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Is Africa prepared for the Coronavirus?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sombo Chunda
March 24, 2020

The Coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) this March 11, 2020. As I write this article, there are over 400,000 cases and more than 18,000 deaths. Countries have banned travelers from most affected regions, and global markets are in a downward spiral. The situation is dire and everyone is going to be impacted sooner rather than later. A few days ago, I watched a clip from a Bloomberg interview where the former USA treasury secretary was sharing his thoughts on the United States’ response to the Coronavirus. In that interview, Professor Lawrence H. Summers made a specific mention of Zambia that caught my attention as follows “…it is an embarrassment that we are as short on tests as we are. For a country of our affluence. Lack of tests for a critical disease is the kind of problem you talk about in Zambia. Not the kind of problem you usually talk about in the United States…” I am Zambian and that statement had me thinking. Is Zambia prepared for the Coronavirus? Is Africa prepared for the Coronavirus? 

A Fragile Healthcare System

Africa has recorded the least cases so far, over 2,000 out of the more than 400,000 cases worldwide. However, the fear is—will the continent be able to contain the disease or mitigate its effects? Could the few cases reported be a result of (a)the virus not yet establishing infections, (b)minimal travel contact with people from the countries most affected, or (c)a lack of screening and reporting? These and many other questions that need to be answered if the continent is to mount a successful fight against the COVID-19.

The low number of cases should not give comfort to anyone who is genuinely concerned about Africa because historically, most countries in Africa struggle with their healthcare systems. Healthcare in Sub-Saharan Africa remains the worst in the world, with few countries able to spend the $34 to $40 a year per person that the WHO considers the minimum for basic healthcare. According to the World Bank latest data, Sub-Saharan Africa’s collective expenditure on healthcare is 5.16% of its gross domestic product (GDP) for the population of 1.3 billion people while the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) expenditure is 10.02% of its GDP with a population of about 1.3 billion people (GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa is $1.7 trillion and that of the OECD countries is $52.6 trillion). Considering how most OECD countries have been impacted by the Coronavirus, it should be of grave concern what impact the virus would have on the individual African countries whose healthcare expenditure is even lower with under developed healthcare systems. Further, the sociocultural factors prevalent in Africa increase the risks of how severely the Coronavirus would impact the continent.

A Glimmer of Hope 

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has, since 2001, supported public health systems in Africa and spent billions of dollars. In view of the Coronavirus pandemic, the World Bank’s $14 billion response package of fast track financing to assist companies and countries in their efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19 will help most vulnerable developing countries, including those in Africa. The package will strengthen national systems for public health preparedness, including for disease containment, diagnosis and treatment, and support the private sector. Through his foundation, Chinese philanthropist Jack Ma has donated 1.1 million testing kits, 6 million masks, and 60,000 medical use protective suits and facial shields for all of the 54 African countries. In addition, most countries in Africa have activated measures aimed at stopping and controlling the spread of the Coronavirus including (i) banning all international travels to and from affected countries, (ii) training healthcare staff, (iii) restricting or stopping large crowds or gatherings, including closure of schools and universities , and (iv) constant communication of guidelines with citizens to counter misinformation. It is hoped that these measures, lessons from past responses to epidemics such as Ebola and lessons from other countries will prove effective for Africa.

The Way Forward

Africa not only needs to be prepared for the Coronavirus; she needs to be prepared to provide a good healthcare system for her people. How would that even be a possibility? Could continued aid be the answer? As a public administration scholar, I would like to propose that finding a long-term solution in the form of sustained funding should be the goal for preparedness and improvement of public service provisions in Africa. One way that sustained funding can be pursued is through a global tax transparency system compelling country-by-country reporting of profits for multinational corporations, most of which operate in the extractive sector in Africa. Unfortunately, the opportunity for such transparency, which would have extended benefits to most resource-rich countries in Africa, was lost this past November when European Union countries voted against the rule. Ensuring funding to Africa’s healthcare system is not only a responsibility for the continent, but also a responsibility for the world to do its part.


Author: Sombo M. Chunda is a Ph.D. student in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Prior to graduate school, Sombo worked as country manager in Zambia for the Swedish international development organization, Diakonia. She is 2019 recipient of the Walter W. Mode Scholarship from ASPA. [email protected]; twitter @ChundaSombo

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

4 Responses to Is Africa prepared for the Coronavirus?

  1. Sombo Chunda Reply

    April 15, 2020 at 10:55 pm

    Clyde-Thank you for the comment. A conversation I had a few days ago with a colleague focused on the economic impact of the Coronavirus on the continent of Africa. The 2008/9 recession seemed to have affected some economies more than others; the Coronavirus pandemic is affecting all economies and people of all strata-the rich, and the poor more. With neighborhoods being densely populated and access to water a challenge, the risks increase. Daily livelihood is the greatest challenge for people who live on daily income from daily trading activities.

    Your question on response ‘does one size fit all’? The Coronavirus is again reminding policy makers that one size / uniform approach doesn’t serve all. In the conversation with my colleague, we started by asking each other what the phrases ‘ lockdown ‘, ‘stay at home’, or ‘quarantine’ mean in our local languages. If we have these concepts, how do we make them operational? The likely result is what you suggest as a potential outcome ‘starvation killing people before the virus’.

    Is this the time the narrative of Africa being rich yet so poor will be brought into focus and amends made?

    This is a telling time for everyone and I hope our leaders are able to learn from this, and all the people.

  2. Sombo Chunda Reply

    April 15, 2020 at 10:22 pm

    Andrew-thank you for the comment. You are right that we need to get our priorities right. As the situation has been unfolding, it is evident that the need to invest in healthcare, and research + development should be something our governments take on seriously. It seems this pandemic is here to expose a lot that for long has gone unnoticed and having the right priorities will be in everyone’s interest-politicians and the common man.

  3. Mwape Andrew Reply

    April 3, 2020 at 7:00 am

    Great insight! We need to put our priorities in the right perspectives as a continent if we’re ever going to survive this pandemic. Rightly articulated.

  4. Clyde Milimo Reply

    March 28, 2020 at 3:26 am

    One of the most drastic measures countries are taking is to Lockdown. While this may be seen as an effective way for countries in the west, It may not work in Africa because of high levels of poverty. After South Africa announced its 21 days country lockdown, many people where seen quieng up with visible contact thereby defeating the call on social distance. The ques are as a result of panic buying and those that cannot afford to buy have taken advantage of the same time to look for food. In other words, some people will die of starvation other than the disease itself. There’s therefore need to rethink strategies in preventing the spread of COVID19 in Africa considering the aforementioned factors.

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