Can Developing Countries in Africa Really Afford Pandemic Lockdowns?

ABUJA, Nigeria: When the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, it’s fair to say, most nations weren’t prepared. Regardless of this though, with typical human fortitude and panache, we have watched as countries across the globe set about fighting the biggest threat mankind has faced in modern times. Since there is no proven strategy or vaccine to curb the spread of the virus; cities and governments have come up with a mixed bag of responses designed to protect their citizens from the spread.

These measures understandably comprised of border closures; the preparation of adequate isolation centers, the mobilization of medical personnel; implementation of stay-at-home orders (with the exception of shopping for necessities), campaigns for basic hygiene and social distancing, the arrangement of welfare packages for the vulnerable; and the provision of economic stimulus packages to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the economies of these nations.

Of all of these measures, the most popular and widely accepted has been the nationwide lockdowns. Borrowing the proverbial leaf from the Chinese handling of the virus in Wuhan, many countries instituted lockdowns of in their major cities first off, and subsequently broadened the measures to include entire nations. This measure has so far received near-unanimous support as the best way to flatten the curve across the world as one global village.

Now as the rest of the world faced the spread of the pandemic from country to country, continent to continent, Africa was forced to brace themselves as well. The sad reality though was that for many African countries, there was not much to prepare or work with. Health sectors that had been comatose for quite some time could not suddenly be revived within some weeks. Medical personnel who were already under-paid (at best) saw no need to put themselves in further harm’s way and companies exploited the situation for profit, driving the price of goods sky-high. Still and in line with the approach adopted by developed nations worldwide, African countries adopted the ‘lockdown’ strategy.

Credit: Martin Sanchez.

A lockdown is essentially a temporary quarantine measure restricting the movement of people. Naturally it also places a pause on a nation’s entire economy as well as the livelihood of its citizens. Put differently, a lockdown translates into less movement within the state, job losses, reduced income, layoffs, and a general economic downturn. To alleviate these dire consequences, governments of developed countries have begun rolling out economic policies in a bid to stop their economies from stagnating and hyperinflating and help their citizens weather the negative impact. For instance, the U.S. government released two trillion dollars as an economic stimulus package, while the European Union approved over a half-trillion dollars to help its nation members.

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The lockdowns, however, have impacted developing nations exponentially since these nations are, quite simply, poorer. Their economies struggle in normal times, let alone in times of pandemic lockdowns; these governments don’t have billions to just dish out and prop up their economies and as such, they are at a standstill. Ghana, with a population of roughly 30 million citizens, announced a stimulus of one billion cedis, equivalent to about US$172 million. Nigeria, with a population of 200 million, announced its fiscal stimulus package of one trillion naira, roughly US$2.7 billion.

With these figures, none of the palliatives that followed the lockdowns in the developed world came along. And with no palliatives, the people in these developing countries are faced with a choice of either leaving their houses while facing the possibility of contracting the virus, or staying home with their families to face certain hunger and starvation.

The result, in Africa anyway, can best be labeled ‘ineffectual lockdown’ since more people elect to leave their houses (and hustle for their meals) than stay at home. This in turn has led to an even greater use of force by security agencies to enforce lockdown measures all of which has resulted in more tragedies. For instance, the Kenyan police shot an 11-year-old boy playing on his parent’s balcony. In Nigeria, people suffer more from the brutality of the armed forces in enforcing the lockdown than from COVID-19 itself.

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Another noteworthy factor here is that developing nations operate on extensive informal sectors. In Nigeria for instance, over 65% of the nation’s GDP comes from the informal sector. Informal businesses in this country often have low cash reserves which means that owners have no other option but to show up for work and continue business activities. This also means that where the government seeks to provide any form of economic palliatives, the informal sector ends up losing out despite the fact it is the driving force of the country’s economy.  

Related Post: How the Informal Economy Helps Drive Sustainable Development

The Nigerian government announced a lockdown on three states with the highest number of cases on March 30. This lockdown was extended by another 14 days as cases increased, but as the citizens cried out against the harsh impacts of staying home, the government was forced to ‘ease’ the lockdown in certain regions starting May 4. Similarly, lockdowns in Ghana were initiated back in March and despite the fact that it is one of the most pandemic-affected African countries so far, the lockdown was ‘partially lifted’ by the Ghanaian government a few days ago, as well.

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To be clear, these lockdowns are not being lifted because these countries have managed to flatten the curve. The situation is quite the opposite actually; Nigeria and Ghana now have over 2000 positive cases and counting. The lockdowns are being eased because these governments are coming to terms with the reality on ground; the cost of sustaining further lockdowns is higher than what their developing nations can bear.

A South African man wears a mask to protect himself from coronavirus. Credit: Jandro Saayman.

The costs referenced here are not limited to finances and a country’s economic strength. A lockdown means most other things don’t function and an example here is the education sector. While most developed nations have transitioned to online education, education has come to a halt in developing nations. In most regions, the internet infrastructure and penetration is mediocre and unable to sustain such a transition (there is an surprising number of African homes without computers for example) and where it is, the system is eventually found to be unsustainable.

The dilemma of countries such as Nigeria can be summed up as the choice between “Human Lives vs. Livelihood”. Now a reasonable alternative might be to go the route of Sweden; forego lockdowns and seek the solutions best suited for their countries. Unfortunately, developing nations do not have well-equipped health sectors upon which the strategy depends.

It might be expected that the West would come to the aid of these countries. That would be the right thing to do. Unfortunately, every country has their hands full with the pandemic. A better alternative here may be a response crafted, not out of conformity to Western recommendations but drawn by Africans for Africans, with attention to all the nuances that make up the continent.

Despite all this, I hope the more developed nations get on their feet firmly enough to provide these poorer countries with not just aid but also the latitude to find solutions that work for them. This is especially because if there is anything that this pandemic has clearly shown, it’s that geographical boundaries mean nothing.

There is no winning the virus if we don’t win it everywhere because we are only as strong as our weakest link on this survival chain.

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Cover image of young men setting up blockades to beg for money due to hunger caused by lack of jobs during the lockdown enforced in Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Santos Akhilele Aburime.

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