Africa: Lessons learned so far from the COVID-19 pandemic
It took only six months to shatter both our habits and our assumptions. Those who thought that Africa would lag behind as well as those who saw us as invincible were wrong. Let's take a look at the last few months, at what we've learnt and what we still have to learn.
Many wonder whether the continent has thwarted all predictions regarding the spread of the virus. Even the experts, imagining the worst, got it wrong: the virus spread at a slower rate in Africa than it did in Europe or across the Americas.
According to the AfDB, real GDP in Africa is projected to contract by 1.7% in 2020, dropping by 5.6 percentage points from the January 2020 pre-COVID–19 projection. This contraction in the economy could result in losses of up to $145.5bn.
We will therefore need to be resilient to what we cannot change and efficient in our economic development strategies by building on our strengths and addressing our weaknesses.
Our ability to stand together
As early as February 2020 and the reporting of the first COVID-19 cases, AU member states met to devise a continent-wide strategy, including financial support and stimulus measures. Very quickly, international private and public stakeholders, led by The African Union, set out to plan a successful way out of the crisis by taking strong decisions, including debt relief and innovations in the mobilisation of private sector financing.
The AUDA-NEPAD (the African Union Development Agency) joined the efforts led by Africa CDC in the implementation of the strategic paths which were taken. They set up a working group, Africa Task Force for Coronavirus (AFTCOR), comprising technical teams, the WHO and Africa CDC.
A health crisis response plan was drawn up to tackle the problems at source on key issues such as health service delivery, human health resources, research and development, local innovation and manufacturing, and food and nutrition security, etc. Countries subsequently rapidly implemented public health and social measures (PHSM) to contain the COVID-19 epidemic. These measures are likely to have slowed the spread of the virus, and the number of cases in Africa remained lower than initially forecast.
Our need to fast-track regional integration
The establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) has to be accelerated to prevent shortages by rationalising local production. Several studies show that the AfCFTA could boost regional income by 7%, i.e. an additional $450bn, and lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty by 2035.
Removing tariffs and border controls would facilitate the transit of goods and people. The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the need to expand the road network, which proved vital for the delivery of food in the early months of the crisis, as sea and air links had been completely closed.
The Harmonisation of Standards for Pharmaceutical and Medical Devices in Africa initiative is an example of the economic and supply security gains of the AfCFTA. Signed jointly by Afreximbank, the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC) and the African Organisation for Standardisation (ARSO), the initiative aims to increase intra-African trade in pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and equipment.
The standards for face masks and hydro-alcoholic gels were widely used by African SMEs to develop locally manufactured personal protective equipment.
Our need to end inequalities in access to education
According to UNESCO, over 250 million students across the continent are still unable to go to school, even though governments are gradually reopening schools and lifting the COVID-19 containment measures. There is a risk for vulnerable populations in both rural and urban areas, especially girls, of further widening inequalities in access to education.
Decades of efforts to universalise schooling are in danger of being compromised if we do not address the obstacles preventing everyone from going back to school.
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Several countries introduced remote learning, including through radio, television and online programmes, when schools closed down. However, these solutions are not accessible to all students. Today, across the continent as a whole, almost 90% of students still do not have computers and 82% have no Internet access. This situation highlights the shortcomings and inequalities of education systems, hence the importance of deploying technologies and innovations, as well as curricula, adapted to the rapidly changing workplace and learning challenges.
To support these programmes, the AfDB and the AU are releasing an African Education Fund of nearly $300m. It aims to stimulate investment in Africa’s human capital, mainly in technical and vocational education and training.
We demonstrated solidarity, wisdom and discipline in the application of health regulations at the height of the crisis, and we must maintain the momentum to get the continent back on track. The next six months will be decisive, and it is up to us to make the most of them to avoid exposing the weakest and wiping out decades of progress in lifting entire regions out of underdevelopment.