COVID-19: A call for people-centered national security strategy in Africa

Humanity has been extraordinarily challenged by the coronavirus with serious and unprecedented impacts on all aspects of human life and the ways states have been functioning and managing public affairs. COVID-19 may either consolidate global solidarity or it may take humanity on a path toward the demise of globalization and multilateralism. There is no doubt that the world will not be the same again after the end of this pandemic.

Unprecedentedly, the coronavirus has paradoxically hit the most prosperous and highly un-fragile developed countries first. It exposed the vulnerability of the developed countries to which many African countries look up to as the pinnacle of stability. This made many African countries concerned about how they can survive such a forceful pandemic and whether they would pass existential therapy tests with this pandemic.

Within less than five months, February to June, the virus exponentially spread to all 54 African countries with an average case fatality ratio of 4.2 percent. If a such spreading rate persists and coupled with weak health infrastructure and difficulty in complying with physical distancing, Africa might become the reservoir for the coronavirus. Luckily the spread of the virus in Africa is not at the speed with which it was forecasted and relatively slow in comparison to the global toll. This might partially be attributed to a younger population, tropical weather and, importantly, to underreporting cases due to weak health capacity.

Threats to human security

The assessment of the impact of COVID-19 that focuses on health and economy may not capture well the gravity of the crisis. Human security is defined as freedom from “fear” and freedom from “want”. This can be used to assess the impact of COVID-19 in Africa. There are also key intertwined aspects such as economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, communal security and political security.

Besides its threat to health security, the real impact of COVID-19 is its enormous threat to economic security with far reaching negative consequences on socio-political stability, international relations, peace, and civil rights. As a result of coronavirus, Africa will experience the first recession in 25 years with its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) forecasted to contract between 0.7 and 2.8 percentage points in 2020. For those projected to be pushed globally to extreme poverty by COVID-19, Sub-Saharan Africa will account for about 46 percent (23 million). As a result of the pandemic, Africa is projected to experience the highest level of unemployment in 2020 with about 20 million jobs loss, mainly youth, that might potentially cause social unrest and violence.

This threat to economic security will be exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19 on commodity prices, oil prices and global economy. The coronavirus is expected to cause the deepest global recession in the decades. As COVID-19 will globally depress demand and disrupt supply, the prices of most commodities exported by many African countries will plunge in 2020 and beyond. In particular, the commodities such as energy and metal and commodities associated with transportation such as oil will be most affected by the coronavirus-induced contraction and slowdown of the global economy. The economy of China, the main trade-partner of many African countries, is forecasted to be the hardest hit by the pandemic and that may result in the lowest growth in more than four decades.

Besides its threat to economic security, COVID-19 will have a more profound impact on the food security in Africa than other regions. It is estimated that the pandemic might double the food insecure population in Africa in 2020 from 130 million to 265 million. Additionally, the threat to political security is becoming a human rights and security crisis in Africa, as governments are increasingly using excessive force to effect lockdown and social distancing. This threat to political security is aggravated by deteriorating quality of institutions and policies and inability of many African governments to create a free political environment that resulted in a lack of trust from citizens and increased defiance of citizens to the social restrictions and physical distancing declared by their governments.

The threat of coronavirus to environmental security has mixed effects, as the polices adopted by various countries to confront COVID-19 such as lockdown and social distancing have on the one hand caused substantial improvement in air quality, clean beaches and less environmental noise contraction but they have also caused increased waste and the reduction of recycling. However, the positive effects the virus has on the environment are short-lived and not sustainable.

Reactive Response to COVID-19

The response to the COVID-19 has generally been reactive not only in the developing countries but also in the developed countries as countries struggle between saving lives or livelihoods. Addressing the threats of the pandemic to human security will require comprehensive, foreword-looking and proactive policies. The African Union acted swiftly by adopting the Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19 in February 2020 that helped African countries to adopt a combination of mitigation and suppression measures to thwart importation of COVID-19. However, this strategy has focused on one aspect of human security; health security. In an attempt to reconcile the pressing and competing priorities of saving lives and livelihoods, many African countries “copy” and “paste” the contingency policies adopted by the countries first hit by the pandemic without adapting them to their unique contexts. This has resulted in the defiance and non-compliance of citizens with such top-down imposed policies.

Despite their uphill struggle to contain the pandemic, many traditional African donors and partners have been providing assistance to many African countries but not guided by a coherent national security strategy. Also, the Africa Joint Continental COVID-19 Strategy has been munificently implemented in partnership with multilateral, bilateral and private institutions but in absence of COVID-19 strategies adopted by the member states of the African Union. Without people-centered Grand National strategy that proactively addresses the threats to human security, the external assistance is less likely to be effective in helping African countries to overcome the impacts of COVID-19.

A call for people-centered strategy and whole-of-society approach

COVID-19 has exposed serious cracks in systems of government, capacities of states and public policies. Importantly, it has underscored the need to revisit how security is perceived, planned, managed and delivered to the citizens. The coronavirus has shown that human security is less at risk of the threat from the buildup of nuclear arsenal than by a pandemic that can hardly be fought by conventional weaponry.

One lesson is that there have been reactive responses to the pandemic, as most countries do not have coherent proactive and forward-looking national security strategies. The absence of such strategies has resulted in inability of many African countries to strike strategic balance not only between economic and health priorities but also in the security-development-governance nexus. The pandemic has underscored the centrality of the concept of human security in shaping the forward looking of how security could be better delivered to all citizens through the whole-society approach. So Africa might emerge from this pandemic well prepared for future pandemics if its leaders could learn from such a bitter experience of COVID-19 by designing proactive and people-centered national security strategies that will contribute to building resilience institutions for future pandemics.

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