Two months after most African nations closed their borders and imposed lockdowns to contain the spread of the coronavirus, they’re deciding it’s not worth the economic cost.
Faced with an impossible dilemma – starvation and deepening poverty or a wider outbreak – many leaders are opting to save people’s livelihoods.
“Africa is now victim of its success,” said Nana Poku, a political economist and vice chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. “Thanks to a strong public-health response, we have kept the number of infections and deaths relatively low. Compared to those numbers, the economic cost of Covid-19 in terms of lost output and increased poverty seems very large.”
In South Africa, which has the continent’s highest number of confirmed infections, the government is taking the gradual approach – on May 1 it began relaxing one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in place since March 27.
The country’s largest platinum miner, Sibanye Stillwater Ltd., urged President Cyril Ramaphosa this week to let mines run at full capacity in order to avoid a complete shut-down. Even though miners have been allowed to restart operations with half their normal workers, that isn’t sufficient, Chief Executive Officer Neal Froneman said.
“We are causing more harm by constraining the economy than we are impacting positively on Covid-19,” he said. “We have gone too far now, we now need to get the economy to start up.”
The real emergency may not be the virus, but the fallout from the pandemic, said Leena Koni Hoffmann, associate fellow of the Africa program at Chatham House in the U.K. “Tens of millions of people across the continent were already in vulnerable situations before this,” she said.
“The cure for the pandemic, especially in African economies, is worse than the virus itself.”