Surrendering Africa to COVID-19 means it will never be controlled

April 15, 2020

Concern Worldwide CEO, Dominic MacSorley argues that COVID-19 is not the “great leveler” we have heard about.

An indiscriminate virus increases the risks for those who are already vulnerable — individuals, groups and societies. The scale of that challenge in Africa, particularly in countries where malaria, malnutrition, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDs are widespread, is  immense.

Although Africa’s population is younger than that of Europe, the health systems in almost all African countries are vastly under-equipped. Central African Republic, with a population of 4.5million, has just three ventilators. Sierra Leone, with almost eight million people, has a single functioning ventilator.

“If they don’t earn, they don’t eat.”

Many African countries have acted quickly in implementing preventative lockdowns. However, the suspensions of movement and business bring an almost immediate economic and food security crisis. In sub-Saharan Africa, 500 million people live on less than $1.90 a day. They are mainly dependent on the informal sector for income — if they don’t earn, they don’t eat.

Right now, the window for action is the most important thing

While there were 10,000 recorded cases across the continent as of last week, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine predicts that most African countries will have each reached 10,000 cases by mid-May. Models vary and they are inherently speculative but they should not be ignored because the consequences of doing so could be devastating. If there is one strategy that is increasingly discredited it is “herd immunity”. The UK is now suffering the devastating consequences of just considering the option for a short period.

We know that this virus is most devastating in centers of dense population. London, Madrid, and New York are the centers of their nation’s outbreaks.While Africa has a far higher proportion of its population in rural areas, overcrowded settlements with no public services in cities such as Nairobi and Kinshasa leave the people little opportunity for social distancing.

“Responding in contexts like these is daunting and complex but it is possible.”

Even more compromised are those forced to flee their homes because of war or natural disaster — such as in South Sudan where more than six million people are already experiencing severe food insecurity, many of them still crammed into vast displacement camps.

Responding in contexts like these is daunting and complex but it is possible, and it can be life-saving.

Dominic MacSorley in CAR

Concern CEO Dominic MacSorley in Central African Republic in 2017. Photo: Kieran McConville

In countries such as Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the same channels of community mobilization and hygiene sensitization used to fight Ebola are now being used to channel messaging on the coronavirus.

Over the past two weeks, our Concern teams have been distributing soap, detergent, and hygiene kits to 84,000 displaced people in camps in northern Iraq; improved basic water systems and distributed safety masks in the prisons of Afghanistan; drilled wells in the Central African Republic, and intensified “wash your hands” campaigns in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malawi.

In Niger we are converting Concern vehicles into temporary ambulances.

In the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazaar we have initiated social distancing and hand sanitation at nutrition treatment centers and accelerated our therapeutic food rations to ensure that malnourished children experience no breaks in their treatment.

“We will need to scale up immediately.”

In the fragile, conflict-affected countries where we work there are no government-led systems of social welfare that cover all citizens. However emergency response infrastructure using mobile money technology does exist and is designed to allow families to access vital supplies while sustaining local markets and small businesses.

Today these are some of the practical strategies we will need to scale up immediately.

Concern’s efforts are part of what is now a global humanitarian response to minimize the overwhelming impact of this virus, but the timing is critical. Scaling up our operations is essential now and for that, resources will be urgently needed.

We cannot afford to delay or to be defeatist. To surrender the vulnerable to this virus in Africa would not only be a moral catastrophe, it would also mean the pandemic is never brought under control.

Dominic MacSorley, CEO, Concern Worldwide.