The Fact Sketching series is produced in collaboration with Cartooning for Peace. Each month, a drawing accompanied by a text offers an alternative look at what is at stake in the Sahel and West Africa.
Created in 2006 at the initiative of Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Prize and former General Secretary of the United Nations, and press cartoonist Plantu, Cartooning for Peace is an international network of cartoonists committed to the promotion of freedom of expression, Human Rights and mutual respect among people upholding different cultures and believes, using the universal language of press cartoons.
Africa and COVID-19
An African exception?
Glez (Burkina Faso)
An African exception?
Home to a majority of the world’s poorest people (90% by 2030) and many fragile countries, Africa is vulnerable to Covid-19. Its demographics — a median age of 19 years old — might limit the direct impacts of the virus. However, the very large number of people whose immune systems are already weakened by nutritional deficiencies and chronic disease, could accelerate its spread. In arid zones, regular sand storms expose populations to dust-related respiratory diseases.
In addition, the increasing number of dense and often polluted urban agglomerations, with little possibility for social distancing, the dominance of the informal economy, which depends on daily face-to-face contact, and the mobility of seasonal workers, will challenge efforts to fight the virus. Without the buy-in of affected communities, ill-adapted and restrictive measures could expose African coutries to unrest and disorder.
It is true that, for the time being, the pandemic appears to be spreading at a slower pace in Africa than elsewhere in the world and with a lower mortality rate. It is also true that the number of tests carried out is very low (with the exception of South Africa and Ghana) and that “Africa is ill-equipped to respond to the deadly coronavirus outbreak”, according to the World Health Organisation. The “African exception” to the virus is therefore a hypothesis that should be considered with caution.
In the Sahel and West Africa, the pandemic adds an additional layer to pre-existing crises.
The region is currently experiencing both an impending food crisis — 17 million people are expected to need food and nutrition assistance for the lean season of June-August 2020 — and an increase in political violence as clusters of conflict in Central Sahel, Lake Chad and Libya have claimed the lives of 92 000 people since 2011. The African Union (AU) Bureau of Heads of State and Government warned that the Sahel needs special attention in light of terrorist activities, and has pledged solidarity with the countries in this region “who have to fight the twin scourge of terrorism and Covid-19.” And G5 Sahel foreign ministers have called for increased vigilance on the spread of terrorism at a time when governments are focused on combating Covid-19.
In addition to having a limited health workforce, most West African countries lack hospitals equipped with intensive care units (Burkina Faso has just 11 ventilators for about 20 million people) and, when they do exist, these top-tier health facilities are distributed unevenly across national territories.
African health systems have suffered from severe cuts in social spending imposed by the structural adjustment policies put in place in the 1990s in response to the conditionalities set by the international financial institutions. The state of health in Africa is further weakened by shrinking fiscal space: low tax revenues (as low as 5.7% in Nigeria in 2019, for example) and rising public debt limit countries’ abilities to finance expenditure.
Yet, in April 2001, AU countries met in Abuja, Nigeria, and committed to allocate at least 15% of their annual budget to improve the health sector. By 2014, no West African state had met this target, but the commitment was reiterated during the ECOWAS Extraordinary Summit which took place following the Ebola outbreak in the region and, once again, during the recent Extraordinary Session of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government on the situation and impact of Covid-19.
The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein do not necessarily reflect the official views of OECD Member countries or Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Members. This document, as well as any illustration, data or map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.