The current COVID-19 pandemics has been to date, despite its beginning in China, a tale of developed (northern hemisphere) countries, from Italy to the US. The response has been lockdown and testing, with economic stimulus to follow. The story of COVID-19 in Africa will be different.
On the dark side, we have a few certainties about lockdown, testing and the capacity of health systems in Africa. There is a total lack of protective equipment and no real possibilities of closing at home the majority of the population, which lives on day-to-day subsistence. Testing capacity is minuscule, and the ability to offer intensive care is absent.
On the hopeful side, we have a few uncertainties about epidemiological fundamentals: we do not know whether hot and humid weather can slow transmission of the virus, the age distribution of the population is much younger than in Italy (although other relevant traits could play against, e.g., prevalence of HIV), and mandatory BCG vaccination could give a hand (?).
What can we do today? Use the best ICT we have. That requires good (national) leadership.
It will be difficult to test for the live presence of the virus. That requires labs that it is not feasible to think we can massively build in the average African country in a few weeks. However, we can still improve the health management system. We can set up simple phone platforms that ask simple and automated questions, while collecting geo-located symptoms information and providing simple health information. By the way, we can do this through SMSs too (e.g., Ushahidi). Governments can massively disseminate these hotlines, if they want: they typically control the media. The problem is: will they want to do that? In these times, governments everywhere (in my own country too) are fearful of information management. In African countries, in normal times, the difficulties of information for health are already significant in face of traditional beliefs. African governments need to be brave here and use ICT to inform people on the utmost importance of some social distancing, of covering mouth and nose, and of washing hands.
What if a calamity really hits Africa, what can we do then? Use the best calamity relief policies. That requires good (international) leadership.
As mentioned above, we cannot discard now the possibility that many people die of COVID-19 in Africa. We cannot rule out that African regions with significant food security issues suffer famines due to disruptions of food supply and increasing prices, prolonged in time by a likely worldwide recession. We should prepare for that possibility: this is a (potential) tsunami warning weeks in advance. Fortunately, we have been better and better over time in dealing with calamities. In informal and poor settings, there is little alternative to mobilizing and coordinating governments and donors, as well as making good use of unconditional cash transfers (and electronic payments if possible). Subsidies can also do well whenever governments have ways to touch the formal economy. Investing in (simpler) immunization testing can also be a game changer according to World Bank researchers. Preparation is key and we have some time. This is when those well-intentioned world leaders out there can excel!
Article by Pedro C. Vicente
Pedro Vicente is Associate Professor of Economics and director of the PhD program in Economics and Finance at Nova School of Business and Economics, and an invited Lecturer at the University of Oxford. Pedro researches on development economics, with an emphasis on political economy issues, and a special interest in Africa. He designed and conducted field work (including randomized field experiments) in Mozambique, Nigeria, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome and Principe. He has published articles in top field journals such as the Economic Journal, Journal of Development Economics, and Review of Economics and Statistics. Pedro holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago, and is affiliated with BREAD (Duke University, USA) and with the CSAE (University of Oxford, UK). He is Lead Academic for Mozambique at the IGC (International Growth Center based at the LSE and Oxford), and a consultant for the World Bank.