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As COVID-19 Cases Rise, African Countries Grapple with Safely Easing Lockdowns

Franck Kuwonu, Africa Renewal*

People living in Lagos State in Nigeria, simulate sneezing into their elbows during a coronavirus prevention campaign. Credit: Africa Renewal

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 23 2020 (IPS) - Re-opening economies is a tough balancing act between keeping people safe from the virus while ensuring they can still make a living.

Some four months after the first COVID-19 case in Africa was reported in Egypt, countries on the continent are beginning to ease public health and social measures, such as lockdowns and curfews, imposed to curb the spread of the pandemic.

In Côte d’Ivoire, commercial activities have resumed, and students are back in classrooms, while in South Africa, where the army enforced strict lockdown rules, the government has allowed all essential services to resume operations, and on Monday 8 June some schools reopened.

As of 29 June, the World Health Organization (WHO) in Africa reports over 380,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases – with more than 181,000 recoveries. 9,500 people have lost their lives to the disease.

Across the continent, people are still encouraged to practice social distancing, wear masks and frequently wash their hands. International borders remain closed to regular passenger travel. Nevertheless, most countries are slowly easing restrictive stay-at-home measures in the face of their most severe consequences on the livelihoods of people.

In May, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) estimated that the continent could lose up to $65.7 billion (2.5 percent of annual GDP) for every month of lockdown.

Nigeria, the top African economy, may have lost about $18 billion which represents a 38 per cent drop in GDP in just five weeks of lockdown from March to April, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), found.

However, as COVID-19 cases remain on the uptick, including in countries that have re-opened their economies, governments are having to balance containment with preserving people’s means of earning a living.

Franck Kuwonu

As a result, some countries have paused their plans to open up further, while others have extended their lockdowns indefinitely. Yet others continue to re-open their economies while ramping up testing and isolation of cases.

Rwanda, one of the first countries to impose a complete lockdown allowed people working in public and private essential services, including market vendors, to return to their workplaces at the beginning of May. A month later, authorities cancelled plans to re-open further as COVID-19 cases rose and the country registered its first coronavirus-related death.

Zimbabwe remains under an indefinite lockdown, with a fortnightly review to determine when to re-open.

At the start of the pandemic, Ghana’s president Nana Akuffo-Addo declared a lockdown in and around the capital Accra and other urban centres such as Kumasi in the south.

“We know how to bring the economy back to life. What we don’t know is how to bring people back to life,” President Akuffo-Addo said at the time.

Ghana ranks among the leading African countries in testing, and has registered a high number of cases, even as the lockdown was lifted. Since April, Ghanaians can move between urban centres that were earlier cordoned off. Internal flights have resumed. They are allowed into houses of prayer, but public gatherings remain highly restricted in size and schools remain closed.

Some countries decided against lockdowns altogether amid concerns of the socio-economic effects. Benin’s president Patrice Talon did not enforce restrictive measures that, he said, will “starve everybody” and “end up being defied and violated,” adding that the government lacked the “means of rich countries.”

“[A] one-size-fits-all approach to COVID-19 could have lethal consequences” for Africa, warned two University of Johannesburg academics in March, in The Conversation magazine, as more than half of the continent rushed to put in place very stringent transmission-curbing measures.

The easing of lockdowns appears to be an acknowledgement of those concerns. However, the accelerated increase in the number of COVID-19 cases being witnessed now suggests that previous stay-at-home orders were effective in curbing the spread of the virus.

According to WHO, the number of days for case numbers to double in a given country – increased during the lockdown period in most of the countries of the region (5 days to 41 in Cote d’Ivoire, 3 days to 14 in South Africa).

In a recent survey across 28 cities in 20 African countries, a majority of people say they supported these public health and social measures, even the most restrictive, aimed at slowing the pandemic. At the same time, some admitted to violating stay-at-home orders to look for food.

The survey was conducted between 29 March and 17 April by PERC (Partnership for Evidence- Based Response to COVID-19), a global private-public partnership on health, including the WHO, the African Centres for Disease Control (Africa CDC), and the World Economic Forum.

As COVID-19 began to spread in Africa, governments took measures early on to cushion people from the socio-economic impact of the pandemic. Namibia is offering emergency income grants to workers who have lost jobs, Cabo Verde is providing cash transfers and food assistance, while Togo is subsidizing access to water and electricity, to name a few.

Yet, the PERC warns that those targeted measures and the gradual re-opening of public spaces may not be enough to meet people’s needs in the long run as domestic and international supply chains remain disrupted.

These are concerns shared by African governments as they contend with when and how to re-open their economies while still managing the health aspects of the ongoing crisis.

*This article, originally published in UN’s Africa Renewal, has been updated to reflect the number of confirmed cases, recoveries and deaths as of 29 June.


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