Unpacking COVID-19 in an African context

17 December 2020 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Adobe Stock. Read time 7 min.
Professor Hamann and his fellow researchers argue that the relatively low infection and morbidity rate in Africa “provides little room for complacency”.
Professor Hamann and his fellow researchers argue that the relatively low infection and morbidity rate in Africa “provides little room for complacency”.

Despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has left no country unaffected, it is important to understand that its impacts have hardly been uniform. Professor Ralph Hamann from the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) is among a group of researchers analysing the initial impacts of COVID-19 in Africa. They recently published a paper identifying five contextual features that need to be considered in ongoing efforts to limit the spread of the disease and mitigate its impacts on the continent.

Since being declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in January 2020, COVID-19 has spread across the globe at a rapid pace. With the epidemiological aspect taking due preference in terms of research, the socio-economic impacts are only beginning to be understood. Along with this, it is also becoming clear that while the virus is taking its toll on lives and livelihoods everywhere, the impacts vary in different contexts.

Africa, for instance, experienced a late onset of the pandemic and a relatively low number of infections and deaths compared with other regions. Finding reasons for these phenomena will require more research in the coming months and years, but they could be ascribed to the younger population, warmer climate and being less connected to other parts of the world in terms of travel.

In the paper titled “COVID-19 in Africa: Contextualizing impacts, responses and prospects”, which was recently published in Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, Professor Hamann and his colleagues argue that the relatively low infection and morbidity rate in Africa “provides little room for complacency”.

Setback in achieving the SDGs

Focusing on Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria and South Africa – the four countries where the researchers are based – Hamann describes the paper as an early and unexpected output of Business, the SDGs and COVID-19 in Africa, a collaborative project the group launched earlier this year.

“It seemed to me that there was precious little analysis of COVID-19 in African contexts, and especially from a broader social science perspective rather than an epidemiological or public health perspective,” he explained. “[A]s a team we [were] well placed to put our heads together and jointly write something on how COVID-19 is manifesting in our four countries.”


“The scope of the crisis is visible in its effects on all of the goals, beyond those on poverty, health, hunger, gender and education.”

The researchers made use of secondary data, such as newspaper articles and scholarly papers, as well as primary empirical data collected through their own parallel, ongoing research endeavours.

“Because COVID-19 affected all of society in such profound ways, it became an obvious priority in all our ongoing research and conversations with research participants,” he said.

What emerged from Hamann and his colleagues’ research is the fact that COVID-19 has been a severe setback in Africa’s progress towards achieving the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), progress which was already challenged prior to the pandemic.

“The scope of the crisis is visible in its effects on all of the goals, beyond those on poverty, health, hunger, gender and education,” the article reads.

For the team of researchers, this highlights the importance of recognising the role of diverse societal contexts in how the pandemic manifests. This suggests that decision-makers cannot rely solely on medical experts – “more emphasis must be given to social sciences in supporting more nuanced, context-specific decision-making”.

Five contextual features for Africa

One of the most important outcomes of the paper is the research team’s identification of five contextual features that should be considered in ongoing efforts to limit the spread of the disease and mitigate its impacts on the continent.

They are as follows:

  • “People living in informal settlements and relying on informal work find it difficult or even impossible to adhere to ‘shelter-in-place’ rules, and this reduces the efficacy and social acceptability of lockdown regulations.”

    Based on this, the paper suggests that, going forward, social mitigation measures should be targeted at particular areas as much as possible and must be coupled with intensive testing and the provision of community-based self-isolation facilities.
  • “In a context of poverty and food insecurity, where most workers are in the informal economy and lack social welfare protection, the social consequences of economic restrictions are severe.”

    This calls for a more careful evaluation of the impact that lockdown rules may have on the livelihoods of informal workers. It also necessitates a more comprehensive, collaborative response to socio-economic impacts.
  • “In most African countries, states lack the fiscal resources and organizational capabilities to effectively mitigate the pandemic’s impacts on their economies and communities.”

    Encouragingly, in terms of this, the pandemic has also given rise to a marked growth in spontaneous civil society organising.

    “For example, in South Africa, an extensive network of community action networks (CANs) emerged to support vulnerable community members,” the paper notes. Though heart-warming, civil-society organising of this nature cannot fill governance gaps sufficiently in the long term.
  • “Lockdown regulations and subsequent efforts to mitigate their impact have largely given insufficient attention to the specific circumstances of informal workers.”

    Apart from losing their own livelihoods due to strict lockdown measures, informal workers such as fruit-and-vegetable traders, for instance, often play a crucial role in the well-being of their communities. For this reason, it’s important that governments and international agencies prioritise the consideration of informal economic activities in their policies and plans.
  • “The pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing social inequalities and conflicts, including geographic disparities within countries that have longstanding colonial roots.”

    Women and girls have been particularly hard hit and, going forward, their rights should be prioritised in all disaster response measures. It is imperative that women play an active role in decision-making processes.

Silver linings

Despite the setbacks and ongoing challenges, the pandemic has also given rise to a number of positive responses in various African contexts.

These include technological innovations, such as a low-cost testing kit developed in Senegal and a context-sensitive tracing app developed in South Africa; social innovations such as CANs that are reaching across apartheid legacy chasms between communities; and the good use that has been made of various African countries’ prior experiences in combating viruses such as HIV and Ebola.

“One of the key messages … is that Africa is very diverse, and we should be careful about generalising about it, and this applies to the pandemic, too,” Hamann said.

“That is why it is important that governments use more targeted responses (eg in terms of geographies and rules) to keep impacts as low as possible.”

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