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What Lockdown Did to Africa
Only debt forgiveness can bring the continent out of its lingering economic crisis.
By Toby Green
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Africa was immediately a point of particular concern. As early as March 15, 2020, South Africa declared a “state of disaster.” As one Science article then described it, “Experts worry the virus may ravage countries with weak health systems.” There were concerns about healthcare capacities, with shortages of intensive care and trained nurses. The Science article quoted the epidemiologist Ifedayo Adetifa as saying, “Broad-based population pyramid or not, with no universal health care and no health insurance, we simply can't afford to have many Covid-19 cases.”
As in the rest of the world, strict lockdowns were implemented according to World Health Organization (W.H.O.) advice, providing for an “all-of-government and all-of-society approach.”
But there was a flaw in this reasoning. Covid-19 proved not to be the healthcare disaster in Africa that was widely predicted. Of the nearly 7 million Covid-19 deaths registered worldwide today, only around 260,000 have come in Africa (roughly 3.5%)—and of these over 100,000 are in South Africa alone, translating to a minimal impact in many other countries.
In retrospect (and even at the time) it is not hard to see why this might have been the case. As the March 2020 Science article noted, “Children rarely get sick from COVID-19,” and sub-Saharan Africa’s low median age (under 20) gave it “one major advantage when it comes to Covid-19.”
However, if Africa’s population pyramid spared it severe impacts from the virus itself, the economic effects of the Covid lockdown response on Africa were profound—and continue to be felt three years later, in the form of a deep-seated debt crisis.
As soon as lockdowns began across Africa, I heard from friends on the ground about what this meant for daily life: harvests lost in Angola, Ghana, and Gambia because people couldn’t go to the fields; people beaten if they went out onto the streets in Senegal to try to find a way of getting some money to eat. As one Nigerian colleague put it to me, Covid lockdown policies could be expected to work in a Nigerian context for only about three days. Instead, in many places across the continent, they were prolonged throughout 2020, fueling a socio-economic disaster.
In mid-2021, UNESCO estimated that an additional 9 million children were pushed into child labor as a result of the pandemic. School closures correlated with increases in early marriages: in Uganda alone 4.5 million children abandoned education as teenage pregnancies and impoverishment soared. Meanwhile, the informal economy has yet to recover three years later, as recent evidence from Senegal makes clear.
On the level of national economies, foreign debt has become the overriding concern. Recently, with Ghana taking on a fresh $3 billion of debt and countries across Africa scrambling to find creditors to service existing debts, the Financial Times has asked in a headline, “Is Africa’s Debt Cycle Unbreakable?” And yet, only a few years ago, publications like The Financial Times and The Economist widely touted the catchphrase “Africa Rising,” looking to the continent’s growing middle class as a sign of optimism for the future.
What has brought about this drastic turn of events? Some point to the war in Ukraine. The Economist blamed African leaders for “borrowing too much and misspending the proceeds” during the 2010s. But the evidence is clear that sustained inflation began over a year before Russia’s invasion. The increase in loans during the 2010s was the result of widespread optimism across the continent: as revenues increased, countries followed orthodox economics to use the profits to leverage loans for investment.
All of this abruptly ceased in 2020, as Africa plunged into a recession and at the same time was encouraged to spend unprecedented amounts of money on Western biomedical measures to contain a virus which was not a major health concern for most Africans. Indeed, Tanzania, where then-president John Magufuli rejected lockdowns, was unique among African countries in that its economy actually grew in 2020.
At the time the pandemic broke out, there were many who suspected that measures implemented elsewhere in the world were not suitable for Africa. On April 17, a distinguished group of African intellectuals (including Wole Soyinka and Kwame Anthony Appiah) signed an open letter to African political leaders. They wrote:
Adopting the all-securitarian model of ‘containment’ of northern countries—often without much care to specific contexts—many African countries have imposed a brutal lockdown upon their populations… Such containment measures… may prove punitive and disruptive for those whose survival depends on informal activities.
That concern for “informal activities” was particularly relevant for Africa. According to an International Labor Organization report from 2018, 85% of people on the continent worked in the informal economy: unable to work from home, dependent on transport to take goods to market, this sector was certain to be shredded by prolonged shutdowns. And even within the formal sector, the impact was devastating: as early as March 31, 2020, the UNDP predicted that nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost as a result of the Covid restrictions.
These considerations did not, however, affect the W.H.O.’s recommended approach to Covid. Following its fact-finding mission to Wuhan in late February 2020, the W.H.O. advised that all countries should follow the same lockdown containment model. Most African countries felt they had little option but to follow recommendations, at least in 2020.
The argument has been made that Covid fatalities in Africa were undercounted. One study, conducted in Lusaka and published by The BMJ, concluded: “If these data are generalizable, the impact of Covid-19 in Africa has been vastly underestimated.”
However, the consensus is that Africa—with the population pyramid likely the critical factor—was largely spared the impact of the virus. “We have not seen massive burials in Africa. If that had happened, we’d have seen it,” Dr. Thierno Baldé, who runs the W.H.O.’s Covid emergency response in Africa, told The New York Times in 2022. “SARS-CoV-2… has not led to outbreaks that are anywhere close to the scale we have seen elsewhere,” Dr. Andy Pekosz, Vice Chair of the Molecular Microbiology & Immunology Department at Johns Hopkins University, told Fortune Magazine.
Lockdowns cannot share in the credit for this outcome. Crowded housing conditions in the continent’s informal housing settlements—with, for instance, 60% of families in urban Ghana living in one room—mean that, far from restricting virus spread, these curfews likely increased infectivity by crowding people together. This lesson should already have been internalized by medical experts. When three-day lockdowns were trialed during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2015, they were widely deemed to have been a failure. And, not too surprisingly, South Africa, which had the most intense lockdown on the continent in 2020, also had by far the highest number of Covid fatalities.
Actually, nearly all the outcomes of the pandemic could have been predicted. The well-known low median age of the continent means that Africa’s low Covid mortality rates may not have been the “medical mystery” that Fortune Magazine blithely claimed they were. Meanwhile, the economic impacts of lockdowns were equally clear-cut: jobs lost across the formal economy, while, probably, the full damage to the informal economy will never be known. The lasting consequence is the debt crisis, which looks to cripple the continent with austerity for years to come.
There is only one sensible remedy for Africa’s current crisis: debt cancellation. This is a solution that the international community has previously adopted—forgiving Africa’s debt at the 2005 Gleneagles Summit. That far-sighted decision spurred over a decade of prosperity for Africa, a period that came to an end only with Covid. There has been some agitation for an international solution to Africa’s debt. Abebe Selassie, the director of the IMF’s African department, called earlier this year for “another Gleneagles moment,” but there’s been little sign since then of debt forgiveness, which is troubling.
Misguided international policies on Covid ruined Africa's economy and did not have the touted health benefits. Debt cancellation is the only way to atone for that failure.
Toby Green is a professor of African history at King’s College, London. His latest book—coauthored with Thomas Fazi—is The Covid Consensus (Hurst).
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