the possibility of a win by Rwasa, a historic opposition figure. He spent years as a rebel leader and created the National Congress for Freedom (CNL) in 2019.

However for Rwasa to win, elections will have to be free and fair, which seems unlikely. Many of the ruling party’s political opponents have been kidnapped, harassed and tortured by security forces and the ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth wing. The ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) also controls the electoral commission and the Constitutional Court. These would have the final say in a legal challenge to election results.

All these factors, together with the CNDD-FDD’s determination to stay in power, make a Rwasa win highly unlikely. Nkurunziza is being replaced as candidate for the ruling party by former general and close aide Evariste Ndayishimiye.

The problem is that barring a few NGOs and brave journalists who are risking their lives to report independently on the elections, it will be difficult to know whether Rwasa – if he loses and cries foul – is telling the truth.

Burundi refuses to allow international observers to witness the elections, including those from the African Union (AU), which is unusual for an AU member state. The government has been at loggerheads with the AU since the political turmoil leading up to and following the re-election of Nkurunziza in 2015.

Burundi is a member of the AU Peace and Security Council and it’s difficult to see how the institution charged with ensuring peace in Africa can play a meaningful role in any post-election crisis in Burundi.

The only group that was initially allowed to observe the polls is the East African Community, which planned to send a small group of 20 observers. However Burundi announced they would have to be quarantined for 14 days after arrival due to COVID-19. So they would effectively have to spend voting day behind closed doors. As a result, the electoral commission announced there would be no outside observers.

This is ironic given that the government has paid scant attention to the measures recommended by the World Health Organization and the AU’s Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Closing Bujumbura’s national airport is seen more as a measure to stop observers coming in than to protect citizens from COVID-19.

According to an ISS Burundi consultant, who cannot be named for safety reasons, there is a good chance the elections will lead to another prolonged political crisis if the ruling party wins by a narrow margin and Rwasa then cries foul. Some are pinning their hopes on a possible opposition coalition in a second round of presidential elections, with opposition figures such as former president Domitien Ndayizeye rallying behind Rwasa.

The ISS expert however believes the chances of a second round between Rwasa and Ndayishimiye is unlikely. Instead, the CNDD-FDD is expected to walk away with a victory ‘regardless of what really happens when people cast their ballots.’ He believes Rwasa could very well refuse to acknowledge the winner and make life difficult for Ndayishimiye.

‘Given the fact that the CNL is buoyed by its popularity, the risk of an electoral crisis is high. If this is coupled with an outbreak of COVID-19, the country risks a health crisis over the medium term and an economic recession over the longer term,’ he says.

Burundi is already suffering severe economic decline due to the crisis that started with Nkurunziza’s third term bid. Close to 350 000 refugees are living outside the country, mostly in Tanzania. According to ISS research, hundreds of people have been killed, abducted and tortured since 2015. Thousands have been kept as political prisoners.

If Ndayishimiye becomes president, will he be able to appease the tensions and steer Burundi in a new direction? Will he be able to mend fences in a neighbourhood characterised by political crisis and animosity?

Some believe that although the ruling party candidate is saying publicly he will follow in Nkurunziza’s footsteps, he might bring about change since he has apparently said privately that he would favour more ‘openness’. This, however, remains to be seen. Ndayishimiye has for years been party to a military system that has unleashed repression on anyone who dares criticise the ruling party.

Ndayishimiye has also spoken about opening up the economy to attract investment – not dissimilar to the promises made by Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa when he took power at the end of 2017. This is unlikely to happen though unless such a strategy has the buy-in of Burundi’s military top brass, according to the ISS.

Stakes are high in these elections, taking place in the time of COVID-19, and amid a serious risk of escalating political violence. What Burundi urgently needs is a new beginning. For now, however, it seems Burundians will have to wait a while longer before they see any real peace and political stability.

Source: Institute for Security Studies 

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), launched in 2018, was supposed to be an exciting example of multilateral cooperation against a growing tide of nationalism and protectionist policies. Africa was meant to buck the trend of retreating globalism and integration by creating the largest free trade zone in the world.

However the 1 July start of free trade has been pushed out to at least 2021 as countries battle the effects of COVID-19. With the onset of the pandemic, policymakers were faced with a dilemma: push ahead or postpone? Both options have merits and pitfalls, creating a dilemma for policymakers.

Forging ahead would have been first prize for numerous reasons. First it would have offered a tailwind for African enterprises experiencing an unprecedented collapse in demand and significant cashflow crunches. Free trade – or trade with reduced government taxes – would have gradually reduced the cost of imported goods and services, allowing companies to pass savings on to consumers and provide demand relief.

Second, the symbolism of disjointed African economies coming together against extreme odds to show developed markets the importance of regional and global integration would have been powerful.

Despite these aspirational benefits, however, the practical limitations of ‘business as usual’ are obvious. Most African countries have been forced to close borders and lock down citizens to stem the spread of the virus. This poses not only unforeseen logistical hurdles, but a collapse in demand would present a less than auspicious start to the landmark deal. There would also have been capacity constraints, given the need for complete dedication of resources to crisis management.

The COVID-19 fight requires all hands on deck. Much of the financial and human capital resources dedicated to finalising AfCFTA will need to be diverted to budgetary adjustments and social support programmes. Policymakers have therefore been pragmatic.

An African Union (AU) summit scheduled for May to finalise trade tariffs has been postponed to 5 December, pushing out the AfCFTA commencement date. The delay is understandable but must be accompanied by a commitment to restart the process as soon as conditions permit. This is not just to protect the deal’s credibility, but to preserve the momentum and accountability of all signatories, and prevent nations from using COVID-19 as a reason to renege.

Most importantly, with free trade, governments will have to forego the revenue that would have been gained through the imposition of import taxes (customs and excise). Postponing the launch allows states to continue levying tariffs and retain desperately needed revenue to fund higher debt service costs, as well as healthcare and social support spend.

However this preserves a cost burden many businesses simply can’t carry in the current environment, threatening their sustainability. African business leaders are still pushing for AfCFTA to start in the second half of 2020.

The postponement, while for pragmatic reasons, may have a temporary positive fiscal impact. By delaying, policymakers can retain trade revenue in the short term. But this is at the expense of immediate business stimulus (lower trade costs) that would provide higher and more sustainable revenue over the longer term.

Ordinarily, government revenue lost through exempting imported goods and services from taxation is ultimately recovered through higher consumption volumes. In 2019, the United Nations estimated that Africa’s free trade agreement would have boosted volumes by up to 50% over the next 20 years. Import tax revenue losses would probably be more than made up by higher consumption and corporate tax growth. But COVID-19 renders these projections obsolete.

The situation is therefore generating anxiety. The implications for government tax revenue over the longer term are dire. Once the COVID-19 health crisis subsides, the ensuing economic crisis may well cause states to re-evaluate whether they can afford the tax impact of free trade.

Debt burdens are growing, tax revenues are falling, and fiscal deficits are exploding. Governments must take a long view of the benefits of continental free trade, for individuals and businesses and for the fiscus.

AfCFTA’s strength lies in its political buy-in and in having managed to get all countries on board. A withdrawal of one country may mean others follow. Concerns over food security, protectionism, visa regimes and a rise in xenophobia are all surfacing worldwide – these impulses must be checked in Africa.

Tit-for-tat reprisals would easily unravel the trade negotiations, concessions and goodwill built up over a decade of getting AfCFTA over the line. This will require political maturity and bold leadership.

Aborting the continental trade pact altogether becomes a risk with postponement. According to the Trade Law Centre, the average percentage scores currently for AU member states regarding their level of commitment towards AfCFTA is 44.48% and implementation readiness is 49.15%.

Africa as a whole is therefore less than 50% committed and less than 50% prepared for AfCFTA implementation. These scores could decline as nationalistic impulses continue to grow and policymakers focus on ‘firefighting’ COVID-19.

Reneging on the agreement would undo the substantial diplomatic progress Africa has made at a time when cooperation is needed more than ever to overcome a global crisis. Such a move would further entrench the continent’s sub-par economic performance and unrealised potential.

The global trade landscape is likely to change dramatically as countries process and mitigate the risks of an overreliance on Chinese production and imports. The crisis could be just the incentive Africa needs to accelerate continental manufacturing, e-commerce, digitisation and food security. All would be a boon for regional economic growth. Only through the AfCFTA can these ambitions be collectively realised.

Political alliances and cooperation worldwide are already fraying, and COVID-19 has accelerated the trend toward isolationist policies. It has also forced developed markets to focus almost exclusively on their own economies at the expense of financial aid and concessions to other countries. And Africa is unlikely to feature on the global agenda to the extent it has in the past should collaboration wane.

To lose free trade momentum now would be an immense setback. For its long-term prosperity, Africa must collectively reject anti-globalisation and demonstrate the merits of regional cooperation and connectedness. As global political and trade relations regress, Africa could be the unlikely model of cooperation, pushing back against nationalism, and positioning the continent to reap the benefits of a recovery.

Source: Institute for Security Studies 

Around 90% of Africa’s trade is seaborne. The World Trade Organization has predicted a decline in consumer spending due to COVID-19 that will decrease international trade by up to 30%. This will have far-reaching effects on export-dependent African economies. However in the wake of COVID-19, ports will become the core of Africa’s economic recovery and growth.

Improving the efficiency and capacity of African ports is a major policy goal for the African Union and the Regional Economic Communities, as well as organisations such as the Port Management Association of Eastern and Southern Africa. In the past, African ports have had to contend with delays and backlogs due to low levels of automation.

Even before the global COVID-19 crisis, ports authorities worldwide were under pressure to increase efficiencies, reduce environmental impacts and enhance their facilities’ security. But the pandemic has now made the effective functioning of ports a matter of national security.

With rapid and more accessible technological advances and innovation has come the development of smart ports. A smart port is one that uses automation and new technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, internet of things and blockchain to improve its performance.

The aim is to boost a port’s safety and security, optimise management and allow for better planning. Automation is critical for enhancing the competitiveness and efficiency of a port, with programmed equipment handling day-to-day operations. Examples include cranes, self-driving trucks and pallet sensors.

Big data enables new planning guides and facilitates port logistics through the collection and correlation of information on ship positions as they arrive at or leave the port. Through the internet of things, ports are transformed into maritime information-network hubs. Relevant data about vehicles, ships and cargo movement is collected and used in real time to coordinate with shipping and logistics partners.

Ultimately this will lead to near-complete automation of processes, connected through the internet of things, optimising the costs and time for many operational activities. For example the Port of Rotterdam launched its own internet of things platform to allow port officials to identify the best timing and location for a ship to dock, greatly improving operational efficiency.

South Africa has some of sub-Saharan Africa’s busiest ports. It embarked on a project to modernise its port infrastructure to increase its competitive edge under the smart port concept. The Transnet National Ports Authority chose Durban as a pilot for the new project.

There have been some notable advances, such as the establishment of an e-commerce platform, and a database that connects the port systems, surveillance cameras, sensors and tracking tools. Drones are also being used for navigation of ships, monitoring and data gathering.

However, with new innovations come new risks. As ports worldwide pursue competitiveness and efficiency, a smart port poses cybersecurity challenges. Numerous high-profile incidents and cyberattacks in recent years show the vulnerability that higher reliance on technology brings. And such attacks can occur at any point along the supply chain.

The most notable incident occurred in 2017. Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping line, came under a cyberattack by a NotPetya virus, causing massive disruptions to the international supply lines and US$300 million in damages. As a result, the fully automated Rotterdam port terminal shut down for over a week. Other cyberattacks include the targeting of port servers and systems at the Port of Barcelona, and a series of ransomware attacks on the port of San Diego and Long Beach.

Criminals may also try to exploit a port’s critical data to steal high-value cargo or allow illegal trafficking through a targeted attack. In 2013, at one of Antwerp’s port terminals in Belgium, a drug cartel took control of containers’ movement and retrieved data on those containing drugs.

A 2019 report by the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity highlighted the problems ports face in implementing cybersecurity measures. These include a lack of digital culture in the port ecosystem, little awareness and training regarding cybersecurity, difficulty staying current with the latest threats and new risks of digital transformation.

South Africa is at the forefront of this trend and handles the highest amount of cargo in sub-Saharan Africa. But it ranks only 56 out of 175 on the 2018 Global Cybersecurity Index which assesses countries on the level of their cybersecurity commitment. Other African countries with busy ports such as Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria rank 23rd, 44th and 57threspectively.

On the National Cyber Security Index which measures the preparedness of countries to prevent cyber threats and manage cyber incidents, South Africa ranked 99 out of 160 in 2019. Nigeria ranked 45th with Egypt and Kenya 77th and 76th respectively.

South Africa, Egypt and Kenya’s lack of readiness for a cyberattack on its ports is worrying. An attack similar to the Maersk incident on any of these ports would incur huge damages to their national economies.

To prevent and prepare for cyberattacks on African ports, appropriate measures are needed. These include the continuous identification and management of risks and threats related to the port ecosystem. Governments also need to establish practices and processes for information technology and operational technology management.

Mandatory cybersecurity training for system administrators, project managers, developers, security officers, harbour masters and other key personnel must be provided. Measures are also needed to protect all systems – including desktops and servers – from malware or viruses.

Whatever the risks, smart ports are here to stay, and their relevance has increased with the COVID-19 crisis. Ways need to be found to minimise risk and maximise gains. With South Africa at the forefront of this development, the country has an opportunity to set the standard for Africa in responding to these new emerging threats.

Source: Institute for Security Studies 

 

Since Zimbabwe started lockdown measures on 30 March, farmers have been struggling to sell their produce. With restaurants closed and people staying away from markets, tonnes of tomatoes, avocados and other fruit and veg have been rotting in piles across the country. Since COVID-19, many farmers have recorded losses of thousands of dollars.

Some, however, have adopted new strategies to sell their produce. In the past few weeks, marketing posters have increasingly been popping up across social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp advertising direct home deliveries. From about $5 to $20, depending on the combination and number of vegetables, Zimbabweans trying to avoid infection from coronavirus can get farmers to bring food straight to their door.

Desire Jongwe, a farmer in eastern Zimbabwe, adopted this strategy after his usual ways of selling his produce became untenable. He had been preparing a batch of chickens for sale when the lockdown was announced.

“I asked myself ‘where can I get the market?’”, he says. “I had already discussed with restaurant owners and they had said they would take my chickens…I devised a plan on how I can sell my chicken online using social media.”

He created an ad and started sharing it. He followed this up with more posts, advertising basic vegetable packages for $5, $7 or $10 and allowing customers to choose a combination of leaf vegetables, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, squashes and peppers.

Soon, people began responding. Many were in the diaspora and wanted to buy food for their family members in Zimbabwe. They transferred money to Jongwe who delivered packages to their relatives. He says he is now making 10 to 15 deliveries three days a week. In the long run, Jongwe believes his income from this way of doing things will compare to his earnings before the lockdown.

“For me, the cost of production is lower than the prices of vegetables…The market value of vegetables is high and it’s lucrative,” he says.

Tichaona Saungweme, who lives close to the city of Mutare, is more cautious. He also turned to marketing his goods online after the lockdown was imposed.

“People are afraid of contracting coronavirus,” he says. “The only thing we can do as farmers is to reach the customers in the comfort of their homes through social media.”

This approach has enabled Saungweme to continue selling some of his goods, but he says it is not always straightforward and points out that many people are not online.

“It’s working but it still has some teething problems,” he says. “The social media market is still small.”

Charles Dhewa is the CEO of Knowledge Transfer Africa whose flagship initiative eMKambo helps spread agricultural information through mobile and internet networks. He says that online adverts are becoming an increasingly important part of Zimbabwe’s food supply chain model. This trend has been supercharged by the lockdown.

“Virtual marketing is being embraced significantly,” he says. “Basically if one needs any commodity, there may be no need to visit Mbare [a market in Harare] because we can directly link him or her with diverse sellers and deals are sealed.”

Dhewa points out, however, that not all farmers in Zimbabwe can utilise this approach. A large proportion, he says, have suffered greatly from the lockdown. This includes many who sell fresh produce, those who live in peri-urban and rural areas, and chicken and egg and dairy farmers.

“Those into pork production have also suffered from low uptake by butcheries and gochi-gochi[barbecue] places which have been locked down,” he adds.

The livelihoods of huge swathes of the population in Zimbabwe, including many farmers and poor people, have been devastated by the coronavirus lockdown. But for those with the right resources, online marketing and home deliveries have offered a rare lifeline. According to Mutare’s mayor Blessing Tandi, this innovation along with decentralising wholesale vegetable markets have been crucial in helping contain the spread of COVID-19 in the city.

“It’s ideal in implementing social distancing,” he says. “This will mean our people in [the high density suburbs of] Chikanga or Dangamvura will not travel to Sakubva [Market] for vegetables.”

Source: African Arguments 

As cases of the coronavirus increased in Wuhan this January, China took the then drastic step of imposing a lockdown. In a country where over 23% of the population is over 55, the government introduced severe restrictions to mitigate the spread of the disease and avoid overwhelming the health system. As the disease spread to other parts of the world, the likes of Japan, Europe and the US – all of which have even older populations than China’s – employed the same strategy.

Many governments in Africa have also imposed lockdowns to deal with the pandemic. Yet these countries have radically different age demographics to those in Asia and Europe. Take two extremes. In Japan, 40% of people are over 55, and 28% are over 65. In Uganda, the equivalent figures are 5% and 2%. In Japan, 13% of the population is made of up children under 14. In Uganda, this figure is 48%.

These different age demographics are very important. Mortality rates for coronavirus start to increase for people aged 55 and higher. Meanwhile, young people are statistically highly unlikely to suffer severe symptoms. This means that in countries with a lower proportion of old people, the relative benefits of lockdown are more limited and are more likely to be outweighed by the downsides.

africa lockdowns Uganda vs Japan age demographics

africa lockdowns Italy vs Congo-Kinshsa age demographics

africa lockdowns UK vs Sierra Leone age demographics
Selected Country Age Profiles. Data from CIA World Factbook. Graphics used with kind permission from indexmundi.

In many countries in Africa, these downsides are particularly significant. Poor countries are much less able to cushion the potentially devastating economic impacts produced by lockdowns. This is if they are feasible in the first place. Effective lockdowns are near impossible in crowded low-income settlements that lack taps and sewers.

Part of the lockdown strategy is also to “protect the health system” by “flattening the curve” and reserving resources for coronavirus cases. This approach not only has more marginal benefits when populations are young and there is a less of a system to protect, but it also diverts attention from addressing health that are dangerous to much of the population, such as malaria, measles and complications in childbirth.

It might be argued that poorer countries with less effective health systems will have a higher burden of underlying health conditions, thus increasing vulnerability to COVID-19. However, the pre-existing health problems most closely related to getting severe symptoms from coronavirus tend to be associated with age. Current evidence from Spain, for example, suggests that people living with HIV are not at increased risk of acquiring COVID-19 or developing severe symptoms. In fact, the opposite may be the case.

This is not to say that there are not susceptible groups in Africa. Though they make up less of overall populations, there are still many older people in African countries. Meanwhile, there may be significant numbers of people who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to more widespread diseases of poverty such as TB, though this is not certain.

Nonetheless, the best policies for countries with young populations may not be lockdowns. There may be better ways to save lives such as physically shielding and supporting the most vulnerable while allowing the wider population to gain immunity, whether through a vaccine when it arrives or by virtue of enough people catching and recovering from the virus itself.

Shielding the vulnerable could involve a mix of physical isolation, restrictions on their movement, and focused care, eventually by those who have recovered from the virus. These measures will work best when based on local innovations appropriate to particular social contexts and designed with input from those involved. These could build on practices of respect for the elderly and community organising in many African settings.

Countries – and even regions within them – vary enormously in terms of age profiles, health systems, living conditions, economic resilience, and much more. In some places, including in Africa, lockdowns may be the best policy on balance. In other areas, including even in the likes of Europe and America, there may be more appropriate alternatives to lockdown. It is unlikely, however, that a one-size-fits-all approach serves everyone’s interests equally.

Today, some version of the lockdown has become most countries’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In years to come, we may look back on this moment as one in which an ideological practice emanating from older and wealthier countries was misguidedly “copy and pasted” by elites in younger and poorer societies, leading to marginal benefits in tackling the coronavirus but with the effect of increasing poverty and mortality among the poor.

Source: African Arguments 

On 17 April, informal traders in Malawi’s city of Blantyre took to the streets against the 21-day lockdown due to start the following day. The protesters complained they will not be able to afford to live if central markets, on which they rely to make a living, are forcibly closed.

“I was surprised to hear that government wanted to shut down the market without telling us how we will survive,” said John Manda. The 30-year-old sells mobile phone parts, earning up to 4,000 kwacha ($5.40) a day, which he uses to support his wife and two children. He explained that traders like him won’t be able to afford food and essentials if they are unable to work. “We have agreed not to comply,” he said.

As part of the protests, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) delivered a petition calling for more consultation on the coronavirus response to prevent harm to the most vulnerable. In response, the high court on 17 April temporarily barred the government from implementing the lockdown, pending a judicial review within seven days.

According to the Coronavirus in Africa Tracker, Malawi has 17 confirmed cases. To help limit the spread of the virus, the government has already closed schools and required returnees from abroad to self-quarantine.

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A pandemic amid political turmoil

The COVID-19 pandemic has reached Malawi at a time of great political turmoil. This February, the country’s constitutional court nullified the results of the disputed May 2019 presidential elections due to “serious irregularities”. The judges ordered fresh elections that were then scheduled for 2 July.

Coronavirus and the response to it have emerged in this context of political uncertainty and contestation. President Peter Mutharika was already regarded by some as a lame duck and human rights groups had dubbed 2020 “the year of mass protests”.

According to Ernest Thindwa, a political science lecturer at Malawi’s Chancellor College, this political atmosphere informed both the government’s approach to the pandemic and the backlash it has provoked.

“Malawi is now a much-divided nation on the basis of politics and the president should have known that,” he says. “The ruling party has a narrow mandate and much of the mandate, in my view, is with the opposition.”

In the annulled 2019 election, held under first-past-the-post, opposition candidates collectively won most of the vote. Especially given this fact, Thindwa says the government should have followed South Africa’s example by bringing on board opposition leaders in its coronavirus response to build legitimacy and trust. “I think it will be extremely difficult for the government to successfully implement the lockdown with the current approach,” he adds.

Among other things, the government’s unilateral approach has allowed opposition parties to accuse it of playing politics ahead of the July elections.

“The government is now using every method to politicise the pandemic and to be seen as the best,” says Joseph Chidanti-Malunga, spokesperson for the opposition United Transformation Movement (UTM). “It doesn’t make sense that every participant in the COVID-19 committee which was established by government is from the ruling party. Why don’t we leave that to professionals?”.

Former president Joyce Banda has similarly criticised the government and accused it of “hiding statistics and challenges to fight the pandemic”.

Where’s the money?

Malawi’s government has also come under pressure to account for its coronavirus response spending. The government has allocated 2.5 billion kwacha ($3.4 million) to its response and received external support such as an immediate $7 million from the World Bank and $2.2 million from the UK. Yet health workers have held protests to draw attention to dire shortages of personal protective equipment in hospitals. The government has said some of their demands are unrealistic.

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Proposals to distribute cash to vulnerable people also face criticism. The government has said it will “put in place measures to help the poorest in urban areas” and “assist these families who depend on daily earnings to support themselves”. But critics say that the measures do not go far enough and that many people lack addresses and cannot be traced to receive support.

“This is all politicised,” says Chidanti-Malunga. “In the end you will hear the cash has been given to the ruling party strongholds. We’ve seen sanitisers being labelled with the ruling party symbols. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

African Arguments contacted the government, but the spokesperson refused to comment on “anything to do with the injunction and the lockdown”.

Trust and politics

Across Africa, and the world, the exceptional circumstances and challenges created by COVID-19 have not suspended politics. Rather, the pandemic has reached countries at specific political moments and prompted responses heavily informed by that context. In Malawi, the coronavirus has emerged at a critical political turning point, two months after judges took the momentous step of nullifying last year’s presidential elections and three months before the poll’s re-run.

In its response to the coronavirus, the government has attempted to reassure citizens that it is acting in the country’s interests and that it will protect the poor. This has been a hard sell for countries across the world that have implemented lockdowns. It is particularly difficult in a country when trust in the government is low, all government actions have become politicised, and the last few years has seen multiple revelations of high-level corruption.

Source: African Arguments 

The fact that COVID-19 arrived in Africa relatively late gave governments on the continent more time to prepare and mobilise. Nonetheless, the number of cases in Africa continues to rise rapidly and presents a severe threat. UN officials say it is likely the pandemic will kill at least 300,000 people in Africa and push 30 million into poverty.

What imperils us all the more at this time is poor leadership. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Tanzania, where the government is putting the economy ahead of lives and basing its actions on religion in the place of science.

Earlier this month, President John Magufuli took to the alter of a church to say he would not introduce lockdown measures. He insisted God alone can deal with the pandemic and called for three days of national prayer. In front of a faithful congregation, the nation’s president said the satanic COVID-19 does not reside in the body of Jesus and called for people to flock to churches.

Calculated or incompetent?

The reality is that to fight COVID-19, we must reduce person-to-person infections. This will require lockdown measures to restrict contact and should be accompanied by a programme of wider testing and tracing. The government must mobilise in a manner and at a scale rarely seen in peace time.

Around the world, countries require exemplary leadership from a commander-in-chief informed by the science – not, as we have in Tanzania, an irresponsible priest-in-chief.

President Magufuli’s appeals to religion may seem delusional, but they are also calculated. There is a reason the government has shut down schools, political gatherings and sporting activities while keeping open churches and mosques. Tanzania is in an election year. The government’s manipulation of last year’s local elections show it will take whatever measures necessary to gain an advantage, including courting influential religious leaders.

It is ordinary people that will pay for this. Tanzania will be hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak that Magufuli is incubating and our broken healthcare system will suffer. Bent on funding his poorly-planned white elephant projects, the government has long neglected social services and, in particular, healthcare. This is why a nation of 55 million people has just one COVID-19 testing lab, located in Dar es Salaam.

As of 27 April, Tanzania has 299 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and ten registered deaths. But the true figures may be far worse. Our health system cannot test or even effectively diagnose and aggregate COVID-19 related deaths. Even if it could, the government cannot be trusted to truthfully report them. There is already a black mark against Magufuli’s administration in this regard; last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) expressed concern over the government’s lack of transparency regarding reports of Ebola cases.

Time to save lives

President Magufuli has an obligation to lead Tanzania in the fight against COVID-19. He should leave religion to the priests and prioritise saving lives. Anything else would be inhuman. There will be economic repercussions, but as Ghana’s president noted, economies can be resurrected, but dead people cannot.

To battle COVID-19, President Magufuli should lead a unified national effort as called up on by leader of the opposition Freeman Mbowe. He should urgently mobilise and reallocate resources to the health sector, even if it means pausing infrastructure projects. He must prioritise the mass expansion of testing capacity and upscale the purchase of Personal Protective Equipment for our frontline healthcare workers.

The epicentre of COVID-19 in Tanzania, the always busy and congested Dar es Salaam, has to be locked down along with other high-risk regions. The city is the site of 143 out of the 299 national cases so far. Keeping the city operational to protect the country’s fragile economy, which had started shrinking even before the pandemic, would be a betrayal to Tanzanians.

The government must also ban religious gatherings. It makes no sense to shut down schools and universities while keeping open churches, mosques, bars and restaurants. If the Mecca’s grand mosque and the Rome St Peter’s Basilica can close due to COVID-19, Tanzanians can be called upon to pray from home too.

Unless President Magufuli changes direction immediately, his ill-considered religious approach will have disastrous consequences for both Tanzania and the region. Many lives will be unnecessarily lost, while the economy will not be spared. If we do not lock down at least parts of Tanzania and knock out COVID-19, then COVID-19 will knock us down and the world will lock us out.

Source: African Arguments 

Domestic abuse has spiked under COVID-19. Cash transfers are no panacea, but they’ve been shown to reduce violence and can be adapted.

Social workers were used to receiving distressing calls before the COVID-19 pandemic. But since South Africa imposed a lockdown on 24 March, the sheer volume of calls and messages to the gender-based violence command centre in Tshwane has skyrocketed.

In the first four days of the national lockdown, calls doubled and data free messages increased more than tenfold. The centre now receives up to 1,000 calls a day from women and children reporting trauma and abuse. The government said last week that gender-based violence has continued to rise as the lockdown goes on.

South Africa had been grappling with violence against women long before the pandemic. The country’s murder rate for women is the fourth highest in the world and nearly five times the global average. However, the pandemic here and many other places has made matters worse.

As the Centre for Global Development explains, a variety of factors may have contributed to a spike in domestic violence. Women and children are more exposed to perpetrators under lockdown. Abusers may exhibit more controlling behaviour due to their loss of feelings of power. And increased food insecurity and other sources of stress may be exacerbating difficult living situations.

Pandemics can also contribute to dangerous coping strategies such as substance abuse, taking on debt and transactional sex, which can make violence against women and children more likely. Meanwhile, the breaking down of normal social relations can lead to increased family separation and an uptick in intra-familial abuse.

Tried and tested

On 1 May, South Africa began to ease some lockdown measures, but many restrictions will continue for some time both there and in many other countries across Africa and the world. Under these circumstances, there are various actions governments can take to better protect women and children. These include expanding shelters and temporary housing; increasing the staffing of response hotlines and outreach centres; and fostering social support networks.

In all this, however, one particularly promising intervention could come in the form of expanding economic safety nets through cash transfers. These programmes have already been shown to be correlated to a decrease in domestic violence. This has been the finding of studies from Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, while a World Bank review of 22 different studies in 2018 similarly found that most cash transfer programmes lowered the rate of intimate partner violence.

This could be for a variety of reasons. Cash transfers are widely used as a policy tool for alleviating poverty and food insecurity. However, when given directly to women, they can have the added effect of changing power dynamics within a household. A study in Ecuador found the key factors that led to a decrease in gender-based violence included: decreases in poverty-related stress, leading to fewer arguments and less need for women to ask men for money to buy food; and increases in women’s empowerment, which improved their bargaining power, self-confidence, and freedom of movement.

Cash during COVID-19

Cash transfers could be a crucial tool in reducing gender-based violence during COVID-19 too, though under these specific circumstances, it might necessary to introduce new systems of distribution and criteria for qualification. These will have to be designed carefully for each context and be as responsive to women’s needs as possible.

The mechanisms for delivery will also need to be thoughtfully considered. In South Africa, for example, most women have access to mobile phones, while ATMs are readily available in towns and cities. This could allow for smaller but more frequent and easily accessible transfers. These delivery mechanisms would also allow recipients to receive cash closer to their homes, reducing the need to travel and the risks that come with that. For those without access to these technologies, special assistance will be required.

One particular advantage of gender-sensitive cash transfers during COVID-19 is that it can help circumvent some of the problems observed with food distribution schemes. In South Africa, there have been reports of corruption in the allocation of food parcels at the local level, with some councillors selling items or favouring family and friends. Cash transfers reduce the opportunity for those in positions of power to use controlling behaviour or take advantage of women and children in need.

Cash transfers are by no means a panacea. Like all actions to protect women and children during the pandemic, they would merely be part of a much larger and more comprehensive strategy needed to mitigate the increased risk of violence. Nonetheless, sending money could make the crucial difference to many vulnerable women.

Such programmes are needed urgently. As the Centre for Global Development says, if governments and the international community do not act soon, “women and children will pay the price, both now and in the future”.

Source: African Arguments

Since 30 March, Uganda has been on lockdown. Daily life has come to a halt. Movement is restricted. Public gatherings are suspended. All but a small number of essential businesses are closed.

Every one of the country’s 44 million people has been affected by these restrictions, but – as ever – the most vulnerable have been hit the hardest. In Uganda, only a small minority are formally employed. Everyone else who earns a living works in the informal economy with no employer-provided benefits, few alternative livelihood options, and only the most meagre social safety net to fall back on.

Yet the government has offered little relief. Announcing the lockdown, President Yoweri Museveni promised no cash payments or comprehensive efforts to support the most vulnerable. He did, however, claim that the government will distribute food to those whose work has been interrupted and it identifies, rather vaguely, as living “hand to mouth”. This pledge came with a warning that “opportunistic and irresponsible politicians who try to distribute food” too will be arrested and charged with attempted murder.

How the lockdown continues politics as usual

The government of Uganda has presented its coronavirus response as a necessary set of measures to deal with the pandemic. A crisis is, apparently, not the time for politics. But those in the informal economy know that politics and policy always go hand in hand. Their added vulnerability is not the inevitable and unavoidable result of technocratic decision-making. It is the outcome of political decisions. The situation facing the poorest in Uganda today is not a departure from routine politics, but their continuation under exceptional circumstances.

Lockdown restrictions appear to be fuelling a wave of repression against street vendors and motorcycle taxi drivers. But this is far from new. Uganda’s government has often used manipulation, violence and draconian laws to govern the lives of the poor. In 2011, street vending was criminalised in Kampala in an apparent effort to promote development as the ruling party sought to justify its removal of the city’s democratically-elected government. For those who remain on the streets,  evictions, arrests, fines, police harassment and the confiscation of goods have become common. Even enforcement is political, easing in the runup to elections as politicians look for votes and rising sharply once campaigns are over.

Traders in Kampala’s markets also have reasons to worry that the response to the pandemic will put their livelihoods under threat. This is particularly true for those who sell live and dead animals. Even before the arrival of the coronavirus, however, many vendors feared that rising rents and evictions – both of which are driven by political decisions about who controls markets and how valuable urban land should be used – would force them out of the city. The government has demolished several of Kampala’s informal markets – in which over 100,000 people make their living – to make way for ambitious development projects, often with opaque finances. Public health concerns have often been used as a pretext for displacement. There is little reason to believe that this will change.

Even President Museveni’s promise to distribute food fits neatly into existing patterns of the politics of informality. Every election cycle in Uganda, the ruling party distributes cash and other gifts according to communities’ perceived allegiances. This is particularly common in informal markets, which are highly contested electoral battlegrounds where the government regularly employs a combination of vote buying and coercion to draw support away from the popular opposition. One might reasonably expect the food deliveries that have been promised during the lockdown to take place along the same lines. The President’s threat to arrest politicians who seek “cheap popularity” by also distributing food – clearly directed at the opposition – suggests that the national elections scheduled for early next year loom large in shaping the government’s response to the crisis.

The curtailment of opposition activities would again not be new, but rather builds on previous restrictions on unwanted public gatherings, such as those provided by the 2013 Public Order Management Act. Daily life may have come to a halt. Politics has not.

The politics behind the informal economy

Those who look to the state to improve the lives of informal workers often commit a basic categorical error. When it comes to the informal economy, the government is rarely a benign or even neutral presence. In Uganda, and much of Africa, development is politics and politics is regime survival. In this, the livelihoods of the poor are a secondary concern. Informal workers suffer what they must and try to get by however they can. Coronavirus changes little about that.

Over 85% of all workers in Africa make their living in the informal economy. Its ubiquity across the continent has many causes: the abandonment of the postcolonial development state; industrial decline; structural adjustment; economic crisis; conflict; and, perhaps above all, the emergence of a common political economy defined by flawed institutions, corruption, cronyism, rent seeking and wealth extraction.

While governance and economic systems may vary country to country, or even city to city, highly unequal economic growth with little formal employment creation has become the norm. As the state is looted and any pretence of the most basic public service provision is abandoned, self-reliance is the only option for the poor.

Ignoring the politics behind this – and the fact things do not need to be this way – allows us to cling to various sanitised narratives: that with the right skills and incentives to comply with technocratic tax obligations, the local banana vendor can drive economic growth; that with the appropriate work ethic, the motorcycle taxi driver can earn enough money to pay for his children’s school fees and hospital bills; that with access to finance, the home-based manufacturing worker can pull herself and her family out of poverty.

But obligatory entrepreneurship is not an adequate substitute for employment. Insecure work cannot replace a basic social safety net in the fight against extreme poverty. The coronavirus pandemic has made this all too clear, but it should have taken a crisis to learn this lesson. Now that one is here, however, we must ensure that when it comes to an end, life for those in the informal economy does not simply return to normal.

Source: AfricanArguments