The Mint: Good evening Mwangi, and thank you very much for joining us again, three months later, to look at where things have got to in Africa with the pandemic, because when we talked, as you recall previously, you were very concerned that the limitations on, social distancing and,  the limitations on the ability to control the spread in spite of the previous experiences that they’d had, could really create big problems.

So, how’s it looking now?

Mwangi: Thanks, so much Henry. So, let me start quickly by a quick, a very quick update, just to put things in perspective about where we are compared to where we were then three months ago. First, in terms of infection and death, Africa is still very low, total infections on the continent have just been a little over or just getting to 200,000.

So, well below 10% of the world’s infection rates. Total number of deaths are also very low, at just over 2000. And, the only country with above 50,000 confirmed infections is South Africa. Everything else is below that. So, in that sense, although we know that there is under estimation, as we would expect.

 But still in that sense, in terms of COVID itself, Africa has followed a similar pattern to the other, the previous SARS viruses, where it has been less affected than the rest of the world. Now we’re not out of the woods yet, so that’s not, the final story, but at this point.

The Mint: And how’s that – why do you think that’s happening?

 Has that been luck, or government action, or the nature of the pandemic or what?

Mwangi: So, I think all three of those, and I’m going to start with where we ended and where often we don’t start with Africa, which is first the government response, I think relatively early in the pandemic, especially for African countries.

Right. So, well before they had more than a couple of infected cases, there was some level of social distancing. Now it wasn’t a compulsory for most countries. It wasn’t a complete lock down like we’ve seen in the West. So, the other part of this, which was, a delicate balance was, realizing that they can’t afford a complete lockdown.

Many countries went to a partial lockdown.  Which meant that there were even curfews, in some places, restriction on travel between different areas in some places. So that was one aspect of it. There was, the other part, which is not spoken about as much is also a number of countries actually did some quite aggressive screening.

So, although testing has been low, we have to remember that, the process is not, because of the success in some places like Germany, where they’ve done a lot of testing, people have jumped immediately to testing is the thing to do. But what has been happening in a number of countries where tests are less available is there’s been a lot of tests screening.

The Mint: What does that mean in practice?

Mwangi: So, it means checking for symptoms, prior to actually testing. So, you should think of this as a two-part process. So that although African countries have not necessarily had that many tests, a number of countries did a lot of, a lot of screening, door to door often, screening to try and see.

Now that’s the way to be an underestimate because we know that some people don’t show symptoms, but the point is that there was work done to try and see, how much the virus, has spread. So that was another aspect of this, that took place. And then there were, other, smaller things that took place, public transportation, for example, public transportation in a number of African urban centers is actually, private public transportation, the mini taxies.

So, for example, in a number of countries, those, the number of passengers was cut in half the maximum number of passengers they could carry.

The Mint: Well, how would they do with that economically?

Mwangi: Economically they were taking a hit. Right. because it wasn’t necessarily the case that then the, the governments were in a position to then pay back or support those specific, from or individuals who, who lost money. and so, yes, so the hit was taken privately and the extent to which people were supported was whether they, they then fit into other categories of government support. So, where government did support people with, for example, provisions of food provision of, in a number of places, they cut water bills, utility bills were suspended, electrical bills were suspended. So that’s the way they did that. So, it wasn’t direct one to one. But to the extent that you fit into those categories, then you’ve got some relief.

But those things, as far as the virus, schools and spreading of the virus, when those were really helpful now on the back of that, was not just the government response, but also interestingly, a pretty robust private sector response,

The Mint:  International private sector or local?

Mwangi:  Local private sector. So, for example, the country, I know, well, Kenya, for example. The private sector came up with a whole plan of, not only donating money. But actually, how the money was to be used. the also,  lobby come back to the government with, reports on the number of job losses, how it’s affected the economy in different ways and different ways to approach it at something with the private sector has not been very good about doing in the past, even when it’s in its own interest.

The Mint: Not in the west either, I mean, for the private sector to act almost like a government collectively in a sort of quasi-governmental role.

Yeah. Yeah.

Mwangi: So, there was that response. And then, and then those, the response in terms of the private sector in terms of innovation itself, and I just want to list a couple, right. And some of these are quasi private, quasi-public.

So, in Ethiopia, this is actually public, but the phone company, the phone company is a public utility and there they changed the dial tone. So, when you pick up the phone, in Ethiopia, you got a dial tone, which reminded you of all the things you needed to do rather than so, wash your hands regularly, all that kind of stuff, social distancing.

So, and that’s pushed out there, but he’s got a move by the time they pick up.

The Mint: Right.

Mwangi: And so that was that in Senegal and Ghana, there’s been the attempt to produce rapid testing kits. The Senegal, it has a relationship with a British company where they’re trying to produce actually 10 minutes, response kit that they’ve been working on.

In Nigeria, they created more mobile clinics that did the testing, which, which helped them test more. And rather than bringing, people going to the hospital and congregating the clinics, went out into the neighborhoods. In Kenya. Kenya has had a lot because it has a lot of advances in telephony, particularly around mobile money, but this got combined in a new app called, which means traveler.

And with that app, when you got on public transportation, you basically pay over the app, but it also took you a contact detail. And the contact details of everybody else on the bus.

The Mint: Right.

Mwangi: And then that helped in tracking. So, if one of you then later reported to being infected that the government tracking was made much easier through this kind of information which was available.

So, if you look at the reports from Kenya, you’ll see the government will say, okay, we have.  whatever right now, to the 2000 cases and 98% of all contacts have been traced. Wow. So, so there are all these little bits, between the public sector and the private sector, which were active bits, which allowed for this.

The Mint: It’s a numbers game. Isn’t it? As far as I understand it, but once you get enough people. Passing it on, the quantity of people you need to trace, and track becomes so huge that the chance of getting up to 98% become smaller and smaller. So, you said you gave this example of sort of 2000 infected infections being recorded at a 98% track.

I mean, presumably for each of the 2000, you might have a hundred tracking and that comes to 200,000 people, which is an incredible number to hunt down.

Mwangi: So, I’m not clear whether that, I mean, it may not be an incredible number to hunt down again. And this is where telephony becomes really important.

It’s not an incredible number to hunt down if all of these people have mobiles, right.

The Mint: Right.

Mwangi: So, and this is where telephony becomes really important and its use of it. So, so yeah, so that that’s been really, that’s been one big thing and because it’s become such a part of this is where you get, where you skip a technology, right?

So, for Africans, because mobile is telephony, that has become so central because landlines never took off. It’s already integrated. So, I haven’t.  we already have in other places, for example,  farm extension done by mobile telephony, a lot of, subsidies for farmers is pushed out through mobile telephony so there are already a number of government services, which are pushed out this way in Kenya, you can buy many treasury bonds  on a mobile platform.

The Mint:  And are these smart mobiles or, or largely older generation.

Mwangi: So, empathy is actually built on a text-based network so that it allows the apps now.

Right? So, you can do smart phones, but a lot of it you can still do based on sending text messages.

The Mint: So presumably with track and trace, do, you could just send out lots of texts to people you were with some- reports, if you have any symptoms or whatever

So, there’s mobilization of governments to act. What about the other priorities?

Mwangi: In large parts of the youth population, and earlier, before the interview, we talked about the numbers, based on age groups. And so, there’s a very low part of the population that’s over 65 in Africa, 50%. and over is normally under 18 or, at least under 20. So that has definitely played a role. I think if you take the entire, countries, density is, is really confined to urban areas, to large urban areas. So overall density can be low in many countries, although they have spots of high density, but then that’s mitigated because transportation networks aren’t that great.

So. so that I think has also played a role in, limiting the spread of disease. So those are kind of the conditions. and lastly the, the, we are just going into many countries, kind of what would be the typical flu season. So, it’s never as severe as it is in colder climates.

But so, we have to go through that. And right now, we’re kind of on the steep part of the curve for many countries. So, the question is, how, how long before it flattens out.

The Mint: So, the flu is masking cause the flu has its own, rate of infection and death and so forth and that’s masking or increase or.

Mwangi: No, no, no You see, I assuming that it- COVID followed the similar patterns to the flu, that the best conditions for it are during the fruit season.

The Mint: Oh, right. Okay.

So, it might start going up.

Mwangi: Yeah. So, it might still start going up, I assume.

The Mint: But I suppose, I mean, it’s interesting because it seems to me in very simple terms that the world is divided into two, generally the countries that sort of kill the virus or, or,  like New Zealand who are now free by moving very, very fast and actually just stopping transmission in total and then the others who didn’t move fast enough and it sort of got out of control, and then ballooned due to conditions. I wonder if Africa’s somewhere in between in that  although it probably hasn’t been able to, as you said, it couldn’t afford to totally close things down, which the one that the countries that actually killed the virus did, but the transmission is much slower because of all the conditions and that the acts, but it will sort of, it’ll be a long journey if you like, potentially.

Mwangi: I think that is part of this story. And I haven’t seen medical studies out of Africa, but it would be interesting to see, how many people, if there’s a difference in actual how many people, each infected person actually infects compared to other parts of the world. Right. Because what we would be saying is that in some sense, both the responses and conditions lower the number of people, each initial infection spread.

Now it’s, so it would be somewhat in between. Now the countries that have stopped it have in the, in most instances being, Island nations.

The Mint: Yeah.

Mwangi:  And so is that, because travel and that’s African borders are porous, so that’s been a struggle and it’s actually created quite a bit of tension when countries have very different approaches, to the problem.

So like Tanzania and Kenya have had quite a bit of tensions in East Africa, around particular times, the NIAS, Much more lax approach to the question of the virus versus the other East African countries. and particularly because the large border is shared with Kenya and a lot of trade there that it’s been a lot of trade tension shut down the border.

So, it’s going to create these other issues.  these other economic issues because of different approaches to the problem.

The Mint:  I suppose, just moving to the relationship then with Africa and how it’s affected by the rest of the world, because, Africa,  as you say, it’s done a reasonably good job, at keeping infections relatively low, but obviously it is part of the trading with the world, where the demands, presumably for its products and services and the ability to finance investment, et cetera, et cetera, have dissipated substantially. So, it could have a good pandemic from a sort of health perspective, but a bad one from an economic perspective.

Still could it not?

Mwangi: Yes, no, absolutely. I mean, this is now the biggest fear, right? So we’ve talked about the things that Africa has been able to do in terms of responses to the health questions, the difficult thing has been,  what have African government’s responses been in terms of, economic responses,  and there, the, the capacity of Africa, of African governments, for example, to increase debt in order to respond economically is much more limited, right? So, the largest response has come from South Africa, which has done a program, which is about 10%. Senegal also has had an economic program, which is about 7% of GDP. And, most of the other countries are below 3% even when you consider combining both the amount spent on increased health spending and whatever kind of, relief program has been put in place.

So, there is a real limitation, despite the gallant attempts that they’ve done. I mean, Senegal, for example, I think was looking at something like – now, if I’m not mistaken, it was something like, it was supporting a hundred thousand families before and it ramped that up to 300,000. So, three times social spending on the very poorest families and with an increase of that allowance, that there was given these families, but those are the ones which have done much better. So, most have been rather low. On the other hand, in many ways, despite the fact that economies are going to slow down partially because they didn’t go for total lockdown and partially because of the nature of the economies, a good number of African countries might still see some extremely low, positive growth between zero and 1%, according to IMF estimations right now.

So, they were fast. They were relatively fast-growing countries before. So, these are countries we can have been growing at 6% and above for the last few years. So, they’re going to drop. That drop is going to be, come towards zero in terms of growth. Now more difficult might be even if growth is not that high, exports are definitely going to be cut

The Mint: And hasn’t there been a flight of capital as well? Is that right?

Mwangi: We’ve not, I haven’t seen reports in terms of a flight of capital. Although we expect that, during bad times, capital does tend to flow towards the North and particularly the US. So, I expect some of that is occurring. I wonder, I mean, that capital may not have been in investment anyway.

The Mint: Yeah.

Mwangi:  So, the impact may not be as bad, but definitely exports. the, the, the exports are going to be cut down. A good number of African countries, for example, have had invested quite a bit or had had investment in horticultural, production for Europe. Which was very dependent on airline transportation?

So, that.

The Mint: Roses from Kenya.

Mwangi: Kenya, yes, Zimbabwe has had quite a bit, Ethiopia, Uganda all these places have had products, everything from, green peas to flowers, which have been stuff that has been exported and which are important for them. So. That, that has been hit and that’s a labor-intensive sector. So, it’s not just in terms of money, it’s also in terms of thousands and thousands of jobs which have been affected.

The Mint: And what about the effect on people’s being able to feed themselves? I mean, that’s, I suppose the bottom line, isn’t it?

Mwangi: Yeah. So, so there’s two different levels of this, this kind of effect on being able to feed themselves because of lack of money, versus a fact of being able to feed themselves because of question of availability of food.

So far, I’ve not heard of, there has been, there’ve been spatial shortages of food, but what I’ve heard of is more logistics type problems and a natural shortage. I think the big problem has been with particularly people in the informal sector who have worked for daily wages. Essentially,  you work today, you’re paid today and you buy your food for the day and then your work closes down, which it has in a number of instances, then you don’t have money for food and so I think that that has been a problem. And in some cases, nongovernmental organizations have done quite a bit of work in providing, in stepping into the gap between what the government has provided and what, and what people need, but that if this goes on longer,  I don’t think that’s something that’s sustainable. That’s going to be a real issue. In terms of actual, production of food, I think the biggest thing was, people have missed that, a big swath of Africa, particularly in the Sahara hit by locusts.

So that, we’re going, going to see the effects of that, as well, compounding the COVID pandemic.

The Mint: So, we next we’ll talk in three months’ time. So, what do you think is going to be the, the top topic in three months’ time?

Mwangi: I don’t know. That’s a, that’s a hard one. I mean, what are big things that are happening.

I think significant transformation of the economy. I think you’re going to see an increase in the pace in which we lose labor intensive jobs. Jobs with face to face contact is I think both as companies, people try to find ways round it and as experimenting.

In COVID shows them different ways to do things. So that’s going to be a real question. And so, I think, in terms of long-term thinking. I think, African countries really need to think about things like maybe UBI as an approach to pain.

The Mint: Universal Basic Income, yeah.

Mwangi: Yeah. they would have to; they would have to fund it. I mean, most, most African countries or many African countries have not fully developed their tax system. And so, an expansion as more and more people are brought into market. I think there’s still some scope.  they’ve been able to do more in terms of welfare spending than have done in the past, out of their own funds.

So that’s something they need to think about. The other thing we have to think about is just what’s happened with education and who’s fallen through the gaps during this period,  in the West, we’ve kind of assumed even if the education is not great, most people have access to fairly high bandwidth that allows for some online education.

In many African countries, people may be connected by mobile, but it’s still relatively expensive and it’s not necessarily high bandwidth and it’s not for kids. So, who’s gotten access? It’s higher income people and low-income people have not. There’s going to be a bump here in terms of games would have been made in the past of universalizing education and giving a broader group of people, access to education that was needed to be addressed by this future.

 this increases future inequality, as bad as the inequality was already.

The Mint: What about the last question? Just briefly? China, I mean, China has been, had a policy of showing large essence support, around the pandemic. Is that, do you think there’s going to be support, coming from that direction?

Mwangi: I think yes. And they have been so a lot of, a lot of the medical supplies and personal protection equipment, has come from China that, that, that African countries have been using, but, there’s still a limit to what China can do. So, in the short term it can be very helpful, but in the longer term, African countries are going to have to, have to carefully rethink the economies to respond to this. And if we get another round of infections before we get a vaccine or treatment available.

The Mint: Well, thank you very much Mwangi.

Mwangi: You’re very welcome.

The Mint: We will very much look forward to talking to you again in three months’ time and seeing where we’re at in these really challenging times.

Mwangi: Yes. Thank you very much.

The Mint: Thank you.



Mwangi wa Gĩthĩnji

Mwangi is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director of Economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Co-Director of the World Studies Interdisciplinary Project. He was Chairperson of the Five Colleges …

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