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As COVID-19 threat gets more serious in Sub-Saharan Africa, will actions taken by leaders stem its spread?


By Pearly Matibe

Two emergency dilemmas face Africa’s leaders in the emerging COVID-19 crisis. The coronavirus deaths will increase with its spread, and that spread will increase economic impact.

This pandemic—the new disease called coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2—is not Zimbabwe’s (or the region’s) first emerging nightmare. On Friday, April 3, Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, confirmed he had a Good teleconference with [Heads of State, WHO, and AU] Cyril Ramaphosa, Macky Sall, Paul Kagame, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Félix Tshisekedi, Uhuru Kenyatta, and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Moussa Faki Mahamat, and John Nkengasong on collective leadership to circumvent the adverse effects of the COVID-19 crisis.”

These efforts should be applauded, but should not bring down the curtain on calls for much more action from African leaders and speedier methods knowing much more needs to be done to raise awareness and educate communities on the looming presence and spread of the highly infectious coronavirus.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister adds that the teleconference included, “updates on actions taken typhoid and cholera outbreaks that started in August and September of 2018, the El Niño climate event that brought below-normal rainfall across Zimbabwe, and the 2019 Cyclone Idai that hit the country as a Tropical Storm and whose first anniversary was March 14 and challenges the continent faces.


We also discussed the need for collective leadership to circumvent the adverse effects of the COVID-19 crisis. A coordinated African approach is critical as we pursue economic responses with global partners.”

He revealed that he has also talked to the Prime Minister of France saying, “Thank you to [Emmanuel Macron] who joined our call, for continuing to be a champion for Africa in these challenging times.”

A continent with fresh emerging problems, less than two weeks away from the first day of the 2020 IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings—which will be conducted as virtual meetings in the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic in mid-April—should work for impactful meeting outcomes. These should be made up of bold pro-democracy plans geared to the needs of and responsive to national and regionally adapted evolving pandemic and socio-economic needs of Africans.

Some Difficulties

When COVID-19 first arrived and the first fatality, Zimbabwe was not ready.

The second death in Zimbabwe announced on April 7, confirms contact with his doctor who was his primary care physician on March 23. The victim took oral antibiotics. He was not hospitalized until 11 days later when he showed he had difficulty breathing in addition to his initial cough. And, the hospital was not an infectious disease hospital, but local hospital not equipped with to handle COVID-19 patients. After his condition deteriorated the same day he was admitted, he was moved into the intensive care unit and isolated. Only then, was he tested for COVID-19. On the third day, he died while waiting for the results.


The statement issued by the Ministry of Health and Child Care reports that only on April 7 did the National Microbiology Reference Laboratory conduct 21 tests of which the 79-year-old deceased man’s test was one of them. It tested positive for COVID-19.

Although the health ministry reiterates with each statement that it, “continues to be on high alert to the COVID-19 pandemic,” there’s little evidence from its published report that demonstrates beyond doubt of state of vigilance against the contagion. It says, “the most effective ways to protect yourself and others against COVID-19 are to practice good personal hygiene and social distancing.”

It goes without saying, that anyone who came into contact with him for at least 21-days, since his Hwange visit, was at risk of the contagion.

Mitigation measures instituted in advanced economies such as the U.S. need adapting to fragile ones as in Zimbabwe’s context, for example. South Africa is 3 times bigger than Zimbabwe. To be clear, Zimbabwe is about two times smaller than Mozambique or Zambia, about the same size as Botswana, and 89,417 square kilometres larger than Italy.











Caption: This to-scale map shows a size comparison of Zimbabwe compared to South Africa. Zimbabwe is 390,757 sq. km, while South Africa is approximately 1,219,090 sq. km.

One concern is for two decades, its diaspora has been its de facto social services institution, a role usually filled by governments in more advanced economies. The Government of Zimbabwe does not administer enough social safety nets for its 14 million population. In times of need, most people turn to diaspora family members in neighbouring South Africa, United Kingdom, and the U.S., among them, are childhood school friends, once-upon-a-time next-door neighbours and extended family relatives for help as a safety net.

Pre-coronavirus, they were the bailout.

Then COVID-19 happened. Now, they too are at risk of no income following national stay-at-home measures in countries where they now live. Substantial economic hardship, social suffering, and emotional sorrow appear inescapable in all SADC countries, as could happen across the Sub-Saharan region.

One could lament on why these massively complex problems are now at the COVID-19-budget allocations nexus, why lack of good governance has resulted in severely weakened national healthcare delivery systems, or how a shrinking in a democracy might have something to do with the systemic state of disrepair and a general sad state of things.


A Zimbabwe Republic Police water cannon jets high-velocity disinfectant into densely populated housing flats in the capital city of Zimbabwe, Harare, during the first week of a 21-day state-ordered national lockdown as a mitigation measure to stem coronavirus spread. April 3, 2020. PHOTO CREDIT: REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo.


Jeffrey Smith Founding Director of Vanguard Africa reminds us in the August 2019 Washington Post piece—Why the International Community Should Prioritize Democracy Over Development in Africa: “A Who’s who of selfish leaders, from ascendant populist, demagogues, to long-reigning dictators, has turbocharged the assault on democratic institutions.”

But, are the social institutions of hospitals and healthcare important to Africans? Yes. Do African leaders have a duty to look after their fellow citizens? Certainly. But is this expectation alone enough for them to provide adequate care?

Globally, there are now a total of 1,579,690 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 94,567 deaths, and 346,780 recovered cases as of April 9 with Zimbabwe confirming its third death—a 50-year-old man who had travelled to the United Kingdom and returned home on the 21st of March.

A second aspect to this fast-emerging crisis in Africa is that some of the Heads of State on Ahmed’s teleconference may have ordered social distancing and other restrictions in their respective countries, but they have not assuredly enforced it in the national health delivery system in their countries. That’s where nurses, doctors, janitors, administrative support staff turn up for work, are gravely making themselves susceptible to extremely high levels of infection from patients in their care, family and friends that come and go in the hospital systems, and to the families and households, they return to at the end of a hard day’s work.

Disheartened, one medical Zimbabwean doctor tweeted, “Which levelheaded Dr [doctor] would work with a clear mandate after being offered US$33 as risk allowance? This is demoralizing. We talk and you label us ‘enemies of the state.’”

Many looming questions for African leaders to explain to their populations exist including how far had the disease spread before social distancing being put into place? Without widespread inclusive, transparent testing how can their mitigation activities be measured for what effect they have had to stop infection transmission?

Nonetheless, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia said he had a “good teleconference” is too vague at a time of extreme social distress. It brings little solace to Africans needing demonstrable, decisive, data-oriented decision-making.


The Positive

Along with Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia, Zimbabwe has instituted a 21-day lockdown to avoid the spread of the disease. The lessons other countries around the world—China, Italy, Spain, and South Africa—are learning would be instructive for those in the SADC region purportedly further out on the timeline—since widespread testing still lags by many weeks behind the virus’ spread through Italy and the United States of America where there have been thousands of deaths and the advanced hospital system is overwhelmed. It is these health systems that offer models for what Sub-Saharan Africa should be doing next—indeed, what SADC and Zimbabwe must do to address emerging pandemic implications and with fewer deaths.

Another lesson for the benefit of countries with already weakened health delivery systems, such as Zimbabwe, is in a research report published in ScienceDirect. The research report on COVID-19 was published as early as March 9 by epidemiologists, global health experts, and University of Oxford data analysts, pointing out, “During the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa in 2014–16, deaths from other causes increased because of a saturated healthcare system and deaths of healthcare workers. These events underline the importance of enhanced support for healthcare infrastructure and effective procedures for protecting staff from infection.”

In hot-spot cities like Bergamo and New York, healthcare workers are at the frontline of patient care and are dying.

How will African-based mitigation attempts help avoid loss of lives of nurses, doctors, and janitorial and administrative staff from COVID-19 patients in Zimbabwe, SADC, or sub-Saharan Africa?

What Could Be Done?

Key to getting ahead in mitigation was the setting up of controls over immigration and individual, trans-regional travel as well as extensive social distancing. Many governments have some form of public interaction restrictions in place. Meanwhile, a March 18 Brookings Institute report on Strategies for coping with the health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa recommends that “To achieve these goals, we recommend a three-step approach: (1) contain the spread of the virus; (2) swiftly treat identified cases; and (3) cushion the economy from the effects of the pandemic. If these measures are implemented, the human casualties will be limited, and Africa’s economic growth will decline by around 1 percentage point or possibly less. If, on the other hand, the measures to contain the pandemic are not swift, the number of deaths will soar, and economic growth could drop by 2.1 percentage points or more.”

It is still to be seen how effective the lockdowns will be in avoiding the spread of the disease. What is certain is there will be multi-dimensional challenges, decisions, and opportunities in the coming weeks for heads of African governments in sub-Saharan Africa. How their populations comply with mitigation measures, respond to global health expert guidelines, and local community advice on doing all they can to stop coronavirus from spreading, will be crucially important, but it will be the actions of their Heads of State that will prove consequential.

The birth of COVID-19 is, without doubt, the true test in sub-Saharan Africa of whether or not these Heads of States and Government will innovate communication strategies to keep the public well-informed, by what ground-breaking methods (if at all), and through what means to counter the economic decline in parallel to addressing infectious disease transmission.

Demand Action

Fourth Estate, civil society and advocacy organizations, and faith-based groups ought to demand action from relevant authorities and peacefully hold leaders to account. If you do not see lives being defended, ask yourself if your government and your leaders are well-positioned as much as possible to keep your families and your loved ones adequately safe so you can live your dreams and aspirations without risks and challenges, but with as much abundance as they—themselves—enjoy while ruling.

In the end, African leaders are earthly beings, as are we. 

Get all COVID-19 statistics for Zimbabwe from COVID-TRACKER

Foreign Policy Columnist, Pearl Matibe has geographic expertise on U.S.-Africa foreign policy and global affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @PearlMatibe

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Daniel Chigundu

Daniel Chigundu is the news editor for OpenParlyZW an online platform that covers Parliament of Zimbabwe activities using social media (Twitter and Facebook). He is currently the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Parliamentary Journalists Forum and a board member of Digital Communication Network.

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