African countries have been seeking the right response to the crisis. South Africa and Nigeria have started easing lockdown restrictions to give the economy breathing space. Experts have warned that it may be too soon.
Djibouti started easing lockdown measures on Monday, despite the country having the highest number of COVID-19 cases in East Africa: Some 1,189 people out of a population of 1 million tested positive for the coronavirus.
“The stakes are high but there is no other option: people need to make their living and go to work,” Djiboutian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf said, while admitting that the move could lead to a new surge of cases.
Djiboutians had not taken kindly to the restrictions imposed by the government of President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who is likely to run for reelection next year.
Besides political considerations, many African governments are worried about the impact of lockdown measures on the economy. Economic growth had been sluggish across Africa, even before the COVID-19 crisis, which statistically has not hit Africa as hard as other continents.
Nevertheless, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Monday that the coronavirus could kill between 83,000 and 190,000 people in Africa — and infect between 29 million and 44 million — during the first year, if it is not contained. Despite this, Rwanda, Namibia and Zimbabwe on Monday also decided to loosen lockdown measures.
South Africans divided
The dilemma also divides South Africans. One of the first countries on the continent to introduce a strict lockdown in March, South Africa — the country most affected by the pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa — is debating a further easing of lockdown measures, after some restrictions were relaxed on Friday.
South Africa has more than 10,000 confirmed cases of new coronavirus, including 194 deaths, the country’s Department of Health announced on Sunday.
The negative social and economic impact of the lockdown has divided opinions on how to proceed. Some opposition parties who stood by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa when containment measures were implemented are now calling for an immediate end to the lockdown.
“The real tragedy playing out here is no longer the coronavirus but the lockdown itself, because this lockdown is going to cost many more lives than it can save,” said John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance.
Some experts say that up to 7 million jobs will be lost if the current restrictions are maintained. But there are also those, such as Omphile Maotwe from the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, who say that it is too soon to ease the measures.
“We call upon the government to strengthen and tighten the rules and regulations of the lockdown,” Maotwe said.