The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the entire world to a standstill and created an atmosphere of uncertainty regarding what the future holds for countries, communities, and individuals. The disease has already claimed close to 300, 000 lives worldwide and in a globalized world, where economies rely on each other to thrive, the socio-economic impacts of the current crisis are likely to be felt everywhere for years to come, nonetheless at varying degrees.
In Africa, the pandemic places a huge burden on the socio-economic prospects of many countries and this is particularly heightened in view of the restrictions implemented by governments to curb the spread of the virus. For example, curfews, self-quarantine and containment measures, closure of non-essential businesses, commercial lockdowns, travel and movement restrictions, etc. are all measures that stand to negatively affect economies. Analysts have observed current trends and estimated an increase in unemployment and bankruptcy rates in the coming months. Specifically, the April World Economic Outlook predicts that global economic growth in 2020 would fall to -3 percent, which is a downgrade of 6.3 percentage points compared to January 2020. While the exact rates are still unknown, undoubtedly, months and years after the pandemic, there will be global economic changes and the catastrophic impacts of the disease will still linger. In order to help developing countries curb the spread of the disease and cushion its negative impacts on their economies, the African Development Bank (AfDB) has put measures in place to support efforts made by African countries to attenuate the effects of the pandemic on economies and livelihoods.
First, in March 2020, the AfDB announced a $3 billion social bond with a three-year maturity, the Fight COVID-19 Social Bond. Through the proceeds of this bond, which will accumulate interest from several investors worldwide, the AfDB hopes to achieve enhanced access of its constituencies to indispensable services such as healthcare, water and sanitation, and employment among others to help alleviate the impact of the pandemic.
Also, the Bank also approved a $2 million emergency assistance to the World Health Organization (WHO), aimed at supporting regional member countries to contain the spread of the virus and mitigate its impacts. With this funding, WHO is expected to reinforce the capacity of 41 countries to prevent the spread of the disease, improve monitoring systems, provide laboratory equipment for a rapid detection and investigation of cases, as well as establish effective mechanisms for improved containment and management of confirmed cases. Additional activities would include public and community awareness raising and information sharing.
The Bank also recently announced the establishment of a $10 billion COVID-19 Response Facility to governments and private sector institutions, also aimed at assisting member countries in their fight against the pandemic. The Facility will dedicate $1.35 billion to private sector operations, $5.5 billion to sovereign operations in AfDB countries, and $3.1 billion to sovereign and regional operations for countries served by the African Development Fund, the Bank’s arm that offers concessional financing to low income and fragile countries.
All these measures by the regional Bank, whose mandate is to contribute to the sustainable economic development and social progress of its regional members individually and jointly, are commendable, as they are introduced at a time when the continent needs them to effectively fight the pandemic and mitigate its catastrophic impacts on economies and lives. However, in such moments of urgency, emergency projects may overlook certain essential aspects such as the inclusion of poor communities and marginalized groups in meaningful stakeholder engagement. Because these groups are often more vulnerable to being exposed to the virus as well as to the economic impacts of the pandemic, it is crucial for the AfDB to prioritize these groups by including adequate safeguards in the project cycle to ensure that they are not left out of measures being implemented in COVID-19 response projects.
In developing countries, women and girls are often more exposed to the virus by reason of certain gender roles and disproportional representations among healthcare and social service professionals - a higher number of women are midwives, nurses, street hawkers, market women, commodities and food sellers, family grocery shoppers, among others - yet they also stand the risk of being discriminated against in testing and treatment centers. Also, as a result of current restrictions, including the closure of schools, children are at home and losing out on crucial learning moments, especially in contexts where they do not have access to the internet to leverage remote tutoring. In settings where they have these options, they also become exposed to various risks associated with internet usage. Out-of-school children also face increased risks of sexual exploitation and abuse by caregivers and online and child labor due to economic insecurity. For children with special needs, the situation is even worse as they require specific therapies to be able to cope with their daily challenges. Some persons living with disabilities are at risk of being excluded from access to testing and treatment centres, and when information about the disease is disseminated in inaccessible ways. The above examples are just a representation of many other scenarios of marginalizations that vulnerable people usually encounter in such instances and may do in this current situation.
These situations can be avoided if the AfDB upholds the rights of marginalized groups and adopts effective, innovative and inclusive strategies for poor communities and those particularly vulnerable to the disease and economic impacts to access the benefits of COVID-19 response projects. Additionally, in view of the existing restrictions, there is a need for the AfDB to introduce innovative ways of engaging civil society organizations (CSOs) and communities in consultations towards inclusive emergency response plans and also encourage borrowing institutions to do the same for the development of comprehensive and adequately targeted project implementation plans. Finally, while addressing the economic effects of the pandemic, borrowers should be encouraged to include support systems through which affected businesses and individuals, especially poorest communities and marginalized groups, can regain access to means of livelihood that were lost as a result of COVID-19.
Financial and social class, age and gender, ethnicity, health and physical condition, among many other factors should definitely not be the basis on which certain benefits are determined - such as testing, containment conditions, treatment, and the ability to obtain protective items like masks, hand sanitizers, and gloves. The Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) has taught African countries several lessons, which include the importance of effectively and proactively engaging communities, conducting extensive research on the virus, providing quick and effective laboratory testing and services to all without discrimination to prevent a spread of the virus, establishing well equipped treatment centers, putting measures in place to address the aftermath of the pandemic, among other lessons. Therefore, African countries, through the AfDB, should be reminded and encouraged to use these lessons learnt from the EVD to effectively respond to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, with increased transparency, accountability, and without any form of exclusion.