A worker of the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI), holds a thermometer at a temperature control point at the Bole International Airport, in Addis Ababa, on March 17, 2020. - (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP) (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Africa’s Covid-19 response has humbled the Western world

Why is it that Africa has seemingly dealt with the coronavirus pandemic better than the rest of the world?

You don’t tend to hear much about Pliny the Elder these days. “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi,” the Roman scholar remarked, giving us the saying and idea that “Out of Africa always something new.” It’s proving no different with Covid-19, as the continent’s propensity for evoking the mysterious and unexpected is borne out during its experience of the pandemic.

A basic choreography of daily tactile greetings on the street constitutes a wet dream for a virus

As the spread of Covid-19 accelerated around Europe and America, I couldn’t help my thoughts and fears also turning toward Ethiopia (the third country I hold dear in my heart after the UK and US due to my life experiences). Based on my previous years living in its capital Addis Ababa, working as a freelance journalist, both Ethiopia’s problems and merits appeared to make the country particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. I knew what a tactile and social society Ethiopia has: people of all ages are always kissing, handshaking, hugging, even bumping shoulders together (an act steeped in the solidarity of rebels who toppled Ethiopia’s former military dictatorship in the early 1990s). A basic daily greeting on the street can extend into a choreography of tactile greetings, constituting a wet dream for a virus.

Furthermore, maintaining personal space in a rambunctious teeming city like Addis Ababa is next to impossible: the essential blue and white minibuses that ferry people around the city have to fill up every available space, squeezing at least double the normal number of people onto any given row of seats; I well remember days, perhaps weeks, of accumulated time in those workhorses squashed up against windows or pinioned between other passengers having to sit along the space beside the sliding minibus door.

On top of all this, like many African countries, Ethiopia’s healthcare system remains weak and overstretched at the best of times. Ethiopia has just one doctor for every 10,000 people, according to the World Bank—a ratio that is half of neighbouring Kenya, four times lower than Nigeria and nine times lower than South Africa.

In short, I thought Covid-19 would spread like wildfire in Ethiopia, decimating the country and population. I wasn’t alone in my amateur assessment, with various experts predicting across Africa potentially hundreds of thousands or even millions of deaths, while those shaky healthcare systems utterly imploded. But things haven’t turned out like that. Not in the slightest. Ethiopia reported its first coronavirus case on 13 March. Since then, Ethiopia has fared remarkably well, almost to a baffling, freakish degree. Of the 65,486 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Ethiopia—as of 16 Sept—there have been 1,035 deaths.

Many African countries are walking a similar economic tightrope

Such muted and surprising trends have occurred across most of Africa, which though it contains 17 percent of the world’s population, had less than 2 percent of confirmed cases of Covid-19 by mid-May, a figure that has still only risen to 4 percent this month. So far Africa has experienced 33,071 deaths due to Covid-19, according to the BBC’s handy Coronavirus in Africa tracker, representing 3.5 percent of the 935,000 global deaths tallied by the World Health Organization. Even after the outbreak, there were countries such as Mauritius, Namibia and the Seychelles that went for weeks without reporting new cases of Covid-19.

There are varying theories as to why the spread of Covid-19 in Africa has proceeded so slowly and differently. There is relative agreement that what proved crucial in slowing the spread was the swift introduction across most of the continent by authorities of containment measures. African countries implemented lockdowns far earlier than the West did.

“Measures such as travel restrictions, curfews and school closures were implemented early in Africa compared with other continents, often before an African country had detected a case,” states an analysis by Science magazine. Its authors attribute this readiness to take early action to the experiences of many African countries with other infectious diseases such as Ebola and Lassa fever.

Ten days after Ethiopia had its first Covid case, the Ethiopian government announced the closure of the country’s land borders on 23 March. By 8 April, the government declared a five-month State of Emergency (SOE) to help limit the spread of the virus.

At least 42 African countries had implemented lockdown by the end of April, with 38 of those having been in place for at least three weeks. It is also thought that Africa has been helped by its unique socio-ecological context. Africans tend to travel less than those in more developed countries due to the sparse road networks. Also, lower rates of infected people dying than in richer countries is being attributed to the relative youth of African populations. Sixty percent of Africa’s 1.25 billion people are under the age of 25—the youngest population in the world. Of Ethiopia’s 105 million people, 40.5 percent is under the age of 15, according to USAID.

At the same time, and perhaps not surprisingly, according to the Science analysis, hardier African immune systems shaped by the African environment, in which exposure to microorganisms and parasites is common, could be another reason for the milder course of the pandemic. This contrasts with the more sterile and less infectious cosseted environments of Western societies but in which more widespread non-infectious diseases such as cardiovascular illnesses, obesity and Type 2 diabetes can cause huge problems when Covid-19 strikes.

For now, most of Covid-19’s impact in Ethiopia and across Africa is unrelated to public health. Civic society and the economy have borne the brunt of its fallout thus far. After Covid-19 arrived in Ethiopia, there were reports of abusive behaviour towards foreigners—with foreigners blamed for bringing the virus into the country—including a small number of cases of assault. The situation led to the Ethiopian government having to issue a stark warning to citizens to refrain from attacking foreigners.

Ethiopia’s important flower export industry has taken a huge hit. After Europe was hit with the coronavirus, the demand for flowers plummeted and the price dropped by more than 80 percent. It’s reported a total of 150,000 employees in this industry are at the risk of losing their jobs. Ethiopian Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, reports that it’s working at only 10 percent of its capacity and has reported a loss of $550 million in the months of January to April 2020. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates that Covid-19 will shave 2.9 percentage points off of Ethiopia’s economic growth for fiscal year 2020.

My time in Ethiopia illustrated human inequities in parallel with impressive economic numbers

A developing country like Ethiopia can ill afford such economic slumps. The country’s fault lines were already looking more precarious before Covid-19 arrived, after more than two years of protests that began in 2016 over long-term grievances such as human rights abuses, government land seizures, the monopolising of business and economic interests by a corrupt elite, and political marginalisation of opposition groups. Those protests were spearheaded by the disgruntled young and unemployed and precipitated the declaration of two States of Emergencies to restore peace and security. Now, more than 26 million Ethiopian students have been affected by school closures due to the coronavirus, according to UNICEF.

Many African countries are walking a similar economic tightrope, with less capacity than richer countries to ride out economic downturns. African governments face more of a challenge in how to loosen lockdown restrictions as they try to balance the harm of Covid-19 against the undermining of their economies and more broad public health. Studies are indicating that in some African countries the negative knock-on effects from Covid-19 for treatment for the likes of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria could be just as bad in terms of years of life lost.

Such knock-on effects are a massive problem across the developing world, while of course developed countries face a similar dilemma. In a speech at the United Nations this month, Kailash Satyarthi, founder of Laureates and Leaders for Children, and a 2014 Nobel Peace Laureate, said that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the deep inequalities faced by the poorest families, who are the least equipped to protect themselves in times of global crisis.

“Despite unprecedented government spending to protect national interests and the global economy,” he warns, “little has been allocated to protect the 1 in 5 children who live on $2 per day or less.” Without urgent action now, he added, “we risk losing an entire generation”.

The United Nation’s children agency UNICEF has highlighted that 188 countries have imposed countrywide school closures, affecting more than 1.6 billion children and youth. It’s hard to gauge the scale of potential losses that could accrue for today’s younger generation, but they are likely to be even worse for those in low income countries, of which only 30 percent have introduced a national distance learning platform (before this crisis, almost one third of the world’s young people were already digitally excluded).

I’m not going to argue with a Nobel Peace Laureate or UNICEF, though I would venture the point that, notwithstanding a huge problem correctly identified, good luck getting a coordinated and effective response from Western governments such as ours that are tying themselves in knots and failing miserably to sort out their own societies.

The Covid-19 experience has shown up the astonishing complacency and hubris that for too long has dominated the Western mindset, both at the personal and national levels. We had it so good, and we never knew it. At the same time, the story of the African response to Covid-19 set against the European and US responses has shown up how we have continually failed to show an adequate level of respect toward Africa, not helped by the foreign media’s insatiable appetite to focus on stories relating to disease, war and corruption around the continent.

Most economic and think tank assessments predict the future will be China’s. But by 2030, one in five people in the world will be African.

“Combine the continent’s soaring population with technology, improvements in infrastructure, health and education, and Africa could be the next century’s economic growth powerhouse,” says a report by the World Economic Forum.

Quite possibly, but as with the foreign media’s myopic presentations of all that is bad in Africa, one has to beware of letting the blue-sky utopian thinking consume all. My time and continuing travels in Ethiopia—throughout its “economic boom” and “renaissance” of the last decade—have illustrated the very human inequities that continue in parallel with the impressive economic numbers, while my personal Covid-19 experience has served to reinforce those harsher lessons.

Hence, in a recent WhatsApp exchange with my best Ethiopian friend—we go back 20 years now—I confessed to him how finally I have come to properly appreciate what it has been like for him—and most other Ethiopians—to live all these years: stuck and unable to improve your situation no matter how much energy and endeavour you throw at it. It was a topic we have talked about before Covid-19 came along, as I jetted in and out of Ethiopia over the years, and my friend slogged on, hampered by low pay, lack of job opportunities, mindless bureaucracy and nepotism throughout the Ethiopian state. But I can’t deny that it is one thing to hear of it and briefly conceptualise it, before moving on, and quite another to then actually live it myself.

“It makes you lose meaning in life when you get stuck at one particular place however [much] you do different things,” my friend messaged.

Across the developing world, millions of people have lived their normal lives in a type of default lockdown due to government oppression and limited if non-existent socio-economic opportunities. I’m not pointing that out to suggest that those of us in more developed and privileged positions should therefore in response embrace the sort of self-flagellation demanded these days by much of the far Left and so-called social justice activists. Rather, in acknowledging that lockdown-esque reality that permeates so much of the developing world regardless of Covid-19, we should try our best to improve it through effective international cooperation and diplomacy—therefore with less self-interested aid and action that stokes dependency syndrome—while also cherishing and not sacrificing our own civil liberties in the face of the alarmism and confusion of our own governments or through capitulation to our own private fears and insecurities.

As we sort ourselves out here in the West, which one hopes will include doing justice to and not forgetting the heritage and sacrificial legacies that have brought us so much to be thankful for, do not forget Africa, that remarkable and baffling continent from which we all came and that I wish all the best in continuing to make Pliny the Elder proud by further substantiating his observation.

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