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Lifting Africa's COVID-19 lockdown poses problems

Cristina Krippahl
May 12, 2020

African countries have been seeking the right response to the crisis. South Africa and Nigeria have started easing lockdown restrictions to give the economy breathing space. Experts have warned that it may be too soon.

Children look through a window
Image: AFP/M. Longari

Djibouti started easing lockdown measures on Monday, despite the country having the highest number of COVID-19 cases in East Africa: Some 1,189 people out of a population of 1 million tested positive for the coronavirus.

"The stakes are high but there is no other option: people need to make their living and go to work," Djiboutian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf said, while admitting that the move could lead to a new surge of cases.

Djiboutians had not taken kindly to the restrictions imposed by the government of President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who is likely to run for reelection next year.

Besides political considerations, many African governments are worried about the impact of lockdown measures on the economy. Economic growth had been sluggish across Africa, even before the COVID-19 crisis, which statistically has not hit Africa as hard as other continents.

Nevertheless, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Monday that the coronavirus could kill between 83,000 and 190,000 people in Africa — and infect between 29 million and 44 million — during the first year, if it is not contained. Despite this, Rwanda, Namibia and Zimbabwe on Monday also decided to loosen lockdown measures.

Read more: Coronavirus: How Africa is bracing for pandemic's impact

South Africans divided

The dilemma also divides South Africans. One of the first countries on the continent to introduce a strict lockdown in March, South Africa — the country most affected by the pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa — is debating a further easing of lockdown measures, after some restructions were relaxed on Friday.

South Africa has more than 10,000 confirmed cases of new coronavirus, including 194 deaths, the country's Department of Health announced on Sunday.

Read more: COVID-19 restricts Africa's Ramadan routine

A local artist in Nairobi sewing and celling face masks
A dearth of face masks around the world has many resorting to their own devices Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Karumba

Job losses

The negative social and economic impact of the lockdown has divided opinions on how to proceed. Some opposition parties who stood by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa when containment measures were implemented, are now calling for an immediate end to the lockdown.

"The real tragedy playing out here is no longer the coronavirus but the lockdown itself, because this lockdown is going to cost many more lives than it can save," said John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance.

Some experts say that up to 7 million jobs will be lost if the current restrictions are maintained. But there are also those, such as Omphile Maotwe from the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, who say that it is too soon to ease the measures.

"We call upon the government to strengthen and tighten the rules and regulations of the lockdown," Maotwe said.

Read more: World Bank: 'No African country can face this crisis alone'

Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango
Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango was among the African celebrities killed by the virusImage: DW/A. Gensbittel

Too soon for Nigeria?

Ghana's experience with easing a three-week lockdown in the cities of Accra and Kumasi on April 19 does not bode well for the current trend in many African countries.

Over the weekend, President Nana Akufo-Addo announced that one worker in a fish-processing factory in Tema city infected 533 colleagues. He extended a ban on public gatherings until the end of May. Schools and universities will remain closed until then.

Infections now stand at 4,700, the highest rate in West Africa. Responding to critics who fear that Ghana acted too soon, President Akufo-Addo maintained that the increase was due to a backlog of 18,000 tests and that Ghana "would adapt as the situation changes."

Nigeria followed suit on Monday by easing restrictions in the capital, Abuja, and in the country's economic capital, Lagos. The lockdown, in place since March 30, will be eased gradually over the next six weeks.

Businesses have been allowed to reopen providing measures are in place to ensure social distancing and decontamination — a move slammed by Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) president, Francis Faduyile, who described the move as "very premature." He suggested it could drive up the rate of infections — a "frightening scenario."

Lockdown opportunities

Too late for Chad?

Chad is going in the opposite direction. On Friday, the country's 22 main cities, including the capital, N'djamena, were isolated from the rest of the country for 15 days. Chad's health sector has been struggling to keep up with the pandemic. Several health workers were infected due to lack of protective equipment.

Chad's health ministry was singled out for its management of the crisis. Younouss Mahadjir, president of the Health Workers' Union, said health authorities seem to be overwhelmed by the situation.

"COVID-19 took everyone by surprise, especially in a country like ours where disorder reigns even at the top of the state. People are confused," he told DW.

"We pleaded with the minister of health, but nobody answered us. Now many workers have tested positive and some have died. It's getting serious."

Many Chadians believe that health authorities are no longer in control of the situation. Student Amane Nare wants the government to ask China for help. "I think that quarantining the city of N'Djamena is not going to solve anything," she said. "The disease is everywhere in the country."

Chadian health experts also say that the decision was taken too late.

Some Tanzanians might say "better late than never." This is because President John Magafuli has been negligent of the crisis to a point where even the WHO saw fit to openly chastise his government.

With 509 confirmed cases and 21 deaths — including three lawmakers and the country's justice minister — Tanzania was not among the worst-hit countries. But Dar es Salaam has continuously failed to publish the latest daily figures. And health experts warn that the lack of adequate measures may still turn it into the pandemic's new epicenter.    

Thuso Kumale and Blaise Dariustone contributed to this report.

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