By Lindsey Alpaugh, staff writer, RightsViews, Human Rights MA student. 

On Wednesday, January 27th, Columbia University held an event examining the impact of COVID-19 on the African continent. Panelists included Belinda Archibong, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Barnard College, Pedro Conceicao, the director of the Human Development Report Office and lead author of the Human Development Report, UNDP HDR office, and Dr. Wilmot James, Senior Research Scholar in the Institute for Social and Economic Research Policy.

This event followed a series in the fall looking at COVID-19 in Latin America and was sponsored by the Economic and Political Development concentration at SIPA, the Institute for African Studies at Columbia University, Center for Development Economics and Policy, and SIPA Pan-African Network.

African countries were able to have a significantly smaller first wave than predicted due to the dramatic measures that countries took to prevent the spread, such as closing schools and limiting travel. While this had a very successful impact on combatting the spread of the virus, it, in turn, created negative economic effects, pulling parts of sub-Saharan Africa into its first recession in 22 years. Experiences with previous epidemics have given different African countries some foresight into how to best stop the spread of COVID-19. The relative youth of the population on the continent is also cited as a factor for low case counts: in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, the average age is 19. While the fight against the first wave of the pandemic was successful, it led to many conversations about public health in Africa, and what patterns and lessons can be learned in the fight against COVID-19 globally.


All three panelists mentioned the impact on education that COVID would have on the continent. “It’s very easy to close schools, it’s very hard to re-open them,” said Dr. James Wilmot. The loss of education from this period of time will be difficult to recover from.

Another major concern is the effective out-of-school rate for students. This rate refers to the total number of students who are unable to access education. The term was coined to describe the indirect factors that would impact a student’s ability to access education, such as a lack of access to the necessary technology or connectivity to attend. Experts believe that the current drop in student attendance will exacerbate educational inequalities globally.

If a student does not have access to the internet during periods of remote learning, they are counted towards the effective out-of-school rate. According to a UNDP report, in low-development countries, which all but three are in Africa, the effective out-of-school rate last year was 86%, an increase of 59% from years prior. This would bring enrollment rates to what they were in the early 1980s.

Role of International Aid

Having an appropriate flow of aid would help to address the severe economic effects that the lockdowns created. These impacts would make it difficult to have an equally responsive second wave, but so long as countries were able to counter negative impacts that preventative measures may have, it would be possible to continue to use similar shut-down strategies. Archibong recommended that in order to keep the pandemic response strong in Africa, funding should be injected into economies to prevent short-term drawbacks to the pandemic response that may emerge in a second wave.

Arrival of medical supplies donated by the People’s Republic of China to South Africa

Conceicao offered insight from the Human Development report he authored. He noted that COVID created a shock to development. He emphasized a need to change the context under which aid moves into Africa, towards a more sustainable health infrastructure, “It is natural for countries to focus on the crisis, but that leaves open a big vulnerability,” citing the Ebola outbreak. There was not a lack of funding, particularly from the World Bank, but the mechanisms were not in place to build a foundation for infrastructure, such as payments for health workers.

Another important thing to consider is the asymmetrical impact COVID had across the continent. While the panel spoke about Africa as a whole, the situation varied in all 54 countries, as they each entered into the pandemic with unique economic and social situations. For example, South Africa had a much harsher economic downturn from the pandemic than Kenya. GDP levels are expected to recover in East Africa next year, while in Southern Africa it will take three to four years. Most countries would be using COVAX to vaccinate their populations, but those with more money would have easier access to the supply. Understanding the uneven impact of COVID across the continent will lead to a more accurate assessment and address of needs to citizens and governments.


Public Health Campaigns

All panelists agreed that creating a robust system of public health infrastructure would help prevent further outbreaks. Dr. James emphasized a need to build public health systems in a resilient way, that would be able to improve citizen health both during outbreaks as well as in time periods that would allow for preparation.

Some parts of the continent are much more willing to get the vaccine than others. Archibong mentioned how previous public health campaigns had created distrust instead of promoting positive relationships between citizens and medical professionals. She cited a controversial drug trial that Pfizer conducted in 1996 during a Meningitis outbreak in Northern Nigeria. Eleven children participating in the study died. It is alleged that Pfizer conducted this research without parental consent. When the news of the trial broke, it created distrust in public health interventions and led to a decrease in vaccinations for diseases such as Polio for the next fifteen years. To combat situations like this, public health campaigns have to understand the legitimate place this hesitancy may emerge from.

An indirect impact from COVID-19 in a more general sense was the drop in immunizations across the continent. This is not an effect that is distinct to Africa. In the rebound from COVID, it will be important to figure out how to fill in gaps of immunization that the pause in the system created.

The ability for a joint response between the African CDC, one of the only regional CDCs in the world, and individual national responses can allow for a more effective vaccination campaign, as well as preventative measures on the continent. Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic can serve the continent, as well as other regions around the world, when battling future pandemics and epidemics.



“COVID-19 testing” by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Arrival of medical supplies donated by the People’s Republic of China to South Africa” by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

“IMG_2315” by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


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