UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Ahunna Eziakonwa, talks to Africa Renewal’s Kingsley Ighobor on COVID-19: the sectors that need urgent interventions and how women are disproportionately affected. Excerpts:
Which sectors in Africa will need urgent intervention post-COVID-19?
First, strengthening the health system is crucial. This crisis is revealing deep structural deficiencies in our health infrastructure. We should conceive programmes in healthcare as part of the public good. It cannot be that only the elite, the rich, can get the best health services where they are offered. Currently, if you're poor and are not able to access those expensive services or to travel out of your country, your fate is determined by poor services at home. This pandemic has shown us that if the poor people are not safe, even the rich are not safe.
Secondly, this pandemic will shatter economies. In tourism, for example, African countries will be affected differently, for example, the small island developing states such as Mauritius, the Seychelles and Comoros will be affected differently from landlocked countries. Therefore, countries that depend heavily on transport and tourism will need help to recover.
Thirdly, it is important to also look at issues related to debt. Africa was already saddled with rising debt. This crisis will lead to additional debt if alternative resources are not found to help countries address the impact of COVID-19. Debt relief options such as grants, as opposed to expensive borrowing, are crucial.
We need to look at how Africa's money can work for Africa's development and recovery. Where are the resources parked? Where is the money parked? For instance, pension funds or sovereign wealth funds. Africa needs to leverage its own financial resources.
We can add education in the mix. In East Africa alone, for example, more than 100 million children are now out of school. Some parents may be able to home-school their children, or some schools may have online learning possibilities, but we know that for most people on the continent, if children are taken out of school, there's no schooling for them. Yet we don't know how long this pandemic is going to last.
So, we need to invest in tele-education that includes poor households, not just for those who can afford computers at home. This is very critical because if it is not addressed, we will deepen the inequality that already exists on the continent because it means some children will not learn for the next six to nine months while others do.
How are women disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?We know that gender-based violence has increased in the lockdown, which is a period of anxiety, and the courts are not functioning at the level that is required. So where do people get justice, especially women who are facing domestic violence or gender-based violence? UN Women’s work on this is now informing the response plans that countries are making. Through an advocacy campaign, we are highlighting the disproportionate impact on women by COVID-19 and making sure that there is access to justice.On the economy, 70 per cent of women are involved in cross-border trade. With the borders shutting down, their livelihoods are also affected. We need to ensure that policies adopted by countries and by sub-regions, whether it's ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] or EAC [East African Community], or SADC [Southern African Development Community], that they consider the need to open corridors to enable cross-border livelihood opportunities for women.On education for girls, online platforms and other methods being used should ensure that girls are not left out. Often when hardship hits the family, it is the girls who are pulled out of school to do the work to keep families afloat and so many of them are likely to miss out on critical education during this period.
Are countries making progress?
In any crisis, there are opportunities and I think these are starting to be leveraged in Africa. I was very heartened to hear of Ethiopian startups being unleashed to produce 500,000 face masks. A lot of these startups are led by young people. We are a youthful continent. If we don’t factor young people and their talents, creativity, knowledge and livelihoods into the response to COVID-19 then we lose the fight. So, we have these islands of hope emerging where countries are creating conducive regulatory frameworks for young people to come in and produce some of the essential materials that are needed to fight this pandemic.
In my country Nigeria, I was very happy to see one of the state governments invest in tailors—not a lot of money, but enough to create momentum—and have them start to sew protective gear for health workers. With the importation bans, Africa cannot afford to wait. Local production, tapping into the young talent and the SMEs, have given us hope.
In the digital world, many startups are developing apps that help with contact tracing. In Senegal, a company is producing affordable test kits that can give results in less than 10 minutes. Countries are starting to look at the vulnerability of their populations and to understand how strict social distancing measures can be applied in ways that offer protection to those populations. We see some good things coming out of South Africa and Cameroon. Governments taking action to ensure that the most vulnerable are registered and that relief materials are distributed to them. In Uganda women traders in the markets have capitalized on existing mobile tools to help vendors in safely delivering and selling their fruits and vegetables. A lot of creativity in that way is good.
We also see regional leadership taking hold with the African Union establishing the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and empowering it to coordinate the response on the continent. And they are having a unified voice on financing that is required to help Africa get through this period.