Poverty complicates things. As Africa sees an increase in COVID-19 cases, it is already apparent that to avoid catastrophic outcomes the continent will require a much more robust, even different approach from that employed in the West. The challenges richer states are experiencing in containing the virus are leading some governments in poorer states to employ somewhat overly aggressive measures in their efforts. The logic is clear: they have high numbers of poor people and fragile health systems that cannot handle serious outbreaks, so containing the virus quickly is paramount.
One of the biggest challenges facing poor countries is that social distancing and handwashing—the primary means required to slow the spread of the virus—are not easily implementable. Social distancing, for instance, is difficult in high density areas where it is not uncommon for numerous households to reside in a single room, and regular handwashing may be complicated in some areas by limited access to clean water. Moreover, with many of these states already having high unemployment rates and few, if any, social safety nets, shut downs may dangerously compromise access to food and essential services. And, because the poor cannot afford not to work, there is a real risk, in the long term, of the cure becoming deadlier than the virus.
Given these realities, in addition to testing, contact tracing, and isolating cases, there are two additional measures that will benefit African countries: (1) continuing humanitarian (and especially) food assistance and (2) debt relief for the poorest. The former will require that African governments ease movement restrictions, so that organizations like the World Food Program can continue to have access to areas most in need and the latter will free up resources so states can focus on fighting the pandemic. Both require international cooperation at a time when it is deeply strained and a global economic recession is already underway. Yet without it, we all remain vulnerable.