RE: COVID-19: Can Africa Afford Lockdowns?
: African Countries Cannot Afford to Open up
By Ebuka Onyekwelu
Prof. Charles Soludo a former Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria has joined the debate on lockdown as a result of COVID-19 and only yesterday released what he called a summary of his “contribution to an Africa debate”. However, after reading Soludo’s thesis to the very last word, I am persuaded that his submissions are far less rigorous and do not help in any particular way that is outstanding, in shaping how Africa should respond. Some of the ideas he shared looked brilliant but lack depth and practicability. First of all, can there be an African solution to a problem that is not peculiar to Africa? I mean, COVID-19 is not even African, it is a pandemic and it is novel, how then can Africa respond in an African way? This is even more disturbing when we consider that African countries have failed to solve their leadership crisis relying on African solutions. More so, in Soludo’s own home state of Anambra State in Southeast of Nigeria, hundreds of wealthy people have responded by providing palliatives to their communities to help the needy which he called “photo charity”. Soludo himself has contributed ten million Naira; that is approximately, US $30, 000, to the Anambra State government’s COVID-19 fund. The Anambra state government and individuals have also made so many contributions, bought food items and distributed with cash, yet, so many people have not been reached. This is an African communal approach targeting the needy, but it is not enough because we need solid data, especially on the part of government, to be able to determine what people need, clearly identify those people and provide them with relevant relief assistance. Importantly, assistance given at community levels by wealthy individuals undoubtedly went to those that needed it because at that level, the giver and other members of the community know those who need assistance. At least, this is generally accurate. Now let us look at Prof. Soludo’s argument in details.
First of all, there is this error that is apparent in Soludo’s submissions; a Western thinking, that Africa is just one people. A hegemonic or better, continental classification of the whole of Africa as an area of 1.3 billion maybe poor and helpless people, without recourse to fundamental and detrimental cultural, social, economic, religious and political distinctions among these people, right from the pre-colonial times. Without question, the Igbo African man of Nigeria is not the same as the Xhosa African man of South Africa, or the Fula of Sierra Leone or the Bedouin of Egypt, or the Kikuyu group in Kenya, or the Luba of Congo, or the Ashanti group in Ghana. In fact, there are about 54 independent states in Africa and it is better to talk of Africa either in terms of people group or in terms of independent states. Africa is not a country and to mop every African country and thousands of people group into one lump and then go on to speak of them as if they are one and the same is a serious misrepresentation of facts. They are not the same and do not require “African solution”, rather, they require a solution that is identifiable within their people group or within the realities of their sovereign states, from here we can break it further down depending on the political and administrative system in the sovereign state and respond according to specific prevailing reality.
The narrative so easily advanced by Prof. Soludo’s thesis that “Africa is left to its fate”, is suggestive that African countries are helpless and cannot survive without palliatives from Western countries. Even more, it tends to justify the beggarly attitude of African countries, leaving Africans and their leadership with no responsibility. Now, why must African countries depend on the “rich world generous welfare system and huge financial war chest”, as he implied? African countries are left to their fate because of years of misrule, failed leadership and crass irresponsibility that for decades have not been able to define their essence, industrialize and modernize. Not because there is a break in multilateralism on account of COVID-19, as the thesis suggests. Otherwise, would the United States that has already lost over 50 thousand people, use its money on African countries instead of their citizens? In any case, would such money in form of donations or grants, if given to African countries not likely to be embezzled and mismanaged by African leaders? These are desperate times but sadly, years of missed opportunities for growth and modernization is on test in Africa, yet, no one can attest that African leaders are ready to change that narrative. Indeed, we cannot say for sure that financial assistance given to African countries will be used for the purpose they were given.
Prof. Soludo had examined two options in the fight by African countries against COVID-19, first; lockdown which according to him is the worst option, was copied from Western countries and secondly what he called “heterodox” (Creative local) without lockdowns. But he admitted that “sadly, people will still get the disease and die under both approaches”. Summarily, Prof. Soludo’s campaign against lockdown is hinged on the following; lack of exit strategy from the lockdown, his argument that lockdown is unaffordable and could worsen health and economic conditions in Africa. So he declared, “we call for Africa to press the reset button now, mainstream its collective, simple smart learning-by-doing solutions that could in the end, be the African solutions for export to the world”. He then reminded us that China only shutdown Wuhan and allowed Shanghai, Beijing and others to remain open and so today, China makes billions from exporting materials to countries around the world. This kind of assessment is grossly unsuitable. Wuhan is a city in China, while Africa is a continent. Do we have data to justify that the virus also hit Shanghai and Beijing and yet they remained open? China has continued to be secretive in its management of COVID-19 and by far, suspicious and does not present a good model because of lack of information. If for instance, COVID-19 did not hit the two Chinese cities, and so they remained open while it hit Wuhan and so it was locked down, is it correct to advocate that African cities where there are hundreds of COVID-19 cases like Lagos Nigeria, remain open for business as if nothing is happening?
The simple fact that African countries cannot afford effective testing is a clear indication of failed leadership. How many world class standard hospitals do we have in the whole of Nigeria or Anambra State or Isuofia, Prof. Soludo’s village? It is a direct implication of years of failed leadership and nothing about that was mentioned. The poor housing and living conditions that makes social distancing difficult are some of the consequences of failed leadership. How exactly will opening up without any lockdown particularly impact those living in slums and ghettoes across African countries, positively? Is that not a recipe for harvest of death? Instead, can’t government map these areas out and provide basic amenities like running water, emergency healthcare centers, etc, as well as food items to help cushion the impact of lockdown and in response to any possible outbreak. Yes indeed, African states cannot afford lockdown essentially because there is no basic infrastructure to help make the lockdown easy for their citizens. In Lagos Nigeria for instance, with rabid fluctuation of power supply, millions depend on their private generators which they have to fuel, to be able to have power supply in their homes. This makes the work from home mantra difficult, but then, the situation is not different from office as they also fuel their generators in their offices, to have steady power supply. Therefore, it makes no difference. But in Lome, Accra and even Cotonou, they do not have this particular problem of extreme poor power supply. Then again, in America and Israel where there is protest against lockdown, they are protesting against perceived infringement on their freedom, not because the palliatives provided for by their governments are inadequate. In contrast, Africa states where even basic infrastructure is missing, people are not protesting.
But again, how exactly will opening up not escalate Africa’s already bad situation? While Prof. Soludo sees the failing commodity prices and oil prices in particular as precarious, I think it is a good thing for African states that have depended on free monies generated as rents from sales of these commodities, for decades, yet, despite billions of dollars realized, there is nothing to show for it in their respective states. So in reality, it is as if the oil is not there anyway. In Niger Delta where Nigeria gets its oil that has generated hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, most of the oil rich communities live under extreme poor conditions, with no basic amenity or even drinking water. With the current condition, African leaders will become creative and more accountable or their countries will collapse. While African countries may not afford a $2.2 trillion package or an addition of $484 billion for MSMEs just like the US, they can afford something, at least a tax break and some stimulus package. Already Nigeria’s Central Bank has announced a N50 billion Naira stimulus package. Google has announced a Worldwide stimulus package for some businesses and there are many other packages that can benefit businesses in African states.
On “what should Africa do”, Prof. Soludo went on and first advised that African countries “should urgently dismantle the border closure as well as the stay home/lockdown orders”. African countries should dismantle lockdown as if there is nothing happening? Is that not a reckless and dangerous approach? Total dismantling of lockdown under our specific but diverse conditions is completely unsafe. Rather, with the data so far gathered, governments can map out different sectors of the economy and observe partial lockdown in specific areas like agricultural sector and subsectors, so that farmers can go on and cultivate as this is planting season. This is critical because, many countries with time will need food. So we can afford to prepare to export these agricultural produce in due course. Some manufacturers of critical products and services that are exported can be allowed to open strategically under strict compliance with preventive recommendations for containing COVID-19. Also he went on to suggest that our Western and local (herbal) medical experts should get to work in search of an African medication. In normal times, have these our Western and herbal medical experts found solutions to some diseases killing thousands of Africans daily? Have they found solution for Malaria killing 400 thousand people yearly, HIV or yellow fever or Ebola or lassa fever? This is not to sound cynical, but let us not be too hopeful and forget to match our expectations with or at least within measurable facts which is that both Western and herbal medicines in African countries are in shambles and lack the capacity to undertake serious research that will provide solutions to some critical health challenges in Africa. A fire brigade approach at this time will not help. Instead, government and private individuals can begin to invest in our health sector and prepare for the future.
African countries and the world indeed, can only afford to open up strategic sectors of their economies. For African countries, a careful mapping of their population in line with the data so far generated will help. They can also open up resourceful sectors of their economies like the agricultural sector and encourage farmers to go to work in preparation for exportation of food to countries around the world, this can help as an exit strategy. More so, a timely response in form of emergency hospitals in slums and densely populated areas, provision of palliatives and basic amenity like water, will go a long way to keep the virus in check. Opening up “all of Africa” is to say the least, reckless. If the Western world with its solid infrastructure, healthy environment and hospitals are struggling to keep up, how will African countries with weak government and sometimes altogether nonexistent institution, lacks basic infrastructures and standard hospitals, survive an open up, at this level of community infection? Opening up all of Africa in the middle of a deadly pandemic is not a strategy at all.
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