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COVID-19 in Africa: The continent’s prospects post-pandemic

The Foundation carried out its first Now Generation Network (NGN) Survey from 12-25 June. Participants further unpack the findings from the Survey in relation to the impact of COVID-19 in Africa and the continent’s prospects.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

The medical impact of the COVID-19 pandemic may have been lower in Africa than other regions of the world, but it has had far-reaching social, political, and economic effects on the continent. Infection and death rates are lower in most African countries than in Europe, Asia and the Americas, but many African health systems are less able to absorb the impact of treatment requirements on budgets, equipment and staff time. Attempts to limit contagion have highlighted long-running disparities in access to sanitation and healthcare, cast a spotlight on the double precarity of low-income informal work and import-dependence, and introduced a new twist into the old game of electioneering. Countries approaching national and presidential ballots in the coming months – Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Niger, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia among them - will have to reckon with the safety implications of registration and voting exercises, and the potential for politically-motivated restrictions on opposition campaigns, civil society meetings and public protests. 

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s NGN Survey report, COVID-19 in Africa: What does it mean for young people?, highlights youth perspectives on these issues, amid expectations of a difficult recovery for most countries, but also opportunities for substantial positive change. The survey solicited input from 143 African scholars and professionals who are part of  the Foundation’s NGN, with respondents expressing the following views among others: 

  • The health threat of COVID-19 in Africa is overshadowed by larger structural concerns – fundamental gaps in political and economic systems create an environment of ongoing precarity, within which the novel coronavirus is one more vector of insecurity. Survey respondents cite economic instability (79%), unemployment (66%), and food insecurity (43%) as major concerns, alongside opaque and corrupt governance, and potential conflict as the most important challenges to be resolved in building effective responses. 
  • State responses to the pandemic need to be more strategic than basic control measures – policymakers and institutions need to think beyond preventing infections to more systematic investments in social services and economic prosperity. There is a strong consensus (84%) among respondents that the pandemic could provide a temporal window for change, especially towards economic reform and self-sufficiency.
  • Civic engagement and collective action should be protected and maintained in the ‘new normal’- social distancing does not need to spell the death of collaboration and activism. Communities and organisers should protect civil space and democratic life by adapting activities for reasonable safety considerations but push back on curfews and blanket bans on gatherings. Related concerns expressed by survey respondents include police brutality and restrictions on civil liberties. More than half (54%) of survey respondents are involved in or leading collectives responding to the pandemic. Remote organising and socially distanced responses need to consider how to scale geographically with limited internet access and raise the profile of underrepresented groups in deliberations and service delivery.

So where do we go from here? Some instructive sentiments were shared during the online discussion with MIF Board members and NGN representatives that followed the report publication. African governments need to be more cognisant of context (especially the implications of poverty, informality and gender disparities) and try to lead from a place of compassion rather than control. Entrepreneurs, financiers, and consumers need to work together to catalyse markets for goods and services with high local use-values. Activists and volunteers are advised to not forget digitally disconnected populations in knowledge-sharing and organising efforts.  

Three watchwords in these efforts should be resilience, productivity, and equity: African countries need more sustainable and shock-proof systems of production, service provision and emergency management. Localising supply chains and encouraging community-led investment and cooperative commercial activity would go a long way to achieving this. There is also an urgent need for an increase in meaningful work opportunities and productive capacity to address widespread precarity and disquiet among rapidly growing youth populations. Incentivising innovation and production for local needs, supporting cottage industry for capital-light productivity increases in processing primary goods, and building out infrastructure for digital services and transactions are priorities here. Finally, a post-COVID future must be one that addresses income and wealth distribution, political inclusion, and social cohesion in African societies. Stronger civic and community organisations are key to pushing for more responsive local representation, transparent resource management, and progressive fiscal and industrial policy.

The pandemic raises the prospect of fundamental changes to African lives and livelihoods, both negative and positive. Amid the upheaval of global economic and political systems, there are opportunities for Africans to make constructive changes in areas of policy and activism where the status quo may previously have seemed inflexible. The pandemic has shown that many fundamental assumptions of governance, business and social norms can be questioned and updated when circumstances call for radical action. African lawmakers, innovators and organisers should consider how to use this moment of change as a pivot to address structural weaknesses and glaring disparities in human development indicators on the continent, and to lift their countries’ social, political, and economic trajectories.