How Do African Governments Mitigate Future Crises?
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Richard Morrow identifies five key areas around which African governments and policymakers can focus their attention to mitigate future crises.
As COVID-19 spread across the world during the first half of 2020, there was much concern around Africa’s preparedness and capacity to manage a health crisis of such magnitude. With its densely populated cities, limited healthcare resources and expertise, and an economic landscape which is highly susceptible to external shocks, many believed COVID-19 would have a catastrophic impact on the continent. It was therefore never a question of if COVID-19 would impact Africa, rather, how big would the impact be.
When evaluating the impact today, the results are mixed. The number of deaths—currently 50,417 at the time of writing—is far below those seen elsewhere and in epidemiological forecasts. While there is no definitive answer, many have attributed the continent’s low death count to its demographic makeup, climate, and previous experience with health crises. The economic situation paints a different picture, however.
While global growth is projected at -4.4% in 2020 (falling from 2.8% in 2019), Sub-Saharan Africa is forecasted to see growth fall to -3% for the year (declining from 3.2% in 2019). Commodity-dependent countries and those reliant on tourism are projected to be the hardest-hit, with growth expected to contract, on average, by more than 4% in 2020. The resulting impact of this economic regression is a drop in real per capita income of 5.3% across the continent and an economic recession for the first time in a quarter of a century.
Africa’s experience with COVID-19 ultimately serves as a watershed moment in how the continent, its governments and institutions choose to prepare for future crises. This comes as COVID-19 has highlighted many of Africa’s weaknesses: from weak fiscal reserves and a lack of economic diversification, to fragile supply chains and strained healthcare facilities. A return to ‘business as usual’ is not an option – there must be reform.
As the recent pandemic has illustrated, crises can occur at very short notice and have cascading effects across the world. African governments and policymakers therefore need to be aware of the continent’s shortcomings in the face of COVID-19 and understand how they can better prepare for the next crisis. Their response should not be to wait until the next crisis presents itself, but to ensure that the correct measures are in place to mitigate any potential threat.
In seeking to strengthen resilience and mitigate the threat of future crises, my most recent publication – Africa After COVID-19: Lessons For a More Resilient Continent – outlines five key areas around which African governments must focus their attention.
- Preparation is paramount. The COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a crisis of vision and planning. The first, and perhaps most important lesson, is to therefore be prepared for the next crisis, whatever it may be. Governments can ensure greater preparedness by developing appropriate risk management systems, establishing a dedicated fund which can only be utilised during a government-declared crisis, and investing in futureproofing initiatives.
- Context matters when confronting crises. Lockdowns have become a commonly used measure by governments across the world to contain the spread of COVID-19. But while the lockdowns are designed to contain the spread of COVID-19 and in doing so, save lives, in Africa they have had an adverse effect on the economic livelihoods of many citizens. Context is therefore key and understanding both the crisis itself and the makeup of a country’s society and the nuances which underscore it are important when acting. When addressing a crisis, governments need to Identify the crisis and triage the country to determine the most vulnerable citizens and areas, create tailored strategies which address the crisis while causing limited disruption to the status quo, and monitor constantly and adapt accordingly using data.
- Robust economies will help weather the storm. The economic ramifications of COVID-19 on Africa have proven devastating. Those economies which are reliant on commodities and tourism have been particularly hard-hit. While no economy can survive a crisis unscathed, governments can take appropriate measures now to ensure that the economic effects of a crisis are greatly diminished. This should see governments double-down on diversification efforts, promote domestic manufacturing, and support private sector growth.
- Collaboration is key. When COVID-19 first grabbed international headlines, there was a strong call for Africa to “act collectively, and fast”. This was predicated on the fear that the continent’s poor healthcare infrastructure would collapse under the strain of COVID-19, and that every attempt needed to be made to ensure there was adequate capacity. While the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred collaboration on the continent, more can be done to improve collaborative ties and ensure that future crises are confronted collectively and more effectively. Governments should therefore endeavour to strengthen regional blocs and actors, supplement internal shortcomings with domestic, regional, and international support, and catalyse the implementation of integration frameworks and plans.
- Leadership in times of crisis. The primary responsibility of any government is to serve its people, and this is especially true during a crisis. It is fitting then, that the final lesson is concerned with leadership. During a crisis, exemplary leadership is required to steer a country through the hardship, that much is clear. When confronted with a crisis, governments must ensure that they look beyond party politics and prioritise the country, ensure government actions such as spending and procurement transparent, and engage with the public on a regular basis to instil confidence and assuage fears.
Richard Morrow is the Machel-Mandela Fellow at The Brenthurst Foundation, a Johannesburg-based think tank established by the Oppenheimer family.
Please note: This Opinion piece is not published under a creative commons license and permission to repost must be sought from the author.
Image: GovernmentZA via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)