Dark Clouds & Silver Linings: Part 2
The Covid-effect: socio-economic and lifestyle changes in Africa – and surprising new opportunities
In my previous blog post (Part 1) I looked at some macroeconomic shifts resulting from the pandemic. In this post we’ll investigate some socio-economic and lifestyle changes that have developed in Africa. I end on an optimistic note – looking at some opportunities that have come from this extraordinary worldwide challenge.
Lockdowns around the world accelerated the implementation of digital solutions in most aspects of daily life. In Africa, this has been the case too, though arguably on a far more wide-ranging scale than most developed nations. The pandemic has provided the much-needed impetus for Africa to digitally leap forward.
The e-commerce boom in sub-Saharan Africa was one standout consequence, as was the deployment of tools that made working from home easier.
Though there is little doubt that 2020 was a watershed year for digital transition, many other socioeconomic and lifestyle factors across the continent have been impacted by the pandemic.
The consequences of halting community and public gatherings
In many ways and forms, community and social interaction underpin African culture. The ban on public gatherings in response to the pandemic has had consequent impacts on family and community life, creating isolation in communities where this has previously been unthinkable. Communities coming together for decision-making, to resolve conflicts, discuss marriage partnerships or conduct burial rites all form part of the strong communal values that form the bedrock of African culture
Social isolation as a result of the pandemic will continue to erode cultural ties that have already been weakened by urbanisation and globalisation.
Changes in media consumption
Globally, COVID-19 is having a significant impact on patterns of media supply, consumption, and advertising. Demand for content is skyrocketing while new content creation has been largely turned off. How people access, consume and trust news sources is also drastically changing. There is no doubt that the media world finds itself at a significant turning point – politically, economically, technologically, and socially.
We’ve seen that with the increase in isolation, people have turned to social media channels to keep in touch, driving an increase in traffic across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Online entertainment has also been in high demand, benefiting video content providers such as YouTube and Netflix.
However, media and communication spaces have seen a proliferation of misinformation and disinformation being spread, with adverse consequences in the fight against the pandemic. Pandemic-related information and guidelines have been politicised, leading to many people distrusting news sources, or turning to non-professional sources for information.
Developments in healthcare & telemedicine
Africa’s healthcare systems have been under immense pressure to fight the Covid-19 pandemic since the start of 2020. However, this pressure has also created pockets of opportunity – not only for the governments to tackle healthcare systems that are in bad shape but also for innovators to develop and provide essential healthcare services that are affordable, reliable, and relevant to local contexts.
Spurred on by the pandemic and increasing digital adoption across the continent, a greater number of startups in sub-Saharan Africa are offering telemedicine services. As of July 2020, the number of African ICT health start-ups operating across the continent hit an all-time high of 180 active companies.
Some countries are driving the adoption of telemedicine more actively than others. In Uganda, the government has unveiled a national e-health policy that recognizes the potential of information and communication technology (ICT) in healthcare delivery and has started engaging stakeholders. In Nigeria, the government has been using e-health technology to help it fight the pandemic through communication and contact tracing.
With most African countries having low ratios of health professionals and hospital beds to population, and most of its stock of pharmaceuticals being imported, health systems are highly constrained to respond to COVID-19. These telemedicine solutions are helping alleviate the pressure on already-stressed healthcare systems across the continent.
Impact on the cultural and arts sector
Like every other aspect of life in Africa, the pandemic has had a profound impact on the arts and culture sector. Along with the tourism sector, the cultural and creative industries are among the most affected by the current crisis, with lockdown measures leading to the cancellation of major arts and cultural events, as well as small-scale performance art across the continent.
One of the less covered aspects of the impact of the virus is the closure of cultural institutions. In South Africa alone, the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Mandela’s house and Apartheid Museum have all had to close due to the absence of tourism, and school visits, all major sources of income.
Some governments have granted financial aid and relief funds to art and cultural institutions. Nigeria, for example, has launched a “Post COVID-19 Initiatives Committee for the Creative Industry” to plan a path to recovery for the industry. Kenya released about one million USD to sustain the creative industries during the lockdown, whilst Senegal has allocated more than five million USD to the sector.
One opportunity is the potential for growth in the creative subsector by leveraging digital technologies. Digital paid platforms constitute a viable alternative even though they cannot replace live events. In most cases, digital platforms during the pandemic served to avoid eroding fan bases and to sustain relationships despite physical distance.
The silver lining was the increased use of digital platforms for art exhibitions and leveraging art related events for advocacy programmes in education and other sectors. In Nigeria a “Food for Art” initiative was launched during the pandemic and enabled the show casing of works of emerging artists at the same time channeling the proceeds from the exhibition to provision of food for vulnerable communities.
Silver linings & opportunities for the continent
As much as the pandemic has highlighted the fault lines across the continent and in individual African nations, it has also placed a spotlight on the multitude of opportunities that abound not only to kickstart recovery, but also for sustainable growth.
African companies have shown their resilience in the face of disrupted international supply chains, by pivoting to home-grown solutions and substituting foreign imports with local manufacturing. This ability of local companies to quickly respond to urgent needs demonstrates that there is scope to have less reliance on foreign inputs.
Technology & digital infrastructure
The African continent and its constituent countries have a long way to go before technology and digital infrastructure are ubiquitous – and this in itself presents opportunities. By focusing on technology and reforms that address digital infrastructure gaps and inclusivity as critical components of the path to recovery, continental stakeholders have the opportunity to support local and regional value chains and enable more cost-effective delivery of services to consumers.
Accelerated digitisation and technological focus have become a non-negotiable for companies and governments. The outcome of doing this properly would be the increased efficacy of the public service, and allowing businesses to reach constituencies that had previously been overlooked.
The narrow dependence on commodity revenues has been a persistent problem in Africa. Consequently, many countries’ economies are subject to boom-bust scenarios based on geopolitics and commodity price fluctuations. More a case of necessity than choice, economic diversification in Africa now needs to be a primary focus. The pandemic and resulting economic crisis present the opportunity to address industrialisation and diversification efforts towards productive, sustainable, and employment-generating goals.
Beyond economic recovery, future development will be underpinned by the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which aims to enhance regional integration, create more efficient value chains and unlock e-commerce potential – all of which are necessary to facilitate the development of modern, sustainable African economies.
Local vaccine production
African countries’ reliance on vaccines from foreign countries has put them in a precarious position with little bargaining power for vaccine equity. In a move to supply the continent with sorely needed vaccines, the World Health Organization (WHO) is in talks to create the first-ever technology transfer hub for coronavirus vaccines in South Africa.
The new consortium will include drug makers Biovac and Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, a network of universities, and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The aim is to develop training facilities for other vaccine makers to produce mRNA vaccines, which will not only benefit the continent in the current pandemic, but could change the face of continent-wide healthcare in the future.
In a move that hopes to further boost Africa’s vaccine security, Aspen Pharmacare is planning to increase its manufacturing capacity for Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine in South Africa by 200 million doses annually starting in January. This is on top of existing capacity to produce 300 million vaccine doses per year.