Interview

The pandemic and African Economies

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All across the world, we’re seeing the destructive power of the Covid-19 pandemic. African economies face a daunting task to curb the spread of the disease and also protect livelihoods. To their credit African leaders took decisive measures to protect the public. They lock downed airports and limited internal movement. However, the lockdowns have created tremendous economic pain in the lives of citizens; many of whom were struggling to earn a steady income. Omusana Review reached out to Dr. Gbemisola Oseni, an African development economist to help us understand the impact of this pandemic on everyday people. Dr. Oseni brings tremendous personal and professional insight to the socio-economic situation on the continent. 

When did you start thinking that Covid-19 was a health crisis to be taken seriously?

In February, when my colleagues in our Italy office were reporting the dire situation in the country. 

How has it impacted you personally and your family in Nigeria?

For my family here in the US, the main impact has been the restriction to our house. My husband and I are lucky to be able to do our jobs from home, and my kids are both young enough not to be too affected by the school closings. My son’s preschool has 30 minutes of zoom classes daily while my daughter is too young for preschool. However, the kids do miss their activities like going to the library and the little gym. We also have my mum with us, which is such a big blessing. So, to be honest, the impact beyond being stuck at home has been minimal. This is not something I take for granted at all. 

My family in Nigeria is also doing well. I do worry because they all live in Lagos, and the government just eased the lockdown. Given how overpopulated Lagos is and our poor health care system, I’m really concerned about their risk of contracting the virus. We are in contact with them daily and just praying that they continue to be well.

As an economist, can you give us an idea of some of the challenges that will impact African communities, especially everyday people?  

Huh. This is a huge one. Let me start with how proud I am of our countries and how fast many of them reacted to the pandemic. Many of our countries enforced travel restrictions with airport lockdowns, closed schools, and non-essential businesses and government offices. Organizations and companies that could function from home did. 

Our economies are made of a large share of informal workers. Which means many people have to leave their homes to make a living; they can’t afford to miss multiple months of no wages. In fact, for many people, they need daily wages to survive. It makes me worry that it is not realistic for many of our countries to have long term lockdown procedures. Our safety net programs are also not sufficient [if] they exist at all. Our countries were already not in great shape prior to the pandemic with poor health care systems, so things may get worse now. Some businesses will not survive the lockdown; remittances from within and outside the countries may be affected as people get laid off or even just reduce spending due to the uncertainty of everything; prices of goods are rising; the list goes on.  

My hope is that, since the reported cases of the virus are still low in many African countries, combined with the travel restrictions, social distancing, and hygiene measures, we may get lucky and have a lower impact until a vaccine is developed.  

What are some ways African countries can mitigate these challenges?

Acknowledge that the virus is real. Some people still think it’s a hoax in large part thanks to a certain president of a certain so called developed country. Continue with the public safety announcements to keep people informed. Encourage people to wash their hands consistently, isolate when they can, [and] limit large gatherings, which are all easier for the more privileged. The government should ensure that the companies and organizations, whose staff can work remotely, continue to do so. Unfortunately, these organizations are not a significant share [of the economy], but it will help in big cities like Lagos. 

I’ve heard that the government has provided clean water and soap in public spaces to encourage people to wash their hands. But we still have many people who don’t even have access to clean water in their homes. So our leaders need to do better. Our safety net system needs to improve greatly or be created in places that they didn’t exist. I know many countries have been trying to provide food to those in need. We need more of that. 

The travel restrictions need to stay in place. Our continent has significantly fewer cases compared to others; we need to keep it that way for a while.

I hope this pandemic is a kick in the butt to improve basic needs like clean water, a decent health care system, reliable electricity, better schools, more jobs, etc.

Remittances are an essential aspect of African sustainability–in what ways will it change under current conditions? 

People are likely to send less money in these times. Mostly because many people have lost jobs or have significantly less income due to the lockdown. And some just need to hold onto money because of uncertain times, which means that people are not getting as much help as they need [at] a time when they need it the most.  

What other comments would you like to add?

Help wherever and whenever you can. I know many people are suffering and are anxious and just overwhelmed. Give whatever you can. Reach out to people. My hope is that when this is all over, we emerge a better human race.

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