By HENRY OWINO (Senior Correspondent)
“The government is urging citizens to stay at home or in their houses, but if people do that, they will die of hunger. If we go out to look for money to buy food, we will die from the virus. They need to tell us clearly what to do!”
These were sentiments echoed by Pauline Adhiambo, a Nairobi resident during an interview just a few days ago.
It is a dilemma faced by many living in cities across Africa as governments move to enforce lockdowns to manage the spread of the COVID-19. Such measures often affect poorest and more susceptible people.
However, for Kenya to impose such drastic interventions of halting the spread of the coronavirus disease, proper regulations should be considered. This is to cushion citizens from being bludgeoned by law enforcers as witnessed in the first day (Friday, March 27) in most parts in Kenya as curfew implementation took place.
The world has experienced lockdowns in the last few weeks, from Wuhan in China to several nations in Europe’s principal cities such as in Italy, France, Spain, Hungary, Turkey, and Belgium. Currently, the Covid-19 has nowspread to every country in the European Union.
The lockdowns have taken many forms, total lockdowns or restricted lockdowns but not police brutalities on people as witnessed in Kenya.
More than a third of the world’s population is now under lockdown as an increasing number of countries implement sweeping measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
In Africa, South Africa initiated national lockdown with effect from midnight on Thursday, 26 March, for the next 21 days which may be extended depending on results. The country also rolls out mass door-to-door mass screening of the Coronavirus.
Nigeria on Monday, March 30, went into lockdown in sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest city Lagos and the capital Abuja, as the country struggles to curb the spread of Coronavirus.
Others are Senegal, Uganda, Botswana, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, South Sudan, DRC, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast among more and many are yet to implement. With restricted movements to access medical services, purchase groceries and access other essential services many would suffer consequences greatly.
Compared to other regions, Africa has the highest population in informal employment at 85.8 per cent compared to 68.2 per cent in Asia and the Pacific, 68.6 per cent in the Arab States, 40.0 per cent in the Americas and 25.1 per cent in Europe and Central Asia.
Majority are traders, daily wage laborers, or in other self-employed professions. For them, not going to work for a day is the difference between having a meal or not. And most of their daily income is spent on food.
According to Dr Jemimah Njuki expert on Gender, Agriculture and Food Security, of the 10 countries that spend over 40 per cent of average income on food, four of them are in Africa led by Nigeria, where households spend 56.4 per cent of their income on food. Kenya spends 46.7 percent, Cameroon at 45.6 per cent and Algeria at 42.5%. In informal urban settlements, the percentage is even higher.
Dr Njuki explains research in one of Nairobi’s largest slum settlements, Mathare, suggests that food is the single largest expenditure for residents, accounting for nearly half of household expenses.
“Given this informal nature of Africa’s economies, a lock down of the economy will lead to job losses and must be accompanied by plans to ensure that populations remain nourished,” Dr Njuki cautions.
“Otherwise without sufficient social safety nets from government that allow citizens sustenance, what options do they have” she posed.
In Nigeria, with the 21 million inhabitants of Lagos city as they prepared to enter a two week lockdown on Monday night, March 30, experts warned the measure could prove almost impossible to enforce in a city where millions live in poverty and rely on daily earnings to survive. The same applies to Kenya’s capital and costal region headquarters.
Dr Njuki argues that for lockdown processes to take place effectively without chaos or clashes or even looting being experienced, the following must be done:
First, governments in Africa must implement a phased lockdown process that allows access to basic services such as access to food from markets, health series and access to water, fuel for cooking and lighting amongst other things. Where markets may not function, food distribution to affected households will be critical to keep people alive.
Even in countries with large formal sectors, governments are combining lockdowns with food distribution as well as distribution of other necessities. In Jordan, the government is mobilizing municipal resources to distribute daily rations of food to people affected by the lockdown.
In addition to expanding the National Aid Fund for people that cannot afford them while at the same time keeping main supplies such as gas, and alternative distribution and delivery procedures for basic staples that include frozen chicken, milk, rice, sugar, eggs, sanitizers and detergents going.
Second, even with partial lockdown, keeping food sources and other basic services open requires that people have the cash to purchase these items.
Without jobs, governments must provide a social safety net in form of cash transfers to enable households who have lost their sources of income. And the provision of cash transfers is not new.
In Kenya, in 2016, over 33 per cent of households reported getting cash transfers. Cash transfers have been shown to have positive impacts on nutrition, reducing stunting in children and enabling households to smoothen consumption.
A cash transfer for each household that covers the basic household needs for food, fuel and basic cleaning provisions should be part of every government’s COVID-19 management plan.
And finally, when the epidemic is over, citizens are going to require a ramping up of food production by smallholder farmers. Consequently, a stimulus package for rural smallholder farmers to ensure they can recover quickly to go back to full production will be needed.
African countries can learn from Australia, where the government has announced a stimulus package of $1 billion as a ‘regional and community fund’ to support industries affected by the economic fallout of COVID-19 mainly agriculture.
Many would argue that African countries cannot now afford to make such investments while at the same time deal with the health impacts of the COVID-19. As the World Bank, IMF and other development organizations set aside funds for economic recovery, these investments should not just go to supporting companies, but also individuals and smallholder farmers.
Parents like Pauline Adhiambo should not have to choose between feeding their families and protecting themselves from COVID-19.
By April, 1, 49 countries in Africa had been infected by Covid-19 with confirmed cases rising to over 6000, death cases climbing slightly to above 200 and 430 recoveries. So far, virus-free countries are five; Lesotho, Comoros, Sao Tome and Principe, South Sudan and Malawi.