News & Media / COVID-19 in Africa: Youth Perspectives – Nasi Rwigema

COVID-19 in Africa: Youth Perspectives – Nasi Rwigema

20 May, 2020

How are young people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?  

The short answer is surprisingly well. Demographics appear to play a role with COVID-19 where people over the age of 65 are known to be more vulnerable. This gives Africa an advantage with its young population which the World Health Organization has described as “a source of hope.” With 60% of its population under the age of 25 (as highlighted in the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s 2019 Ibrahim Forum report), African countries are expected to endure fewer fatalities per capita than regions with elderly populations such as Spain or Italy.

At the same time, it has taken a longer period for COVID-19 to reach Africa and the spread has been relatively minor compared to outbreaks in China or the United States. Scientists can’t figure out why densely packed African cities have been spared while the virus has taken more American lives than the Vietnam War. Some fear that Africa is simply weeks away from severe outbreaks.

What role can young people play in prevention, response, and transformation in combating COVID-19 in Africa? 

In case of widespread outbreaks, we can expect conditions in Africa to be much more challenging than in the West. Health systems will be overwhelmed, economies will drop to dangerously low levels, access to basic provisions like food will become even more difficult, and social unrest may rise through sheer desperation. 

Rich countries have been able to borrow money at historically low rates to fund defences such as healthcare, vaccines, and income protection. At the same time, many low-income African countries have been credit downgraded and shut out of debt markets leaving governments to rely on foreign aid to fund coping mechanisms.

Young people must therefore anticipate that their governments may simply not be able to shield them from the immediate and long-term effects of the pandemic. To survive the greatest crisis of our generation, we must do all we can to limit the havoc caused by this virus and take part in the creation of positive ways through it.

Health advice should be taken seriously; assuming COVID-19 is an elderly disease would be a painful mistake. For those entering the workforce or managing career trajectories, the sad fact is that the employment landscape will change, most likely for the worst. At the same time, the pandemic’s shock to society will, in some ways, reset and shuffle global power and the world order creating fresh opportunities for the entrepreneurs and forward thinkers who have their eyes open. 

What lessons and best practice can African countries learn from each other and Ebola response to help slow the spread of COVID-19?  

Without straightforward evidence for arguments such as Vitamin D or warmer weather being effective in combating the virus, two main reasons stand out for Africa’s success. The first is that African leaders had an early warning as they watched health systems buckle in China, then Italy, the U.K., and the U.S. While responses have varied across the continent, many African countries acted swiftly and early initiating lockdowns, closing borders, and ramping up testing activities.

The second reason is that Africa is no stranger to the ravaging effects of infectious disease from HIV/AIDS in the South to Ebola in the West. Leaders have learned crucial lessons in both the human and economic costs of epidemics as well as the strategies required to end them. The sharing of said lessons has been positive too. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was effective in giving information and co-ordinating strategies with heads of state and will now be supporting efforts to test, trace, and treat via armies of health workers across the continent.

African leaders have, however, been criticised for panic-rushing to copy the strategies of Western countries by imposing lockdowns and border closures without considering the social challenges they pose to people who live in informal settlements and need to go out and work each day to provide food for their families. We are seeing the impacts of these decisions now as lockdown restrictions get relaxed under survival pressures despite rising rates in death and new infections. If these trends continue, countries may be forced to implement a second wave of measures. Many regions simply cannot manage extended lockdowns and leaders will need to develop more homegrown solutions to weather the storm.

How has your country responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

South Africa imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns before recording even a single death. In one month, the government mobilised 28,000 health workers to screen over 14% of the population and approved an unprecedented USD $26.5 billion support package.

Naturally, there has been criticism of several decisions including the classification of essential workers and services which left many vendors, small business owners, and traders unable to do business during the shutdown. However,  others, such as registered spaza shops, were allowed to operate.

While a sizeable part of the support fund had been directed toward food and financial aid, the rules on eligibility have been controversial with regards to undocumented migrants and people and businesses whose tax affairs are not in good order. 

A greater challenge has been posed to leadership regarding whether a strict lockdown was the right measure and whether it may have been implemented too early. In May, the country began a phased lifting of the more severe lockdown restrictions and only time will tell how effective the measures have been.

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