The Covid-19 crisis has provided the impetus to reimagine fundamental aspects of African society, business, governments and institutions. If all stakeholders act with renewed determination and imagination, they can help shape the path of the next “new normal” whilst guaranteeing that the transformation is positive and sustainable for Africa and her institutions.
COVID-19 presents two key opportunities to reinvent the African society:
- Expedite Africa’s digital transformation
- Recalibrate African healthcare systems with an emphasis on resilience and fairness
1. Expedite Africa’s digital transformation
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, several sectors of the African society wereundergoing extensive digital transformation. The continent witnessed the world’s fastest proportion of new broadband connections, while mobile data traffic was projected to septuple between 2017 and 2022. E-commerce, driven by information technology recorded some tremendous growth. For example, online retailers in Nigeria have experienced a doubling of revenue each year since 2010. Despite this progress, most sectors of the African economy still drop behind the rest of the world in digitization. The COVID-19 crisis could be a catalyst to help close that gap, advancing digital transformation in sectors as diverse as financial services, retail, education, and government.
In a bid to observe COVID-19 protocol of social distancing and stay-at-home order, remote learning is now mainstreamed consequent of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has also spurred the invention, quick adoption and integration of digital tools that would address the physical barrier to learning and ensure continuity of activities in the sector. Governments, institutions, social-sector actorsincluding other stakeholders can act decisively to usher in the next phase of Africa’s digital transformation. Four key priorities are to be considered:
- Foster an enabling environment for rapid digitization. African governments should commit to ensuring that all key enablers are in place to aid the swift and deeper adoption of a digital life in its public sector. For example, governments and technology companies can make sure that data is reliable and affordable, while regulators can take concrete steps to readapt its regulatory and legal framework in such a way to accommodate the growth and aid the adoption of a digital framework in Africa.
- Digitalization of the public sector. Governments can step up the provision of digital services and leverage on digital tools to support and simplify governance for government, citizens, and businesses. Governments need to underscore the benefits of ICT in governance and situate it at the centre of Africa’s socio-economic development agenda.
- Infrastructure investments. To support expansive digitalization, major infrastructure investment will be essential, including those in backbone networks and last-mile connectivity, as well as constant electricity supply.
- Scale-up digital skills. Africa needs to scale-up the acquisition of relevant digital skills that will enable its workforce to perform optimally in the post-COVID “new normal,” in which digital skills will be central to many occupations and activities.
2. Recalibrate African healthcare systems with an emphasis on resilience and fairness
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed longstanding vulnerabilities in Africa’s health systems, including deficits in healthcare personnel, infrastructure, supplies and equipment as well as data systems. The pandemic has also accentuated inequality in healthcare access. Some well-placed individuals can safely quarantine at home, afford PPE and hand sanitizers, access testing in private labs, or make use of telehealth services, but the poor, which constitute a greater per cent of our population are left with limited healthcare options or inadvertently resort to self-medication.In light of these challenges, African governments are likely to match their health investment commitments with robust action. Fewer than ten African nations have in the last decade, met their target to spend 15% of their annual budget on healthcareas resolved in the Abuja declaration, 2001.
Six big priorities are to be considered in recalibrating the African healthcare systems:
- Strengthening health systems for outbreak prevention and response.The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the cracks in the continent’s healthcare sector especially in the area of disease detection, prevention and mitigation. African governments should make the concerted efforts in strengthening the continent’s disease control system and readapt its institutional health framework and related policies for suitability in addressing contemporary health challenges. Also, the need for inter-regional cooperation and information sharing will empower Africa to pose a coordinated front against such risks as they emerge. As a final point, Governments and African institutions can enhance their preparedness for future outbreaks by institutionalizing emergency operation centres, lab networks, disease surveillance systems, research institutes, and emergency supply chains.
- Massive Mobilization of public-sector investment in primary healthcare.Governments shouldfast-track investment in primary healthcare systems with the view to making it more robust and efficient in the surveillance, detection and containment of future outbreaks. This investment should be tailored to the needs of rural and urban areas with an emphasis on facilitating equitable access to essential health services needed by millions of people who are underserved by healthcare systems today.
- Develop Continental-wide procurement platforms and end-to-end supply chains. Pan-African coordination will allow governments to leverage their scale in bulk purchasing and secure supply of critical equipment and medical resources. New crisis-motivated procurement initiatives—such as that of the Africa CDC—can continue to be leveraged in a post-COVID world to complement financing and procurement efforts from multilateral institutions and donors.
- Facilitate private-sector investment in healthcare systems.Majority of African health expenditure is funded by the private sector and development partners. This non-state investment, especially in private care and support systems, will remain indispensable for addressing the continent’s enormous health challenges. Governments can create an enabling environment that will incite and channel private-sector involvement and investment in priority areas such as diagnostic services, research, healthcare facilities, equipment, pharmaceuticals andtherapeutics.
- Incentivise local manufacturing of critical medical supplies.In light of global shortages, disrupted supply chains, and export bans triggered majorly by COVID-19 pandemic, African leaders should prioritize the reduction of the continent reliance on foreign supply chains andreinvigorate itsmanufacturingsector with targeted incentives. This will beinstrumental in repositioning Africa’s healthcare sector for sustained gains whilst guaranteeing the continent’s health security going forward.
- Invest in digital health ecosystems and innovations in service delivery. The crisis has highlighted clear use cases for reaching broad sections of the population through telemedicine. For example, the South African government is using an interactive WhatsApp Chabot to answer common queries and clarify COVID-19 myths. This Chabot has reached over 3.5 million users in five different languages. Also, more than a few African healthcare providers are fast-tracking their adoption of digital tools such as telemedicine and remote patient case management.
Africa’s progressive path through and beyond the COVID-19 crisis will be determined to a large extent by the actions that governments, the private sector and development partners take in the next few weeks and months. This will require innovative thinking, along with decisiveness at looking ahead and reimagining African societies, business, and government—and to emerge from the crisis with greater inclusion, smarter development, better services, and more competitive enterprises.