The first case of COVID-19 in Africa was confirmed in Egypt on February 14, 2020. Since then, 100 days have passed.
To mark this milestone, COVID-19 Africa Watch reached out to ten African leaders and veteran African watchers to ask for their reflections on two key questions:
- Over these first 100 days, what African leader or organization deserves special recognition for their response to COVID-19?
- Looking ahead, what will be the most consequential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic one to two years from now?
Below we feature responses to these questions from Edem Adzogenu, Mimi Alemayehou, K.Y. Amoako, Aubrey Hruby, W. Gyude Moore, Zemedeneh Negatu, Hannah Ryder, Ayo Sogunro, Vera Songwe, and Rachel Strohm. Together, this group represents think tanks, NGOs, investors, business leaders, and pan-African policy bodies all actively involved in the fight against COVID-19 on the continent.
What African leader or organization deserves special recognition for their response to COVID-19?
Our request to highlight a single individual or group proved difficult, with many respondents telling us that there were too many examples to choose from. Overall, though, their answers fell into three broad categories: African political leaders, pan-African institutions, and business and civil society.
African political leaders
Dr. Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and U.N. Under-Secretary General, told COVID-19 Africa Watch, “While the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on African countries is currently difficult to determine, one thing is very clear and commendable: leaders and policymakers have come together to respond quickly, and in a coordinated manner.”
“Political leaders in much of Africa deserve special recognition… Across the continent, we sometimes bemoan weak leadership, but in this case, we should be heartened.”
Dr. K.Y. Amoako, President of the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), agreed. “Political leaders in much of Africa deserve special recognition,” he said. “In many countries—from South Africa to Ghana to Senegal—we saw swift and decisive action from Presidents on social distancing measures, from central bank Governors on easing monetary policies, and from Ministers in enacting health, social, and financial measures. Across the continent, we sometimes bemoan weak leadership, but in this case, we should be heartened.”
Zemedeneh Negatu, Global Chairman of the Fairfax Africa Fund, put forward Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as a particularly important figure in “one of Africa’s biggest successes during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the deferment of debt payments from G-20 creditors, the IMF, and the World Bank. Negatu told us, “This effort got global attention and credibility because of the lead taken by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on behalf of Africa.”
For his part, Ayo Sogunro, a Nigerian author and legal scholar at the Centre for Human Rights in Pretoria, applauded South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for his response to COVID-19. Sogunro told us, President Ramaphosa “demonstrated significant proactiveness in his handling of the crisis. He also did this in a manner that was respectful of the rule of law and democratic freedoms, while acknowledging the hardships imposed on the citizens and residents of South Africa.”
African multilateral institutions
Several of our respondents praised the work of two major pan-African institutions, the Africa Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).
“The Africa CDC stands out,” said W. Gyude Moore, former Liberian Minister of Public Works and currently a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. “The organization is barely over two years old and has led the way in providing a consistent response across the continent. It has supported national governments in preparation, and in purchasing reagents and other medical supplies. Largely untested at the beginning of this pandemic, the organization has justified its existence.” Edem Adzogenu, Chair of the Executive Committee of AfroChampions Initiative, agreed. He told COVID-19 Africa Watch, “The Africa CDC deserves commendation for the role they are playing in coordinating a continental response to the pandemic in terms of fundraising, thought leadership, and accelerated testing and contract tracing.” Likewise, Rachel Strohm, Board Chair of the Mawazo Institute, said, “The head of the Africa CDC, Dr. John Nkengasong, has modeled clear communication and active leadership during the crisis.”
Alongside the Africa CDC, the ECA, according to Mimi Alemayehou, Managing Director of Black Rhino Group and a ONE Campaign board member, “deserves recognition for leading African Ministers of Finance to form a united voice on the issue of sovereign and private sector debt.” As led by Dr. Songwe, Alemayehou said, “The ECA had already become a dependent spokesperson for African countries on economic matters, but it has taken it up several notches during this health and economic crisis.” Hannah Ryder, CEO of the consulting firm Development Reimagined, agreed. The ECA, she said is “at the vanguard of ensuring that African governments take an informed and coordinated approach to trade and debt.”
African businesses and civil society
Several of our respondents underscored the meaningful role businesses and civil society have played in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the ECA’s Dr. Songwe, “Africa’s private sector and its youth have responded with entrepreneurialism and ingenuity to the crisis. Companies have repurposed their manufacturing lines to produce essential COVID-19 products like sanitizers, face masks, and personal protective equipment. The private sector stayed open in many countries to help keep jobs going and businesses have adopted a number of effective measures to mitigate the effects of operating in the COVID-19 environment. These include adopting technology, working remotely and using ecommerce to drive trade.”
As an example of this kind of business leadership, Hannah Ryder applauded Mahlet Afewerk, CEO of MafiMafi, a sustainable fashion brand in Ethiopia, for “repurposing her factory to make affordable masks and gowns even before the first case had been recorded in Ethiopia, and before guidance was even issued on use of face masks by her government or the WHO.” Afewerk, Ryder told us, “has since then been distributing the PPE across the country as well as making sure her workers stay safe and keep their jobs.” Similarly, Aubrey Hruby, Co-Founder of the Africa Expert Network and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, pointed to Safe Hands Kenya as “a great example of the rapid mobilization of the Kenyan private sector and innovative partnerships between startups and traditional manufacturers.”
“It is the willingness of ordinary people across Africa to step up and do the right things—from social distancing to new sanitary habits—that has kept the virus contained.”
Among civil society leaders, the Mawazo Institute’s Rachel Strohm applauded the founders of mutual aid groups as playing a critical role. “Across the continent, private citizens have set up mutual aid networks to help people thrown out of work by the pandemic lockdowns. These groups have often moved much more quickly than government relief efforts. People like human rights activist Rachael Mwikali in Kenya or lawyer Samantha Murozoki in Zimbabwe have been providing food and sanitary supplies to hundreds of others.” Ayo Sogunro also noted that civil society has played an essential role in those places where there is “absence of effective and empathetic leadership.” He told us, “It is the willingness of ordinary people across Africa to step up and do the right things—from social distancing to new sanitary habits—that has kept the virus contained.”
What will be the most consequential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic one to two years from now?
We asked respondents to identify some of the most consequential impacts of the pandemic in the next couple of years, as well as possible opportunities for progress that may emerge from the current crisis. Their thoughts included dire warnings about the economic fallout of the crisis, as well as notes of opportunity for increased intra-African trade, the acceleration of technological innovation, and the possibility—and the urgency of—renewed political compacts between political leaders and citizens.
Growth and employment impacts
The ECA’s Dr. Songwe told us, “The crisis will depress growth, taking it from an estimated 3.2 percent in 2020 to now below 1 percent. With 42 countries under lockdown the economic costs are severe, estimated at about US$69 billion a month.” She added, “The major challenges facing every country are how to safeguard jobs, stop citizens from falling deeper into poverty, and protect the most vulnerable while suppressing the spread of the virus. Over 20 million jobs are already at risk, particularly in the service sectors.” As a result, she said, “there is a need for immediate support of at least US$100 billion to respond to the health and humanitarian needs, emergency economic stimulus to provide fiscal support to countries, and more liquidity support for the private sector to protect jobs.”
“We are in for a long period of slow growth, which means increased poverty in African markets, especially in countries dependent on oil for government revenues and foreign exchange.”
The Mawazo Institute’s Rachel Strohm raised similar concerns. “The experience of Asian countries,” she said, “suggests that lockdowns may have to continue on and off until there’s a vaccine, which may not happen until 2021 at the earliest. So African countries may well lose a generation’s worth of progress in poverty reduction and public health improvements before the pandemic ends.” In the same vein, the Atlantic Council’s Aubrey Hruby said, “We are in for a long period of slow growth, which means increased poverty in African markets, especially in countries dependent on oil for government revenues and foreign exchange.”
According to Fairfax Africa Fund’s Zemedeneh Negatu, the continent’s economic forecast will be “dependent on several factors, the most important of which is if a vaccine is developed quickly or not.” If it is, he said, there is “a high probability of expanding global economic activities, including in Africa, with overall GDP growth returning to almost equal pre-COVID-19 levels within 18 to 24 months.” But he continued, “If no vaccine is developed in the next 12 months, then the global economy, including Africa’s, will take much longer to recover with prolonged high unemployment rates, low government revenue, macroeconomic instability, and overall uncertainty.”
Transformation of trade and supply chains
“One of the challenges that must be addressed immediately,” Mimi Alemayehou told us, “is supply chain disruption, as trade patterns have been severely affected by the pandemic.” This disruption, she said, is “wreaking havoc in African markets,” but could end up being “an unfortunate form of shock therapy to wean Africa off its long-time dependency on imports, many of which can be produced locally. In other words, the pandemic is creating, in the medium term, a set of opportunities for local and regional suppliers.” She called the current situation “fertile ground” for the African Continental Free Trade Area (launched in 2018) and hoped it would provoke the necessary political will to establish “a proper environment for local production and trade to thrive.”
Hannah Ryder also believed the current crisis could encourage African leaders “to reflect on just how marginalized yet dependent their economies are on the rest of the world, and redouble their efforts to change this.” She argued African policymakers should “push much harder for increased local manufacturing of medical, retail, and value-added products, and for more and improved logistics for cross-regional trade.”
Acceleration of technological adoption and innovation
As W. Gyude Moore told us, “COVID-19 has been an accelerant of trends, bringing the future closer.” Part of this acceleration, he said, has been the expansion of the digital economy. “Ecommerce sites have seen large upticks across the continent,” Moore said, “and I believe that trend is permanent.”
This was a point of considerable consensus among the experts we spoke to. Zemedeneh Negatu told us, “Regardless of the pace of the recovery, the wide-range use of technology will accelerate across Africa including mobile financial services, e-government, online education, and telemedicine. Even virtual African government cabinet meetings via Zoom could become the norm.” Aubrey Hruby said, “COVID-19 is speeding up efforts to digitize government services, healthcare, and education; solve wifi deficits and high data costs; and encourage work from home that eliminates unproductive time spent commuting and in traffic.”
“In imposing a new way of doing things, the pandemic has opened the door to a new way of thinking which should once again afford Africa the luxury of leapfrogging several decades of progress in other parts of the world, in order to claim the continent’s share in the benefits of the digital age.”
Mimi Alemayehou made similar remarks. “Virtual boards, online signatures, and paperless document sharing are increasingly becoming the norm in many African business circles,” she said. “Despite having existed for some time, these technologies were not considered as acceptable forms of conducting business in Africa until the pandemic. It will be difficult to reverse course once some normalcy returns.” She added, “In imposing a new way of doing things, the pandemic has opened the door to a new way of thinking which should once again afford Africa the luxury of leapfrogging several decades of progress in other parts of the world, in order to claim the continent’s share in the benefits of the digital age.”
Looking towards recovery—and for new forms of leadership
100 days after COVID-19’s arrival on the continent, the future remains unclear. As noted above, the experts we spoke to believed Africa’s initial response to the crisis was aided by the decisive action of policymakers, pan-African institutions, scientists, business leaders, and ordinary citizens. They also emphasized the nature of the recovery will rely on ongoing levelheadedness and solidarity across all segments of African society.
“The recovery will vary from country to country. Those African countries with strong leadership determined to implement transformational economic reforms will recover more quickly and more broadly than others.”
Zemedeneh Negatu told us, “The recovery will vary from country to country. Those African countries with strong leadership determined to implement transformational economic reforms will recover more quickly and more broadly than others.” ACET’s Dr. K.Y. Amoako saw the opportunity for valuable peer effects across countries. “There is,” he said, “in many countries, new political solidarity to take difficult decisions, and in this instance, we should not let such an opportunity go to waste.”
Several people we spoke to also believed the pandemic could—and should—catalyze political reforms to create more inclusive societies. Mimi Alemayehou told us, “While many of the opportunities we’ve discussed depict a silver lining to a clearly awful situation, such an optimistic tone would rapidly become irrelevant if these opportunities are not somehow extended to include the informal sector and the rural areas. With or without a pandemic, financial inclusion and a reduction in income inequality will continue to be Africa’s biggest challenges.”
The legal scholar Ayo Sogunro reached a similar conclusion. “The most significant governance outcome of this pandemic,” he told us, “is its exposure of the weakness and unsuitability of existing models of governance in several African countries for the modern world and the modern political economy. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are still run on highly centralized ‘strong man’ systems that are inadequate for the kind of local-level efficiency needed to manage a pandemic.”
He concluded his remarks to us with a call to action and a warning. “It is clearer now,” he said, “that society as a whole will remain insecure and unstable if socially and economically marginalized people are not treated with dignity and their rights respected. The burden of promoting this ideal has to be borne by the educated middle class in Africa. Those of us in this group have to do more to promote equal rights and social justice. We need to advocate more for the dignity of all persons. We must also resist the existing state capture by the elite across Africa, and create a transcontinental movement promoting political systems that will return power to the people most affected by policies, systems where ordinary people have real ability to shape the issues that affect them.”
“Otherwise,” he added, “the next global crisis might just be the one that sweeps us all away.”