Africa is the continent that has most of the world’s poorest people living on less than two dollars a day. Most of these people derive their livelihoods from the informal economy, small-scale farming, livestock keeping, mining and fishing. They are self-reliant and show solidarity in their daily transactions. They do not have a salary or social security, and some may not even have saving accounts. This means that in the case of a lockdown they are likely to be adversely affected, living on daily transactions.
The coronavirus is likely to affect poor people more, because they live in informal settlements where crowding is the norm, thus making impossible for them to practice social distancing. The room sizes in their houses are small and working from home may not be feasible, while their businesses are likely to be affected by reduced demand for their goods, cuts in suppliers and disruption of transport.
The coronavirus’ effect on the poor will also be exacerbated by the fact that the health system in most of the African countries is wanting. The response to past pandemics like Ebola and HIV/AIDS has shown the weaknesses of the health systems. The continent had to rely on external aid to deal with the effects of these pandemics. Today most of the anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) administered in Africa are financed by aid from countries like the US. Today these countries, which come to Africa’s aid during crises, are having their own problems. The United States is battling with its own infections and deaths and so is the United Kingdom, the European Union and China. This means that aid in the form of supplies and drugs may not be forthcoming. Their economies have also been devastated. In the United States over six million people are applying for unemployment benefits. It makes good sense for these countries to first address the issues of their own citizens, but this leaves Africa in a dire situation.
African’s vulnerability is also revealed by the fact that it imports most of its medical supplies and medicine from China, Europe and North America. These imports are also financed by loans. Very few pharmaceutical companies make drugs in Africa. With lockdowns in these countries, the production of medical supplies and medicines will be reduced, and whatever is being produced will be first used in these countries rather than for exports.
Africa is indeed in a quagmire both at the state level and the individual.
The above scenarios further complicate the situation for poor people in Africa, who have no resources or insurance to cushion the social and economic impact of the pandemic.
In the Kenyan case, a government report highlighted that two hotspots of the infection were in the rich neighborhoods of Kilimani and Westlands, while few cases have been reported in poor neighborhoods and in the rural areas, even if this could be attributed to under-testing. If the pandemic spreads to poor suburbs or rural areas, its effects could be even more severe. There has been resistance to the implementation of government directives, such as the curfew, because poor people are not able to adapt to them. Therefore, governments have had to use violence in enforcing regulations. There are many videos circulating showing how the Kenyan police treated poor people at the ferry on the first day of curfew.
If lockdowns are extended, we’ll probably see more resistance, food riots and gang activity as well as police brutality on the people. Governments will need to understand that poor people already live traumatized lives and their reaction is based on their past traumas. To stop the spread the governments need to respond with more compassion and understanding rather than brutality.
The coronavirus is giving us a chance to rethink our approaches to poverty. Rethink our development models geared towards poverty alleviation. Think more about self-reliant and collective models of development. It has revealed how interconnected and how vulnerable we all are. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly”. Dealing with poverty and the disease will entail the need to renegotiate our capitalist model of development that condemns some to perpetual poverty.