Why The Western System Of COVID-19 Response Won’t Work In Africa


Confirmed Coronavirus cases have reached over 100,000 in Africa. According to the Africa Center of Regional Studies, the first case of COVID-19 in Africa was reported on February 15th, two months after the virus was initially identified in China. The spread of the pandemic in Africa has been relatively slow in comparison to America and Italy, who were among some of the hardest-hit countries in regards to infection rate. Many have taken the gradual transition of the pandemic to Africa to be a sign of good news in hopes that time would allow the continent to build infrastructure in preparation for the virus’ onslaught. However, this is not the case. Existing healthcare and welfare infrastructures in the majority of African countries were already underdeveloped before introducing the virus, putting African states at an immediate disadvantage for an effective response.

Without a robust infrastructure for pandemic mitigation, the Coronavirus could negatively impede human rights efforts in Africa for years. The results of which stand the possibility of endangering millions of African lives. Considering the significant presence of poverty, limited access to food and water, pre-existent regional diseases, conflict, and weak health care infrastructures of the African continent, the development of an effective COVID-19 response that actively protects the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups is crucial.

Several African states have implemented lockdown mechanisms to slow the virus’s spread. According to the BBC, the countries with some of the most substantial restrictions include: Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya. Such restrictions include the closing of borders, banning of public transit, and the implementation of forced curfews. All of which were derived from replicating the response of highly developed states. Nonetheless, The African Center for Regional Studies confirmed that COVID-19 cases in Africa were, “rising at a rate of approximately 25 percent per day,” implying that existing quarantine restrictions are not enough to contain the virus’ spread.

The outline for quarantine used by most African states was primarily influenced by COVID-19 responses in Western nations. The Western system was adopted in a top-down form of what International Relationsists consider an information transfer. The top-down format pertains to information moving from highly developed Western states to third-world countries for eventual adoption. However, in the case of pandemic response, a system based on what is useful for developed countries can exacerbate weaker states with limited resources.

In the face of increasing infection in Africa, members of the international community have begun to wave warning flags for the future of the continent. On May 20th, The United Nations and African Commission warned that, “tens of millions of people in Africa could become destitute as a result of COVID-19.” The World Health Organization echoed the same concerns for the state of Africa’s COVID-19 response, predicting that, “if containment measures fail, even with a lower number of cases requiring hospitalization than elsewhere, the medical capacity in much of Africa would be overwhelmed.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on April 3rd that argued for a human-rights-oriented approach to Coronavirus response in Africa. HRW Africa Director Mausi Segun said in a statement that he feared COVID-19, “could soon ravage the continent.” The pandemic’s danger to African civilians increases in the context of poverty. Due to the relatively low economic status of many African communities, residents rely on free movement to secure resource supply lines and work opportunities. Human Rights Watch’s April report touched on how lockdown conditions can be as equally detrimental as the virus, “This disease puts everyone at risk. However, some people are better able to limit their contact with others. Many people who are poor have low-paying but essential jobs. They harvest food, sell it at markets or shops, drive buses, clean hospitals, or work as domestic workers.”

The western system of COVID-19 response is heavily reliant on lockdown enforcement. Quarantine restrictions have worked remarkably well within Western states, primarily due to the widespread availability of the internet and the option for civilians to work from home. However, in the case of Africa, shutting down countries could prove to worsen existing humanitarian concerns. Internet access tariffs in Africa are among some of the highest in the World, and internet availability is far less developed than in Western states.

Moreover, there are substantially fewer opportunities to resume work online following lockdown enforcement. As a result, lockdown enforcement in Africa leads to disproportionately high unemployment levels compared to Western states. Exaggerated levels of unemployment can act as a destabilizing force in communities already facing pre-existing humanitarian crises. The HRW’s report emphasized the responsibility for governments to, “understand the limited resources available to people of lower economic status or who live in slums, where not going out to earn a living for a couple of days could mean the difference between starvation and life.”

For lockdown restrictions to avoid the risk of accelerating humanitarian crises, there must be a strong welfare and healthcare infrastructure in African countries. Vulnerable populations must be assured of continued access to food, clean water, health services, and unemployment insurance to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. However, many African states have already proven to lack the capacity to support their civilians in these exact areas. Adding the Coronavirus on top of an already weak institution creates pressure that could rupture the thin fabric of the state. States can not be expected to redesign their infrastructure while global commerce and trade are at historic lows.

The best recourse for African states is to abandon the top-down system of pandemic response and instead rely on local innovation and cooperation with the international community to create a realistic response system. There are differentiating levels of need within African states that should change the prioritization of specific quarantine policies. Problems within Northern Africa widely differentiate from issues in the South, with such divides even starkly present on the inter-state level. Moreover, when the composition of multiple ethnic groups and cultures found within Africa are considered in pandemic response, certain social distancing and anti-viral procedures may prove more effective in some communities than others. Innovation must originate at the local level due to populations being aware of what can realistically and effectively be implemented, considering their resources and culture.

Africa is a prime source of local innovation due to the continent’s previous experience with epidemics. The Ebola epidemic of 2013 put a similar amount of pressure on African states’ infrastructures and revealed many weak points in response that countries can learn from in terms of COVID-19. The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) released a peer-reviewed article on the lessons learned from the Ebola response in Africa. The RCP named some of the factors of Ebola’s spread being related to, “chains of secondary spread within family units, HCWs who do not have access to proper protective equipment, African rituals of washing deceased bodies before burial, and the social habits of handshaking and hugging.”

Although Ebola is an entirely separate virus, it spreads in a slightly similar manner as Corona. For instance, an individual can obtain the Ebola virus through direct contact with bodily fluids or from an infected person coughing saliva or mucus onto a physical opening. As a result, many of the shortcomings of the Ebola response can be applied to COVID-19 mitigation. This experience offers a template for what African states could expect in terms of the Coronavirus.

However, for African states to build off of their Ebola experience, there must be an emphasis on the spread of factual information. A facilitating factor to the Ebola response’s shortcomings was that many civilians were not aware of the proper protocols to protect themselves from the virus. The presence of low information levels can be seen in the continued use of cultural burials during the Ebola epidemic. In the case of Guinea, a lack of information on Ebola led to, “nearly 60% of all Ebola cases reported in Guinea being linked to traditional burial practices,” according to the Pan African Medical Journal. The Coronavirus is facing similar problems with the spread of misinformation. Unfactual information results in incorrect theories on how the virus spreads, which has disenfranchised some civilians from following proper hygiene protocol.

Members of the international community have begun to speak out against the spread of false information in Africa. On May 21st, the United Nations announced a ‘Verified’ initiative to, “combat the growing scourge of COVID-19 misinformation by increasing the volume and reach of trusted, accurate information.” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expanded on the initiative’s mission, “misinformation spreads online, in messaging apps and person to person. Its creators use savvy production and distribution methods. To counter it, scientists and institutions like the United Nations need to reach people with accurate information they can trust.” Information can be a highly powerful tool to compensate for African states’ relatively weak infrastructure and governance. The spreading of factual information can be a catalyst for local innovation once the mechanisms of viral diseases are understood.

The adoption of a down-up system for COVID-19 mitigation in Africa does not imply an entire ignorance of Western responses to the pandemic. Africa will not be able to curb the infection rate of the virus adequately without the help of the international community and human rights organizations. However, local communities stand a better chance of creating effective policies when they become a central part of the response process. Although a top-down transfer of information can be highly effective, the technology, procedures, and cultural aspects are catered to the Western states they derive from. For Coronavirus’s response to be successful in Africa, it must be tailored to consider and invite local populations to the process. The international community must become hyper-sensitive to the needs of Africa. Moreover, Western states must be careful not to use a broad brush to paint the entire continent’s response policy as contingent on a single outline.

Catherine Kreider

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