Building Resilience in a Post-COVID Africa
By: Oyindamola Adegboye, Thokozani Chilenga-Butao and Pritchard Mukuka
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged nations with even the most sophisticated education and healthcare systems in the world significantly. Experts have predicted that Africa’s already fragile health systems could crumble under the weight of the virus. The African Alpbach Network reflects on policy priorities in the health and education sector.
While the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths recorded on the continent is still comparatively lower than elsewhere, the number of infections and deaths in Africa is increasing. At the same time, the politics of screening, testing and reporting accurate figures, as well as the role of international health organisations in Africa is causing confusion and scepticism. COVID-19 is not Africa’s first battle with a pandemic. Given its history of fighting against widespread infectious diseases like the Ebola virus, African governments have displayed resilience by leveraging on previous knowledge and taking quick precautionary measures such as nationwide lockdowns and flight restrictions.
But swift lockdown measures will not be enough to slow the effects of COVID-19 in African countries, which for the most part, were already battling with weak education and healthcare systems. What is the policy outlook for the continent post-COVID-19 and how can the continent build resilience ahead of the next inevitable global crisis?
Increased and Strategic Investment in Education and Health
The education and the health sector cannot be excluded from each other as they prioritise human development and the capacity for social and economic prosperity on the continent. In Nigeria for instance, both education and health remain critically underfunded. In 2020, Nigeria allocated 6.9% and 4.5% to the education and health sectors respectively (according to the Nigerian newspaper The Punch). The government’s priorities did not meet the people’s needs.
On the other hand, some African countries are struggling with ineffective investment in education and health. In South Africa, for instance, education has one of the largest shares of the country’s budget at a staggering 320.5 billion ZAR (South African National Treasury, 2017). In the past couple of years, the country’s Department of Health has been championing and planning a National Health Insurance system that is intended to upgrade the current public healthcare system and mitigate the exorbitant costs of private healthcare. Both the education and health systems in South Africa need better infrastructure, better procurement and resourcing systems and more implementation of sanctions against corruption and mismanagement at all levels of the system. Therefore, the approaches to building resilience on the continent need to be tailored to each country’s needs and challenges; and each country in turn, needs to strengthen its region and the wider continent with strategies for resilience.
Homegrown Solutions and Global Partnerships
The 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa pushed some African countries to develop local capacity in disease preparedness and responsiveness. Countries like Liberia, for instance, erected facilities for screening and diagnosis, while the Nigeria Centre for Disease control has an independent COVID-19 emergency response team of experts, working in the interest of the public. We have also seen an emergence of home grown responses like the 1 USD COVID-19 testing kit in Senegal and the controversial COVID-19 cure from Madagascar.
Since there is no known cure for COVID-19, pharmaceutical companies are rising up to the occasion with existing medicines that can manage symptoms. With only 375 drug makers serving Africa’s 1.3 billion people compared to 5000 and 10,500 manufacturers in India and China’s approximately 1.4 billion population each. Already, small and medium-sized enterprises have become key players by producing locally-made face masks, hand sanitisers and disinfectants. Hence, investment in public health and a thriving local drug industry can foster access to medicines and preparedness in the event of disease outbreaks.
The education sector has not always been resilient against pandemics. During the last Ebola outbreak in West Africa, countries that were the hardest hit closed schools for months. The current COVID-19 lockdown has forced the closure of schools, which has led to an increase in another set of problems for learners. These problems include hunger, as some children depend on schools for their meals and losing valuable learning time. There have been initiatives to assist both these problems, through the distribution of food parcels and shifting learning to online, television and radio. In Lagos, the epicentre of the COVID-19 crisis in Nigeria, the Lagos state government launched radio and television lessons for primary and secondary learners. However, this resilience has uneven results as the digital divide in Africa generally affects learners’ access to education tools during times such as this. Moreover, inequality is now showing itself more as learners in private education are more resourced than those in public education.
Education policies should thus focus on scaling up Information Communication Technology policies to facilitate more e-learning in future. That being said, universal access to ICT can only be achieved if there is access to clean reliable energy. Africa has a huge energy deficit and with very high tariffs. Zambia has an electrifications rate of only about 19% in rural areas. Although among the lowest in the SADC region, electricity tariffs are about 7c/Kwh which are very high for those in rural areas who earn less than $1.5 per day. Access to electricity is still constrained; but many African governments, including Zambia, have enacted the open electricity access policy to open the electricity markets to investments. This can help build resilience in education and health, as investments in electricity throughout the continent will provide the necessary infrastructure to maintain the education and health sectors in times of crisis.
With all this unevenness in learning, there is still a role for education to play in resilience, through education about managing a pandemic and caring for those around you. The earlier HIV/AIDS epidemic showed the role that education can play in destigmatization, encouraging treatment and creating social support for people living with HIV/AIDS. This needs to continue in the post-COVID era in Africa because the more destigmatisation and treatment education happens in schools, the more hopeful we can be that African children will learn a different type of resilience – empathy and understanding that allows everyone to be transparent about their health and get treatment as soon as possible. Stigma literally kills.
Education policies can also focus on enhancing access to Information and Communication Technology to facilitate e-learning. In Zambia, the literacy levels are very high and in most rural areas exceeding 60% of the population. This in part has been due to the free education policies.
Despite capacity and resource allocation pressures to prioritise action over research, quality data and evidence have longer term benefits ahead of the next inevitable crisis. Africa has peculiar demographic indicators ranging from its high youth population, to its record of infectious diseases. Hence, the continent can benefit from a homegrown predictive modelling, by getting real-time data possibly by leveraging its high mobile penetration to guide decision making. Countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea perhaps have developed a better sense of data utilisation, which will be useful in the ongoing crisis. In the Sierra Leone, real time data was crucial to school reopening decisions as the government used mobile phones to get monthly updates and track schools with pressing needs.
In all, one major threat to Africa is a susceptibility to externally-imposed agenda. COVID-19 challenges the narrative that infectious diseases come from Africa to the West, and not the other way round. Given that many Western countries are relatively inexperienced in handling public health crises of this magnitude, this is the time for Africa to look inwards and shape a response that prioritises the needs and interests of its people, while shining the light for the world through strategic innovation.
Oyindamola Adegboye, Thokozani Chilenga-Butao and Pritchard Mukuka are members of the African Alpbach Network (AAN).