The emergence of the deadly and pandemic novel coronavirus took the world by surprise. COVID-19 started in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, and it was seen by many as another flu-like virus that could be contained and stopped without spreading to other countries. That’s not the story because as of January 2020, many people in Wuhan had not only contracted the deadly virus, it has also since gone pandemic, spreading to almost all the countries in the world, causing massive public health crises and unimaginable disruptions to global economies.
Almost all governments over the world have restricted citizens’ activities by enforcing social distancing measures to save lives and prevent the continued pandemic spread of the virus. Countries have also imposed travel restrictions, closed borders, banned public gatherings and shut down religious centers. Many countries including Angola, Cameroon, Ghana, and Nigeria have barred travelers from Europe and the United States. In Nigeria and Ghana, governments have closed schools and universities and banned public gatherings including religious activities.
The continued growth of COVID-19 in many African countries is a call to action that is testing the capacity of public health institutions and governments in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to act quickly and creatively to stop the continued spread of the virus. As one would expect, this is an uphill task because the healthcare systems in many SSA countries are severely under-resourced and operate with limited critical facilities. Hospitals struggle with limited beds, ventilators and specialists. Sometimes, patients who do not have access to beds are made to sit on plastic chairs or on the ground to receive treatment. Most African countries have a handful of coronavirus cases right now, and hospitals do not have the capacity to treat and accommodate people should the virus spread at a rapid rate like that of the United States, Spain or Italy. Growing cases of COVID-19 in SSA right now, therefore, calls for serious concern.
Although restricting travel and closing borders are necessary to prevent the pandemic spread of COVID-19, they are not enough. Social distancing has been difficult to implement given overcrowded cities and slum-like conditions in some areas on the continent. This is because many low-income people in SSA do not live in self-contained apartments. They tend to live in crowded conditions, such as cramped single rooms, bedsitters housing complexes (popularly known as “face me, I face you” in Nigeria or “compound houses” in Ghana), or slum dwellings. Therefore, to think about the best way to avoid the spread of the virus on the continent is for governments to turn their attention to informal settlements and crowded spaces.
Most countries on the continent do not have structured public transport. And, most people, especially in low-income areas, rely on crowded commercial minibuses known as “matatu” in Kenya or “trotro” in Ghana for their daily commute to work and home. These minibuses provide cheap means of transportation for people around the cities and rural places. They are mostly packed with people sitting side by side, and these vehicles can be perfect places for the virus to spread if drastic measures are not taken immediately to reduce the number of people that board the buses.
The majority of people on the continent work in the informal sector. To tell them to stay at home will have negative consequences on them. For instance, many market women trade in perishable goods due to the lack of storage facilities and large refrigerators to preserve their commodities. These people cannot afford to stay at home. They would need to be physically present at the market to sell their goods, otherwise, their stock will go waste. Besides, most of them live from hand to mouth, hence one cannot expect them to stay at home and be happy. Commentators such as Jaindi Kisero echoed this sentiment on market women that “how do you enforce stay-at-home orders in a context where the option of going to work or staying home is starvation? You can’t force ‘Mama Mboga’ to keep off Wakulima Market and expect her to survive in the chaotic life of Nairobi, can you?”
While governments in the West are unveiling plans and policies to save their economies, businesses, and are providing relief to low-income households to ensure they can afford to stay at home. In Africa, such plans do not exist for people in the informal sector and poor households to fall back on during this hard time. For decades, most governments on the continent have failed to implement social welfare and safety net programs to assist poor people, let alone a widespread cash transfer to benefit people in this difficult era of coronavirus. Unfortunately, proper records of information on citizens do not exist to determine the eligibility of support for those who need assistance.
It is possible that the emergence of coronavirus is a wakeup call to African leaders to invest in their country’s infrastructure and the healthcare systems since the average citizen cannot travel to Europe or the United States for treatment should they contract the virus. Governments should invest in healthcare and provide proper medical facilities to help healthcare professionals who are at the risk of contracting the virus to safeguard themselves. Healthcare professionals should also be equipped with the resources (e.g., test kits) and the relevant knowledge they need to help prevent the spread of the disease.
African leaders need to come out with emergency aid and grants to assist those in the informal sector and poor households who will struggle financially during this period. For instance, a guaranteed loan to small businesses or direct cash transfers will go a long way to provide relief to them. Finally, this is the time for proper policy formulation and implementation to address the housing and living conditions of people in crowded spaces on the continent.
This piece was co-authored with Jelili Adebiyi.