Does Covid-19 offer a new way of looking at African risk?

Covid-19 trends reveal facts about Africa’s capacity to react that cast doubt on the negative risk assessments so often given to African countries.

Opinion by

Image : Hannah Ryder

We’re all familiar with those maps. The maps that show Africa in red, Europe and North America in green, some of Asia and South America in orange. They are so familiar we have come to expect them. From analysis of corruption to disaster preparedness and assessing development indicators, they all appear to point to one conclusion – that the vast majority of African countries are riskier than the rest of the world.

As a result, when Covid-19 struck in early 2020, the first thought when it came to Africa was one of dread. There were headlines such as “African countries are at severe risk”, and “Bill Gates warns the coronavirus could hit Africa worse than China.” 

The first Global Health Security (GHS) Index had been jointly published in October 2019 by Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Policy, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and the Economist Intelligence Unit, and had a panel of well-regarded international experts to oversee it. It set out to establish “the state of international capability for preventing, detecting, and rapidly responding to epidemic and pandemic threats”.

The index ranked Equatorial Guinea as worst prepared out of 195 countries (16.5 points out of a possible 100), while the United States (83.5), UK (77.9), and the Netherlands (75.6) were best prepared. The best ranked African country was South Africa, at 34th, followed by Kenya at 55th. China was ranked 51st.

Most African countries appear in red on the GHS Index map, indicating higher risk.

On a separate, Africa-specific WHO index measuring whether countries provide all the possible health and related services that their population needs, within Africa it was Algeria that scored highest at 70% – against an average for the entire region of 48%.

Africa’s response confounds the critics

With this kind of international consensus, by March 2020, experts were confounded by the early lack of cases in Africa. Headlines appeared such as France24’s “Africa’s low coronavirus rate puzzles health experts”.  

That initial surprising yet welcome result was simply explained, however. At that point at least, it was not resilience or poor detection that drove the lower cases. My colleague Leah Lynch and I set out the fact that African economies are highly disconnected from the rest of the world, especially when it comes to global people-to-people flows. 

For instance, Africa gets approximately 5% of global tourism flows, and an even smaller 4% of China’s tourists. The countries where Covid-19 was first detected had relatively more developed tourism sectors and/or more international residents. In many ways, factors that might make these countries more attractive or interesting to private sector finance were the most challenging.

Covid-19 reveals that the private sector may well be underinvesting in numerous African economies.

While a number of problematic explanatory narratives have occasionally emerged – narratives for instance that suggest African countries are under-reporting or under-testing, at best these narratives are derived from analysis in one country, and cannot be generalised. 

What is often not mentioned is that fast, decisive action was the key commonality of Africa’s initial response. Almost 70% of African countries closed borders and instituted social distancing before detecting 10 cases. The majority of African countries introduced mask-wearing policies, at least in capital cities, well before many European countries or American states.

Not only this, incidence is concentrated within the continent – 10 African countries account for over 80% of cases and deaths on the continent to date. Yet, as in March 2020, these 10 countries are not the ones at the bottom of the GHS ranking; they are closer to the top. The worst African performers are not the usual countries in red that we see on the maps. 

Indeed, using internal data my firm has collated since the pandemic broke out, only the variable of numbers of cases at the time of border closures can significantly (in a statistical sense) explain Covid-19 incidence across African countries.

Not poverty levels, not the GHS index, corruption or any other typical measures of risk. Not even, as some economists have tried to suggest, the relatively young age of the African population versus others. Nor does exposure to Ebola, for instance, explain strong responses in East or Southern Africa, hundreds of miles away.

As the economist Branko Milanovic has observed when examining these statistics at a global level, experts’ “predicted outcomes were far different (in some cases, the very opposite) of the actual outcomes”.

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Time to reappraise the facts

So does this matter? Could Covid-19 just be an outlier? My view is that the Covid-19 trends observed in 2020 are important. They have revealed important aspects about our world, about African economies, and most importantly about our concepts and measurements of risk that we must digest and use to inform future economic, development and investment models. 

More specifically for readers of African Business, Covid-19 reveals that the private sector may well be underinvesting in numerous African economies. We may well be using outdated and subjective assessments of risk that are not taking into account the reality and impact of decisiveness, capacity to respond, and other factors that explain Covid-19 resilience that we have not even begun to fully understand as yet.

It’s time for us all to start digesting this – and to start looking at any maps that still show Africa in red with at least a little scepticism.

Hannah Ryder is the CEO of Development Reimagined, a pioneering African-led international development consultancy based in China.

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