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Southern Africa is bracing itself for the coronavirus

At the end of March, the first coronavirus infections were detected in southern Africa, which resulted in country after country rapidly closing their borders. Tycho van der Hoog witnessed this process at first hand during his PhD research in Namibia. He analyzes the state of the corona crisis from his expertise as area studies scholar.

A heavy blow

For a moment, it looked as if my girlfriend and I would not be able to come back to the Netherlands, but we were eventually repatriated from Namibia. We are now in self-quarantine in Leiden, while we worry about our friends and colleagues who we left behind. A Zimbabwean colleague informed me via WhatsApp that he is stuck in lockdown and cannot buy food. His family still has a small amount of food at home. "After that, I don't know what will happen." 

Southern African governments are taking the pandemic seriously and doing everything possible to stop the virus from spreading. Many countries have declared a state of emergency: planes remain grounded, cities are in lockdown and the sale of alcohol has been shut down in many places. Banks are delaying payment obligations, emergency economic packages are being prepared and international aid is getting underway. It is a very heavy blow to the region.

It is particularly hard for the millions of people living in slums. For them, a lockdown is not just disastrous, it is a potential death sentence. Day labourers are losing their income while food is becoming expensive and scarce. Large groups of people are forced to live in small spaces, without running water. Videos from South African townships show that the measures are brutally enforced by paramilitary police.

State of emergency as a political instrument

The coronavirus not only mercilessly exposes the weaknesses of the system, but it also accelerates existing trends. The vast majority of countries in southern Africa were already in an economic recession before the onset of the virus, which is now exacerbated in an unprecedented way. The influx of foreign tourists, an important source of income, is drying up almost completely. The consequences for national governments, which are in many cases bankrupt and therefore already experiencing difficulties in obtaining money loans on the international capital market, are significant. Several countries, such as Namibia and South Africa, are consequently having to rely on donations from the wealthy upper classes of their populations.

Furthermore, authoritarian governments are strengthening their power by declaring a state of emergency as a means of sidelining the opposition. For example, Namibia, a country that has been ruled by a single party since the declaration of independence, immediately declared a state of emergency for a period of six months. Just recently, the government came under great pressure as a result of a corruption scandal, while the opposition attempted to fight alleged ballot-box fraud.

Seven respirators for 18 million people

A major concern is the capacity of healthcare in the region. The public sector has been eroding since the 1990s, often as a result of pressure from outside financiers such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In Namibia, more than sixty per cent of healthcare professionals work in the private sector. A country like Malawi has seven respirators for a population of 18 million people. In Zimbabwe, the coronavirus outbreak caused medical workers to strike due to a lack of materials.

"A potential bright spot is that, demographically speaking, African countries have very young populations."

Moreover, unlike West Africa, Southern Africa has no experience of previous epidemics, such as Ebola. Large parts of the population have poor nutrition and a low resistance to diseases such as HIV and malaria. And whereas in Europe summer is starting, in Africa winter is on the doorstep, a period in which normal variants of the flu also arise. A potential bright spot is that, demographically speaking, African countries have very young populations.

The idea that a pandemic acts as "the great equalizer", in that the virus does not distinguish between rich and poor, is therefore only partially true. In southern Africa, which in an economic sense belongs to one of the most unequal regions in the world, there are major concerns that the virus and the stringent measures will disproportionately affect the poorer sections of the population.

Tycho van der Hoog is a PhD candidate at the Africa Study Center of Leiden University. He researches the history of liberation movements in southern Africa and has worked in Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

Header image: Ronny Gängler, On the road in Namibia. Please click here for the license. 

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