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Black People are Dying in the West due to COVID-19 – How Can Africa Avoid the Same Fate?

With black people being disproportionately affected by the Coronavirus in the US and the UK, African governments must be proactive in protecting their populations and prevent the virus’ damaging social side-effects

Daily Life amid the COVID-19 lockdown in Heidelberg, Western Cape, South Africa in May 2020

Black People are Dying in the West due to COVID-19How Can Africa Avoid the Same Fate?

With black people being disproportionately affected by the Coronavirus in the US and the UK, African governments must be proactive in protecting their populations and prevent the virus’ damaging social side-effects

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Whether it is due to war, historical inequality or racism, black communities globally are most likely to suffer due to COVID-19, regardless of geography.

In the US, the Coronavirus has killed black and Latino people in New York City at twice the rate that it has killed white people. In the UK, black Britons are four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people.

Global inequality compounded with systemic racism means that the tragic impact of this disease on black people will accelerate, particularly in Africa, unless the region can sustain and expand its current response. To ensure it does not ravage African societies, we must support vulnerable communities through aggressive prevention, treatment and recovery strategies.

To prevent the exponential growth of COVID-19 cases seen in the West, African countries must adopt prevention strategies focused on aggressive testing and contact tracing while boosting local production of protective and diagnostic equipment. Aggressive testing in South Africa and Ghana, for example, has helped to ensure that the Coronavirus has not overwhelmed their health systems to date.

Scaling this capability and reducing further spread will require enhanced local production of personal protective equipment, as well as local manufacturing of diagnostic agents. Dakar-based Institut Pasteur, for example, is currently developing antigen tests that will cost as little as $1. Similarly, the region must engage in vaccine trials to mitigate the risk of a vaccine being developed that does not reflect strains prevalent in Africa or the genetic make-up of the region’s people.

While news reports have focused on the shortage of ventilators and intensive care units in Africa, less attention has been paid to the development and procurement of pharmacotherapies to treat mild to moderate cases of COVID-19. In Africa, focusing on these treatment methods may be more relevant given the region’s youthful population.

In order to ensure that therapies are distributed fairly and equitably, African governments must scale the manufacturing capacity, financing and distribution infrastructure necessary to meet demand and ensure equitable distribution within and among countries. This planning strategy should be developed in consultation with organisations with expertise in pooled procurement for low and middle-income countries such as Gavi and the Global Fund.

Preventing More Poverty

Lockdowns across many African countries have caused significant economic shocks – and the poor are bearing the brunt.

According to the International Growth Centre, 9.1% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen into extreme poverty as a result of COVID-19, with around 65% of this increase resulting from lockdowns. In response, many African governments have introduced tax reductions as well as free water and food.

In Botswana, for example, tax concessions have been made available for tax-compliant businesses adversely affected by COVID-19 and the Government has also introduced a wage subsidy programme and pandemic relief fund. Meanwhile in Ghana, the Government promised free water to residents without overdue bills from April to June and Rwanda provided poor residents of Kigali with free food.

While these initiatives are admirable, they are difficult to implement and track given the difficulty governments often face in identifying where citizens live and who needs assistance.

To circumvent the logistics challenges, governments should consider the technique of decentralised targeting, which relies on information from local leaders and groups to enroll local residents in programmes. In the past, this technique has been used successfully to distribute cash transfers in countries like Liberia and has been deployed successfully during this pandemic in Uganda, where the Government has partnered with local councils to enroll Kampala residents in food aid programmes.

Protecting Democracy

Strong governments are key to COVID-19 recovery efforts, yet the stability of many nations is under threat as many countries struggle with how to proceed with scheduled elections.

The Coronavirus should not impact on citizens’ ability to exercise human rights such as the right to vote. Instead of cancelling elections, governments should consider following the lead of South Korea, which held socially-distanced elections in the midst of a pandemic yet had its largest turnout in three decades.

If governments distribute masks and gloves while introducing and enforcing sanitisation stations, temperature checks and social distancing in polling lines, the South Korean example shows that citizens can cast their ballots safely. At a time when the role of government in every day is heightened and more visible, ensuring that policy-makers are accountable to their people is more important than ever.

The battle against COVID-19 is a marathon, not a sprint. During the early days of the pandemic, African nations managed to avoid the trajectory of the US and Europe due to its youthful population and aggressive contact tracing, following the lessons of HIV/AIDS and Ebola. However, that head start seems to be waning.

South Africa’s recent rise in cases is a precautionary tale: more than half of the country’s more than 50,000 confirmed cases have been recorded in the past two weeks. Rather than rest on the laurels of Africa’s low case count to date, we must be proactive to keep the pandemic at bay.

As black people die globally at the hands of societies that fail to protect them, let us put our own people first.

Isaac Kwaku Fokuo Jr is founder and principal of Botho Emerging Markets Group based in Kenya and UAE, a strategy consulting and investment advisory firm working with businesses and governments across the Global South. Dr Moses Alobo is programme manager, Grand Challenges Africa at The African Academy of Sciences. Ada Osakwe is founder and chief executive of Agrolay Ventures, an investment firm targeting early-stage agribusiness and food-related companies and projects in Africa.

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