As Africa sinks deeper into the third Covid-19 wave, the temptation to reinstate punishing lockdowns is growing. From Lusaka to Kampala, governments are coping with a sudden surge in new cases averaging 130 percent week-on-week.
Grim as the present situation appears, total lockdowns should be the last of possible responses to the latest surge. Keeping people indoors is attractive to governments in Africa because it comes with little responsibility for the vulnerable individual. The elite are protected from their more painful consequences. Amid rising social discontent, they also hand authorities the tools for repression under the guise of the public interest.
As Europe, the US and India have shown, lockdowns are beneficial and practical only under certain social dynamics. Where the state or other agencies are able to supply the basic needs of the people, the benefits outweigh the downside. Where people live from hand to mouth, they are simply impractical. They are more beneficial when they are coupled with massive vaccination against the virus.
With perhaps one or two exceptions, none of those conditions obtain anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. From a purely epidemiological standpoint, the third wave should be seen as an opportunity to mobilise populations to adhere to standard operating procedures. Coming on the limb of the political season in many countries, messaging against Covid-19 was difficult. Many people saw the imposition of controls as beneficial to one political group. It did not help matters that even in subregional groupings there was no unity on best practices, further reinforcing the view that the pandemic was a political malady.
The third wave changes all that because it has given visibility to the pandemic at close quarters. It is same to posture that everyone has now had an experience of Covid either by falling sick or seeing another person fall sick and die of the disease. That should trigger a natural remission and it’s quite possible that we have already reached the plateau of the third wave. It is now easier to enforce compliance by policing the few holdouts. Measures that create antagonism by threatening livelihoods, will only undermine public goodwill.
Authorities instead need to focus on what went wrong during the first waves. Given the time lag, systems should have been better prepared and we should be seeing fewer cases. There has been poor accountability for the huge sums borrowed and deployed in the name of the pandemic. In many places, vaccination rates are lagging well below one percent of the population.
The economic penalty from the last lockdown is still imposing a heavy drag on growth amid heavy borrowing. New lockdowns will further devastate already ailing economies.
Attention should shift to the real problem, which appears to be bureaucratic dysfunction. The lack of preparedness or coordinated responses has become glaring in the past few months. Even the few donor-provided vaccines have gone to waste in some places, because there was no system for reaching target populations. Money for shoring up the health system cannot be fully accounted for while health workers on the frontline are succumbing for lack of adequate protection.
If any lessons have been learnt, they point not to lockdowns but the need for policy coordination at a sub-regional level; full-throttle vaccination drives, strengthening of health systems and expanding the reach of social protection.