OPINION: How will the coronavirus pandemic play out in Africa?

Tuesday, 28 April 2020 22:41 GMT

A commuter adjusts his face mask as he rides in a public transportation bus before a curfew as a measure to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in downtown Nairobi, Kenya April 27, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With fewer care homes for the elderly and more young people - but also more poverty and crowding - predicting what may happen is difficult

X.N. Iraki is a professor at the University of Nairobi and a journalist.

In Africa, the affluent worry about gaining weight and can stay home. The poor must work, and for them the coronavirus is a lesser evil.

In the United Kingdom or Canada, up to 80% of an employee’s income can be guaranteed by the government . Most people pay taxes and the government takes care of vulnerable members of society.

But under the best of the circumstances, taking care of the poor members of the society is not a top government priority in many parts of Africa. Trust in government is also low, despite long queues to vote.

Africa imported capitalism without a human face, and coronavirus is exposing that reality. Welfare systems have never been a strong part of African government programmes, since countries gained their independence.

In Africa, we all want to get rich, either by working hard or using shortcuts. But with coronavirus, affluence is no protection. You can’t take a flight to get specialised medical care abroad. COVID-19 has equalised us. But that might change, as more are afflicted.

The poor in Kenya believe COVID-19 is a disease for the “sonkos,” a slang term for the rich. That belief has made some citizens ignore measures like social distancing. 

On the streets of Nairobi and in informal settlements, life goes on as usual with no masks or social distancing. Economic reality is at play: A set of 50 surgical masks goes for about $50. That is more than two months rent in the crowded informal settlements.

Masks, like clean water, are yet to be freely availed to the masses, though low-quality masks are on sale in the streets.

Kenya’s Minister of Health, Mutahi Kagwe recently noted that Kenyans are not very bothered by the pandemic because “they do not know anyone who has died of COVID-19.” But that could change.

Before the disease was first reported in Kenya in early March there was a widely held belief that black people are immune to COVID-19. But data from the United States shows the opposite: black people are disproportionately afflicted.

There is about their economic status – poverty means more overcrowding, more travel for work and higher risks.  In Britain or the United States, people may take the subway to work. In Kenya we use equally overcrowded matatu minibuses. A government directive to public service vehicles to carry fewer passengers led to a hike in bus fare .

The effects of COVID-19 in Africa, beyond fear of the disease, are yet to be fully felt. But the virus may find a fertile ground on a continent already afflicted by HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other diseases, as well as malnutrition and crowded living conditions.

Add a low budget for healthcare in most countries and the threat of COVID-19 becomes clear. In Kenya only 5% of the national budget in 2018/2019 went to health. Health insurance coverage also is low – with less than 3% of people holding a policy – which leaves lots of citizens exposed to poor healthcare and charlatans,  from herbalists to witch doctors.

But there are bright spots too. The young – 35 years and younger – constitute 70% of Kenya’s population, according to the 2019 census, similar to other African countries. Data from other countries makes clear the elderly are more prone to dying of COVID-19.

In Africa, as well the elderly are scattered, living with their families mostly in the countryside. The concept of nursing homes, where the elderly live in virus-vulnerable groups, is still alien in Africa.

Africa’s hot weather also might help “flatten the curve”.

By the time COVID-19 runs its course in Africa, the reality of the continent’s healthcare limitations and socioeconomic fissures will be clear. Data from agencies from the World Bank to government bodies suggests the problems are prevalent – but COVID-19 might validate the data, the hard way.