COVID-19: South Africa takes charge at home and on the continent

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, chairperson of the African Union (AU) for 2020, convened a teleconference meeting of the continental organisation on 3 April 2020 to discuss Africa’s response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

This was the second such meeting with the current AU Bureau, comprising Ramaphosa, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Felix Tshisekedi. The format of the meeting was extended to include Rwanda (Paul Kagame), Ethiopia (Abiy Ahmed Ali), Senegal (Macky Sall) and Zimbabwe (Emmerson Mnangagwa).

Another virtual meeting with business leaders from across the continent was planned for 22 April to discuss the economic impact of the pandemic on AU member states.

At the 3 April meeting, the bureau received presentations from Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO); Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), and President Emmanuel Macron of France.

As COVID-19 continues to spread in Africa and many have predicted a massive impact on the continent, South Africa is taking resolute steps both domestically and continentally to curtail the spread of the virus. In this endeavour, existing continental mechanisms and entities such as the Africa CDC are instrumental. 

South Africa taking action at home

While it still had just under 1 000 positive cases and zero deaths related to COVID-19, South Africa opted for a total lockdown of the country and the roll-out of strict measures to prevent the further spread of the virus and to offset its socio-economic impact.

South Africa opted for a total lockdown of the country and the roll-out of strict measures to prevent the further spread of the virus

According to the government, these measures are in line with current international best practice to ‘flatten the curve’ of infections, particularly to protect South Africa’s large number of vulnerable and immunocompromised people. They also help to buy time to build up emergency healthcare capacity ahead of what the government believes will be an unavoidable rise in the number of infected individuals.

Since the beginning of the lockdown, the government has periodically reviewed and tweaked measures to cater for the needs of certain vulnerable sections of the population. This was, for instance, the case for social grant recipients, who were allowed to collect their monies in advance and for a period of one week during the lockdown.

The government has also revised its broader strategy by implementing mass testing of vulnerable clusters and potential high-risk areas. Examples to date include mass testing conducted in Alexandra township in Johannesburg after the first positive case was found in the area, and a similar move in a KwaZulu-Natal province hospital where 48 staff were reported to have tested positive.

These measures have been followed by the rolling out of mass testing across all nine provinces of South Africa following a continued rise in the number of infections despite the nationwide lockdown.

The lockdown and many of its measures can have both positive and negative implications for public safety, including state abuses, which the government has to address as part of its public outreach during this period.

In spite of these challenges and many other structural ones, South Africa has certainly taken a strongly proactive and preventive rather than a curative approach to dealing with the crisis. If it is properly and sustainably implemented, this could prove efficacious in the management of the pandemic.

Ramaphosa has not neglected his duty as chairperson of the AU and has taken the same clinical approach in consolidating a continental response

South Africa’s response to the pandemic, although one of many on the continent, is among the most comprehensive thus far. While this is a demanding and critical task domestically, Ramaphosa has not neglected his duty as chairperson of the AU and seems to have taken the same clinical approach in rallying and consolidating a continental response to COVID-19.

South Africa’s role in Africa’s response

The continent’s response to COVID-19 has been spearheaded by the Africa CDC, which was officially launched in January 2017 after the Ebola crisis had surfaced in parts of West and Central Africa in 2014. It has since supported the DRC in fighting the Ebola outbreak that began there in 2018 and the measles epidemic that started in 2019.

The crucial role played by the Africa CDC is reinforced by South Africa’s using its position as chair of the AU to convene member states to create the necessary political buy-in for how the continent is to deal with COVID-19. Ramaphosa called the first AU Bureau meeting on 26 March 2020, which was also attended by the AU Commission chairperson and the head of the Africa CDC.

A continental coordinated response is more important than ever before in order to arrest the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic

At the meeting Ramaphosa noted that ‘a continental coordinated response [is] more important than ever before in order to arrest the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic’. The outcome of the meeting led to the establishment of an African anti-COVID-19 fund to which member states of the bureau contributed $12.5 million in seed funding. A further $4.5 million was pledged in support of the work of the Africa CDC.

The convening of the AU Bureau paved the way for the G20 meeting where Africa presented its request for support from international financial institutions in the fight against the pandemic. South Africa, as the only African member of the G20 and chair of the AU for 2020, relayed the determinations made during the AU Bureau meeting to the G20 meeting, particularly around Africa’s need for financial and material support.

Ramaphosa subsequently called for a follow-up AU Bureau meeting to assess progress made with regard to the resolutions taken at the previous meeting and by the G20. The 3 April meeting resolved ‘to establish continental ministerial coordination committees on Health, Finance and Transport to coordinate support for the comprehensive continental strategy’.

The meeting also ‘noted that the Sahel region need special attention in the light of terrorist activity’ and pledged ‘solidarity with the countries in this region who have to fight the twin scourge of terrorism and COVID-19’.

Overall, Africa’s response to COVID-19 thus far and South Africa’s role in this are noteworthy. This is particularly so because in the midst of this pandemic wreaking havoc the world over, where other blocs have shown little solidarity with their neighbours Africa is showing strong signs of solidarity. As these efforts are being deployed, Africa’s collective commitment to finding solutions to an African challenge is also being put to the test.

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