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Africa needs long-term strategy to beat COVID-19
Author: Njeri Mwagiru
Published: 17/06/2020

Africa remains vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic and will need a long-term strategy to beat it, writes Dr Njeri Mwagiru from the Institute for Futures Research in an opinion piece for News24 (13 June).

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Njeri Mwagiru*

Uncertainty, complexity and precipitous disruptions are defining features of our reality. The Covid-19 global health disaster magnifies this, and highlights challenges of decision-making and action, in rapidly changing, dynamic circumstances and contexts of crises.

There are valuable lessons and insights that may be gained alongside the grief and difficulties from the coronavirus pandemic. The crisis presents opportunities to reorder decision, policy and action priorities, and to re-imagine better futures in the recovery of affected systems.

For these opportunities to positively yield, however, intentional and purposeful alignment by governments, business and society, at community and individual levels, is required.

As a region, Africa is particularly vulnerable to disasters and situated in a precarious position when faced with crises. African countries generally have poor performance on human development index rankings, with high poverty rates, the lowest per capita incomes in the world, ravaging disease burdens, as well as multiple governance tribulations.

On the one hand, despite these hardships, the African region has demonstrated capacity to endure. On the other hand, it is vital that African countries improve their preparedness and resilience to withstand disaster shocks.

Strategic foresight

The value of strategic foresight to inform forward planning, relevant decision-making, and actions to circumvent as well as manage disasters, is a key learning point emerging from Covid19, with particular relevance for the African region. Strategic foresight applies various methods, tools and techniques to:

  • give a long-range and wide scope of issue areas
  • track and analyse key drivers of trends and events
  • identify critical impact factors to monitor
  • trace volatile dynamics and uncertainties to signal disruptions

The purpose of strategic foresight is to offer a sense-making lens in complex, volatile and ambiguous contexts to assist in:

  • anticipating events and outcomes
  • highlighting multiple decision-making and action options and implications
  • defining short to long term priorities

As a cross-cutting, high impact and rapidly shifting crisis, Covid-19 is underscoring the importance of understanding systemic complexities, navigating uncertainties and swiftly adapting to change. Further, as characteristic to disasters, fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has devastating systemic and severe impacts for the short to long term. The crisis is therefore also underscoring the importance of mapping multiple possible eventualities to anticipate a range of outcomes in present to future timeframes.

Long-term investment

Although during disasters critical issues demand committed attention immediately, attention to and investment for the long term is required to sustainably address and alleviate causal issues and trigger points of crises. As such, there is critical need to address the immediate risks presented by Covid-19 to mitigate against loss of life and destruction of livelihoods. Yet, it is also imperative to address the endemic issues that heighten risks and compound vulnerabilities, particularly within Africa.

Intentionally combining and complementing the urgency of emergency responses required for the pandemic, with a long-term strategic focus, can add sustainable value to the efforts demanded. Strategic foresight can facilitate necessary tactical responses in the short term, underpinned by visionary intentions for the long-term.

A strategic foresight viewpoint offers on the one hand, insights to guide decisions and actions to prepare for, and respond to events, disruptions and disasters in the short to long term. On the other hand, beyond exigencies of current risks and crises, a futures orientation promotes implementation of sustainable solutions, and enables innovative and creative thinking that can broaden mindsets, motivate shifts in behaviour, and facilitate reconfiguration of outmoded and defective approaches and models.

Covid-19 is here to stay

In addressing the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa, an immediate disaster response is required that protects against infections and mortality, as well as sustains livelihoods. Simultaneously, long-term responses are needed that translates the continent's capacity to endure, to a capacity to excel.

Covid-19 infections will continue until a vaccine is found and sufficiently distributed globally. Post-Covid-19 global recovery is projected to require a minimum of two years; predictably longer, compounded by other crisis issues, particularly a sharp global recession. The situation remains volatile with a lack of accurate data on infection spread combined with a lack of information on regional and contextual variations of how the virus will impact different geographical zones.

Uncertainty persists and may heighten as decision and policy makers, diverse actors and multiple interest groups consider the devastation of the global pandemic. The African continent remains extremely vulnerable. To respond effectively in the short term, and to build preparedness and resilience to disasters for the long term, addressing the miasma of multiple challenges facing Africa is critical.

As governments, businesses, communities, individuals mobilise to respond, recover and rebuild in a Covid-19 world, how can concerted efforts critically engage with long-term possibilities?

From a strategic foresight lens, building more disaster-proof futures requires navigating current uncertainties and complexities by applying long-term thinking, agile and forward planning, and functionally and strategically adapting. This may require re-evaluating and redirecting priorities, investments and value allocation, to cope and respond to disasters immediately, while simultaneously building better futures.

Carefully considering available options, implications and trade-offs for the short to long term is key and must underpin necessary decisions and actions to safeguard against exposure to critical vulnerabilities, while protecting, securing and building better futures for the continent and globally.

*Dr Njeri Mwagiru is a senior futurist at the Institute for Futures Research at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.