Africa in 2021: A perspective (2)

By Chisom Stephannie Adinde

Climate change will significantly lower Africa’s GDP through channels such as reduced agricultural activity and labor productivity, lowered crop yields and human health costs. Estimates suggest that COVID-19 will cost the world economy up to 5% of GDP. Meanwhile, climate change in Africa is already costing most of the continent’s economies between 3% and 5% of GDP annually with some countries experiencing losses of up to 10% of GDP. This highlights that climate change poses a far greater risk to lives and livelihoods than the COVID-19 pandemic thus far and as such both issues should be treated with the utmost priority. 

Climate change also has implications for health on the continent. Africa has a high burden of climate-sensitive diseases and low preparedness and response capacity at the institutional and community levels. The rise in temperatures combined with changes in rainfall patterns will amplify the transmission of infectious disease across the continent by creating an enabling environment for diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever to thrive. 

The alarm bells of an impending global pandemic have been ringing for several years but, very few paid attention. Climate change is one of the most defining problems of our time and should be adequately addressed as such before it snowballs into a bigger issue akin to the current pandemic we are currently facing. For African countries, attending conferences at Davos and signing agreements is not enough. There needs to be a feasible action plan to ensure mitigation and adaptation at a communal, national and regional level. In the journey towards a post-covid society, climate change should be prioritised to ensure that we meet the needs of both people and the planet. 

4. The Fourth industrial revolution

The world is on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution which is characterized by technological breakthroughs such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, quantum computing and so on. The 4IR is expected to raise global income levels and improve the standard of living for populations around the world. For example, AI, the Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain technology can improve data gathering frameworks and analysis which will drive evidence-based and data-driven policymaking at all levels of governance. 

In the past few months, the pandemic has emphasised the importance of technology and digitization. Social distancing and lockdown measures forced individuals, firms and nations to reconfigure the way they live, work, learn, relate with one another and even govern. This paradigm shift, fostering what is now popularly termed as the “new normal”, will accelerate efforts towards technological advancement across the world, but Africa risks being left behind again.

Across the various indicators, infrastructure, education and technology access that are necessary for the 4IR, the continent is struggling. Electricity is still epileptic across many countries on the continent, internet penetration is low and data costs are increasingly high. Most of the growth in the continent’s ICT sector has been spearheaded by expanding mobile digital financial services in countries like Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda. In 2017, Africa only used about 1 percent of the world’s total international Internet bandwidth and the percentage of individuals using the internet in the region was 28.2%, in comparison to the global average of 53.6% in 2019.

Moving beyond current models of innovation, entrepreneurship, and digital growth on the continent is imperative. The 4IR has benefits for several sectors including agriculture, healthcare, education and financial services.

The primary challenge for the continent is addressing the infrastructural gaps that will stymie the 4IR and adequately equip its predominantly youthful population with the knowledge and skills to thrive in the emerging new world of work. African governments need to reboot their system and get to work so they do not miss out on this unique opportunity to radically transform their economies. The private sector must also be a part of this agenda as they will attract investment, provide technical expertise and foster transparency and accountability. 

5. Gender equality

Consider the story of Nefisat, a young girl attending secondary school in a rural village in the Northern region of Nigeria. The pandemic arrives, forcing schools across the country to shut down and students like Nefisat to stay at home. Unlike her peers in private schools in urban areas who have access to e-learning materials, Nefisat does not own a laptop, mobile phone and has no access to the internet. She spends most of her days at home caring for her extended family and taking on additional domestic work. A few weeks later, her father loses his job at the community center where he works as a security guard and is forced to start farming to ensure that his household of ten has food on the table. After several months of hardship, a suitor comes knocking and he decides to marry Nefisat and her sister off to ease the financial burden. In the blink of an eye, Nefisat becomes a child bride and her aspirations of going to medical school shattered. For every girl like Nefisat, there are many more across the region who have been stripped of their education and economic opportunity as a result of the pandemic.

While most people’s lives and work have been negatively affected by COVID-19, women will feel the adverse impact on both their lives and livelihoods. The magnitude of the inequality is profound and could potentially reverse the milestones achieved over the years towards improving gender equality and human development in Africa. 

Women makeup 65% of the health workforce in Africa and are putting their lives at risk in the front lines; making them more vulnerable to infections and death. Furthermore, as a result of the increasing pressure on health systems, access to essential services such as contraception, abortion, maternal health, menstrual hygiene products and services have declined. 

Women in the continent already bear the brunt of unpaid and low-paid care work. However, the burden of household tasks will increase with more people staying at home due to school closures and lockdown measures. Women will also suffer from widespread job cuts, as around 70 – 80% of African women mostly work in the volatile informal sector. 

At the peak of the lockdown last year, more than 120 million school girls were at home. During that period
numerous reports of child abuse, exploitation, domestic violence and child marriage were reported. Anecdotal evidence identifies a surge in calls to domestic violence hotlines across several countries. Many women and girls were stuck at home with their abusers and had limited access to protection services and social support. For example, South Africa which is infamous for its high rate of sexual abuse and assault on women reported 87,000 cases of gender-based violence in its first week of lockdown. 

In terms of education, girls are more likely to drop out of school to look for jobs or get married and support their families due to the increased economic hardship triggered by the pandemic. Thinking back to Liberia’s encounter during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, when schools reopened girls’ enrolment failed to return to pre-crisis levels, 8 out of 100 girls were out of school before the epidemic and this number skyrocketed to 21 in 2017. History might repeat itself across several countries if the appropriate policies are not enacted to ensure that girls return to the classroom. 

Africa still has a long way to go in achieving gender parity. For the most part, cultural practices, religion and societal norms still shape the future of many young girls today. The pandemic highlights the stark inequality that exists between men and women, especially in the precarious labour market. Governments must consider gender dynamics, roles and responsibilities when drafting responses to tackle the pandemic. Likewise, women must be at the forefront of policymaking to guarantee that their needs and interests are adequately represented in any post-pandemic recovery plan.

*To be continued

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