News & Media / COVID-19 in Africa: Multifaceted impact on Africa’s youth

COVID-19 in Africa: Multifaceted impact on Africa’s youth

12 August, 2020

The recently published Mo Ibrahim Foundation NGN Survey highlights the multifaceted impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Africa’s young and mid-level career citizens. Given the findings, there are cautionary signals which parties vested in Africa’s positive development trajectory should pay attention. These are pre-existing challenges which lodge themselves in the precarity of sustainable economic opportunities on the continent that are being replicated during, or have been exacerbated by, the current global health crisis. Of the 143 respondents to the survey, 100% cited unemployment, as the main socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across the 35 countries surveyed.

The survey report goes on to highlight that a “large majority of [African] governments have failed to take adequate measures to mitigate the heavy economic and social impact of the COVID-19 crisis”. The precarity of socio-economic conditions in Africa – especially for the continent’s most economically active population which is forecast to “constitute 57.7% of [its] total population” in the next seven years – must be dealt with parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic if other interlinked and cyclical challenges are to be disrupted. 

As highlighted in the 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), 43.2% of Africa’s citizens live in a country where sustainable economic opportunities have declined in a decade (2008-2017). The impact of the pandemic threatens to paint a gloomier picture on the outlook on livelihoods considering, amongst other factors, added strain to business environments. According to the NGN Survey, suggested interventions to mitigate the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis by governments may be: “social welfare policies, tax cuts, subsidies to mitigate the economic impact on citizens and businesses, and fully supporting vulnerable families with food supplies to enable them to stay at home”. This commitment to saving livelihoods can however not be separated from the political commitment to transparency and accountability towards eradicating endemic corruption for such measures to be affected and effective. Alas, in countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa, clientelism continues to mar such commitment through corruption scandals involving senior government officials and their families surrounding the procurement and supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) amounting to USD $60 million and ZAR 125 million in the respective countries. Such flagrant use of government funds meant to provide safety nets during this time must not be tolerated. 

The normalisation of clientelism has bred continued disinvestment in infrastructure on the African continent. Citing the 2018 IIAG, despite progress in Infrastructure scores remain low, as with Transparency & Accountability which remains the worst performing sub-category. Data in the 2019 Ibrahim Forum Report titled Africa’s Youth: Jobs or Migration? – show that education, now more than ever, is affected by this. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa had skills deficit where higher education levels did not enhance job prospects. With 30 million young people expected to enter Africa’s labour market annually in the next decade, it is critical that relevant education models are rolled out across Africa. Likewise, the COVID-19 pandemic has catalysed the need for, and access to, widespread e-learning platforms which allow the school year to continue without contact.

According to Afrobarometer data, where infrastructure is present, digital literacy tends to be higher as citizens’ readiness to transition to digital learning is “primarily shaped by their level of formal education and access to electricity”. This data also show that though availability of electricity has increased in the last decade, the continental average for households that have access to both a reliable electricity grid and cell phone service is 62%. Calls for private partners and innovators to address such challenges cannot be made without commitment from governments to channel funds into investing in infrastructure.

COVID-19 has provided a crucial opportunity for the politicisation of access to socio-economic, as well as civic rights, to be reviewed at all levels of governance within Africa. The associated consequences of clientelism breeding disinvestment in infrastructure, a lack of transparency, as well as the enhancement of police powers during the current pandemic, must not be separated from concerns by NGN survey respondents who agree that the impact of COVID-19 is threatening human rights and civil liberties on the continent. Additionally, analyses surrounding national security during COVID-19 point to concerns in potential cultural shifts towards normalising state securitisation where oversight functions from civil society and the independent courts remain limited if sunset clauses to lockdown rules remain loosely defined. Countries such as Zimbabwe and Tanzania continue to show concerning trends in this regard. Impartial governance strategies and adherence to the rule of law are key to securing safety nets that concern NGN survey respondents. As such, COVID-19 must not be seen as a great equaliser – rather a great illuminator. The pandemic, and its multifaceted effects begs Africans to look deeply at cyclical challenges facing the continent, and learn from past mistakes to charter progressive governance futures in aftermath of the global health crisis.

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