Covid-19 and SADC countries: Enhanced social distancing is the only option

Background

The world-wide crisis caused by Covid-19 seems entirely without precedent in the modern age. The spread of COVID-19 is accelerating. In Africa, most countries have now confirmed cases and the number of fatalities is rising. If allowed to spread unmanaged, the impact on African citizens and economies will be substantial. The number of cases in Africa still remains low compared to other regions. Available data, attributes this to both the average age of African citizens, which is the lowest globally, and factors relating to the continent’s climate, although this has been recently challenged by some experts. However, Africa may yet be worst hit by this invisible disease. It is well-known that Africa has fragile health systems, which, coupled with a high burden of respiratory and diabetic diseases and densely packed urban agglomerations, are likely to increase the vulnerability of the continent and the lethality of the virus. According to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization (WHO), Africa should “wake up” to the COVID-19 threat and prepare for a worst-case scenario.

Since virtually every country in the world has identified at least one case, it is obvious why the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared this a global pandemic. The effects, health, economic, social and political, are slowly being understood, but, according to most authorities, are likely to be much worse in some regions of the world. Most authorities argue that the effects will be worst in the poor, underdeveloped of the world, and Africa in particular. Thus, the speed with which countries can detect, report, and respond to outbreaks is a reflection of their wider institutional capacity. Epidemics are a reality test for public governance and leadership, not only at country level, but also at regional and continental levels, as well as in connection with the wider network of multilateral actors and partners.

Africa is a home to over a billion people. Its public health systems are likely to be overwhelmed if the virus takes hold. According to the WHO, Covid-19 cases have been confirmed in 46 African countries, with a total of 7 720 cases. At the time of this report, 1000 deaths have been recorded across the continent.

Some countries account for a large proportion of the confirmed cases: Algeria (1,825) and South Africa (2,208) are 53% of all African countries, but these are probably countries in which many cases came from visitors or returnees from other affected countries. However, detection varies according to the capacity of countries, and many African countries have porous borders and weak monitoring systems which allow the symptomatic and asymptomatic citizens to slip through. However, on the regional scale, Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries account for 39% of all African cases, but this is largely due to the very number of cases in South Africa, 71% of all SADC cases.

The big question in the minds of everyone is how bad can it get? The truthful answer must be that no-one really knows: there are so many factors that govern the way the epidemic will play out in any given country. Much of the information must be assessed according to the circumstances of any country. For example, it is evident that older people are at greater risk, so it is the case that countries with a youth bulge, like Zimbabwe (and most countries in Africa), may get high rates of infection, but relatively fewer deaths due to the young population. Zimbabwe has fewer elderly than many Western countries, but very large proportion of the elderly live with their families and therefore cannot easily be isolated as might be the case in developed, wealthy countries. Thus, some of the dividend of a young population and fewer older people may be lost because older people are more likely to be exposed in poor countries.

Linked to this issue, and the possible advantages of having a youthful population, much of the information on the epidemic comes from higher income countries where the burdens of disease, poor nutrition, and poor living conditions have not applied. These factors are common in the majority of African countries, and affect the majority of the people living in African countries: 1 in 3 Africans, 422 million, live below the poverty datum line. Furthermore, the World Food Programme (WFP), in July 2019, estimated that 41 million people will be food insecure in 2020, with 9 million requiring immediate assistance, and this was before the 2019/2020 drought in Southern Africa.

It is not the case, however, that there has been no effect on the poor in developed countries. Some statistics indicate that Black Americans have been significantly more likely to get the virus, and deaths seem higher in this population. So poverty will be a very important factor operating in Africa.

It takes little imagination to wonder what might be the combined effects of poor nutrition, poor health and widespread poverty together with Covid-19 epidemic. And to make things worse, the World Bank indicates that Africa will experience its first recession in 25 years, and this will severely hamper governments and planners in trying to deal with both the epidemic and its long-term sequelae.

For all these reasons, planning to deal with Covid-19 crisis requires governments to consider very carefully how to mitigate the effects of this epidemic, for poor management of Covid-19 – and this is clearly a considerable problem for poor countries like Zimbabwe – can exacerbate all the other problems facing a country. It is, therefore, very important to pay careful attention to the information available on the epidemic to date. A critical issue for the ordinary citizen is the effectiveness of information provided by governments.

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Source: Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU)