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[NAIROBI] The continuing COVID-19 pandemic could make it difficult for Africa to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an economist says.

Ben McCarthy, an associate economic affairs officer at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, says that Africa has made progress towards the SDGs on good health and wellbeing (Goal three), clean water and sanitation (Goal six), reducing inequalities (Goal ten), and protecting life below water (Goal 14).

A 2019 report of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network shows that only six countries in Sub-Sharan Africa  — Comoros, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zimbabwe — have created a task force in their parliaments to discuss how to implement the SDGs, with the report urging African governments to urgently work to achieve the SDGs.

“Africa’s stressed health systems are likely to become increasingly burdened, threatening progress made on SDG three (good health and well-being).”

Ben McCarthy, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa

“Given the nature of the pandemic, Africa’s stressed health systems are likely to become increasingly burdened, threatening progress made on SDG three (good health and well-being),” McCarthy explains in an interview with SciDev.Net last week (9  April).

He is also got concerned that Africa has mostly struggled to progress on SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) but the pandemic is already having effects, with elections being postponed and in some cases constitutional rights such free movement being suppressed.

In March, Ethiopia postponed its much-anticipated national election that was scheduled for Aug. 29 while in South Africa the electoral court postponed by-elections scheduled for the 13th of May in George in the Southern Cape.

“While these may be temporarily necessary to minimise the impact of the pandemic, it can be the case that short-term rollbacks of rights and institutions can turn into longer term deficits when the immediate crisis has passed,” he explains.

He suggests that for African countries to remain on track to achieving the SDGs, they need to act rapidly to contain the outbreak to the extent possible.

“Buying time to reduce the spread brings greater hope that improved medical or prevention measures against COVID-19 can be found,” he says.

As of today (12 April), there were 9,663 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 461 deaths from the disease, according to the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa dashboard.

McCarthy tells SciDev.Net that the pandemic will militate against achieving SDGs related to increased economic growth.

For instance, although reduction in incoming travellers will help slow the spread of the virus, it has a high chance of being detrimental to continental connectivity and economic growth – so policymakers should aim not to make increased security measures “the new normal”.

Mary Stephen, technical officer at the WHO Regional Office for Africa says, “The outbreak of COVID-19 spread very fast in countries outside Africa where the cases were not detected early enough, which resulted in delay in instituting effective control measures.

“We have seen countries enhancing the measures they have put in place for containment. All [African] countries with local transmission have a very good opportunity to break the chain of transmission and contain the outbreak”.

Rob Korom, a consultant physician and the head of product at Kenya-based Penda Health, says that African health systems are still fragile, and the COVID-19 crisis is giving a major shock to these systems.

He explains that in terms of the worst case surge scenario, even before this crisis, African hospitals had wards where the nurse to patient ratio was much lower than ideal.

“Hopefully this pandemic can help spur us to think creatively about how to maximize the human resources we do have available,” Korom adds. “It [COVID-19] is a serious setback as some African countries do not have concrete and targeted plans for achieving the SDGs,” says Tolbert Nyenswah, a former Liberia’s deputy minister of health.

Nyenswah tells SciDev.Net: “With the increasing number of cases and countries on the African continent, COVID-19 outbreak is stretching the already hard-pressed health care systems to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease epidemics and health emergencies”.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


References

[1] COVID-19 in the WHO Africa Region (WHOROA)
[2] Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Situation Dashboard  (WHO)