According to statistics, Africa, remarkably, has not been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. Schar School Assistant Professor Philip Martin discusses the pandemic in Africa, drawing on his expertise in African conflict and peacebuilding, and comparative politics. His book project, “Insurgent Armies: Explaining Military Loyalty after Rebel Victory,” examines civil-military relations and ex-rebel commander behavior in countries ruled by former armed movements. Martin has worked and conducted research in Côte d'Ivoire, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Botswana.
We hear very little about Africa amid this crisis. Is there a reason for that?
Martin: Thankfully, African countries have not yet seen the kind of dramatic spike in recorded cases of COVID-19 that East Asia, Europe, and North America are experiencing right now. Optimistically, this could be interpreted to mean that African governments have gotten ahead of the curve, and that social distancing and case tracking policies are working. Less optimistically, it might simply mean that the worst is yet to come for Africa, or that a lack of testing capacity is giving us a misleading picture.
What are the risk factors for African countries facing the COVID-19 pandemic?
Martin: Over 75 percent of the African labor force is self-employed, according to the World Bank. That creates an enormous challenge for implementing social distancing: How can people be expected to stay at home when they need to go to their farm or the market every day to make ends meet? Existing public health conditions are another source of vulnerability. HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other endemic diseases remain widespread in Africa despite impressive efforts over the years to contain them. And there is a shortage of ICU-level care in many African hospitals.
Can past epidemics in Africa—such as Ebola provide any lessons?
Martin: A key lesson from West Africa’s Ebola crisis in 2014 is the importance of inclusive policymaking and community consultation. It wasn’t until health authorities managed to bring on board-trusted local leaders and community members that the Ebola spread was contained. Top-down or militarized approaches, by contrast, can be counterproductive because they provoke citizen fear and mistrust. Without community buy-in, containment efforts are likely to fail.
What is the good news for Africa?
Martin: On the brighter side, African countries have among the youngest populations in the world, which may be a source of resiliency. They also have the benefit of watching the consequences of inadequate public policy responses to COVID-19 unfold in other hard-hit world regions. There may still be time to prepare.