On Monday (25 May) we celebrate Africa Day. In an opinion piece for News24, Dr Nico Elema from the Centre for Collaboration in Africa writes about how Africans are united in the battle against COVID-19.
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Africa united in battle against COVID-19
The year 2020 will probably be remembered for how the COVID-19 pandemic was able to bring the world to a stand-still. In recent history, other pandemics such as SARS (2002), H1N1 Swine flu (2009), and MERS (2012) did cause a global response and disruption, but it is probably fair to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a global response like never seen before, with terms such as 'lockdown', 'social-distancing' and 'the new-normal' now part of our common vocabulary.
As we celebrate Africa Day on 25 May, we are still in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, purely based on the number of cases, the epicenter has moved from China to Europe to North America, with many holding their breath contemplating the anticipated impact on Africa. According to the World Health Organisation, Africa has, to date, reported 1,33% of all cases. Dare I say 'only' 1,33%? Considering that the Americas recorded 44% of all cases, Europe 40%, the Eastern Mediterranean 7%, the Western Pacific 4%, and South East Asia 3%, Africa, with its 1,3 billion people or close to 17% of the world population. Regarding Africa's low infection rate, experts argue that there is inadequate testing with others asking why the hospitals are not overflowing with patients showing COVID-19 symptoms. Thus, the verdict could still be out, and will we probably only over time come to grips with the full extent of what we are now facing.
Indeed, many parts of Africa are scarcely populated, but according to the United Nations, around 40 to 45% of Africans live in urban areas, with many living in a number of mega-cities such as Lagos, Kinshasa, Addis Ababa, Cairo, and Johannesburg. To curb the spread of COVID-19 among these people and those living in peri-urban and rural areas, social distancing and the regular washing of hands have been recommended strongly. Here's the challenge though: UNICEF estimate that for 63 percent of people (or 258 million people) in Sub-Saharan African urban areas there's no access to handwashing at home. Given Africa's high urbanisation rate and low access to water, the question can be asked if we are sitting on the proverbial time bomb?
With no blueprint on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown measures are the norm for many countries. Globally, inequalities are highlighted, with the haves being able to withstand the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic and the have-nots struggling to find the next meal. With many African countries based on informal labour markets with high unemployment rates, lockdown measures will inevitably increase unemployment rates. This will put pressure on the social welfare of countries, with the potential to wipe out any economic gains achieved over the past few years. For example, there have been no less than 20 African countries with an annual Gross Domestic growth rates above 5% in the last few years. These include countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana, Tanzania, Egypt, and Kenya to name a few. One could ask the question about how robust these economies are, and whether they will be able to withstand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite this rather gloomy picture, there are positives true to the reason why we celebrate Africa Day. There is a sense that Africa is united in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic. At a high-level, the African Union, through its African Union Development Agency NEPAD (AUDA-NEPAD), is coordinating various efforts in response to the pandemic. In early April, the AUDA-NEPAD Response Plan of Action to COVID-19 was launched, directing efforts around six focus areas, which include Health Systems, Food Systems, Skills Development & Employment, Education, National Planning & Data Systems and lastly Sustainable Tourism. Various responses emanate from these focus areas, such as the recently AUDA-NEPAD online Dashboard providing decision-makers with vital data on COVID-19 cases.
The sense of solidarity and unity is also visible in higher education in the continent. For example, the Institut Pasteur in Dakar, Senegal, with its wealth of knowledge in dealing with AIDS and Ebola, is producing rapid COVID-19 testing kits at 1$. At the University of Ghana, scientists have successfully sequenced the genome of the coronavirus in Ghana, and at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia research is undertaken to determine the psycho-social and economic impacts of the current pandemic.
In Uganda, Makerere University has been a part of the development team of the Coronavirus Resource Centre, a website established to help advance the understanding of the virus, informing the public and brief policymakers in order to guide response, improve care, and save lives in Uganda. Since a major focus of the Makerere University team is doing research and outreach related to refugee health, much of their current focus is monitoring for COVID-19 among refugee communities and camps in the country. Also in the East-African Region, scientists at the University of Nairobi have found that 10% of bats carry the coronavirus.
At Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia, colleagues have been working closely with the federal government providing technical support and advice, contributing to community mobilization for COVID-19 prevention, treatment and recovery operations action plan, and regional Emergency Operation Centre. Similarly, colleagues at the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar, have been working closely with the Ministry of Disaster Risk Management and Ministry of Population, Social Protection and Women Promotion in the country to advise upon strategies and raising awareness about COVID-19 in Madagascar. At my own institution, Stellenbosch University, our Division for Research Development has recorded no less than 23 research initiatives specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic – some completed, and others in-process and awaiting ethics approval.
These are just a few examples that show that African institutions of higher learning and many other organisations can play their part in collectively helping fellow Africans face the pandemic head-on and “rise like lions", to use the words of the renowned African poet, Ben Okri.
Even though we have been forced to re-set the compass and to celebrate Africa Day differently in 2020, I have a distinct feeling that we will get through this and find ourselves in a better place.
*Dr Nico Elema is the Manager of the Centre for Collaboration in Africa at Stellenbosch University.