Dying of hunger or falling ill: Africa's dilemma facing the coronavirus

Women and children fall to the ground, bloodied and trampled during a food distribution in a slum in Nairobi, while the police shoot tear gas and charge with a stick.

The scene took place on Friday in the huge slum of Kibera, in the heart of the Kenyan capital. It could well herald the continuation, if Africa did not manage to combine the fight against the new coronavirus and the aid to millions of urban poor.

"I give him (the government) a week or two before the situation gets worse. Not in terms of coronavirus, but in terms of hunger," said Kennedy Odede, director of Shining hope for communities (SHOFCO). , a local organization working in Kibera.

"If it continues like this, we could play with fire," he warns.

To contain the spread of the virus, Kenya has isolated Nairobi and some coastal areas from the rest of the country and imposed a night curfew. These decisions have already cost many Kenyans their jobs, observes Odede.

President Uhuru Kenyatta brandished the threat of total containment to force his fellow citizens to abide by the rules. But officials recognize that it would be a heartbreaking choice when 60% of Nairobi residents live in slums.

"Locking people in the slums will be the last option. There are a lot of things to do before that," said a senior Kenyan security official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The coronavirus arrived late in Africa. But it is taking root gradually, with now more than 15,000 cases and 800 deaths recorded on the continent.

While Europe and the United States waited weeks for action, Africa promptly closed its borders and banned mass gatherings.

Mauritius, Rwanda and Tunisia were the first to impose total containment, Mauritius even going so far as to close its supermarkets and bakeries for 10 days.

South Africa's leading industrial power, South Africa has followed suit. Nigeria extended confinement for two weeks on Monday to Abuja, the federal capital, and Lagos, Africa's most populous city with 20 million residents.

An 'unsustainable' confinement

In these two cities, millions of people depend on the informal economy to survive.

"The inevitable reaction was to follow what the rest of the world was doing," says Jakkie Cilliers, an expert with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), who called on Africans to come up with their "own solution" to defeat the virus.

"Containment is impossible to implement and is untenable in most of Africa," he argues. "You are condemning people to choose between starving or getting sick."

"Ten people living in a sheet metal shelter (...) cannot stay three weeks without going outside," he said.

However, most African countries have resisted this temptation. Madagascar and Ghana have ordered the containment of certain cities and regions. Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, Mali, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Niger have declared states of emergency and night curfews.

Like Kenya, Benin has isolated cities. Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Niger have done the same with their capitals.

Ethiopia, the second most populous country on the continent with more than 100 million inhabitants, closed its land borders and its schools, but did not restrict the movements of the population.

The confinement is unrealistic "because there are many citizens who have no house" and "even those who have houses have to make ends meet every day," said Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Preferring to rely on God, countries like Burundi and Tanzania have decided to largely ignore the health consequences of the pandemic, and life there continues almost as if nothing had happened.

"The coronavirus should not be a reason to destroy our economy at all," said Tanzanian President John Magufuli.

'Unproductive' measures

For the different types of containment to work in Africa, significant state aid is needed, experts say. But the challenge is particularly difficult to meet on a continent largely dependent on international donors.

Kenya has lowered taxes and is distributing free water in the slums. The Senegalese government is paying the electricity bills and Uganda has asked landlords not to claim rent until the crisis is over.

But political commentator Rachel Strohm believes that such measures will primarily benefit the "formal sector".

In Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa and elsewhere, governments distribute food, but only to "a fraction of the vulnerable," she adds.

It considers that the measures taken are in fact "ineffective and unproductive". For example, curfews mean that people are massaging in the same place at the same time to take public transport, each trying to get home on time.

Rachel Strohm and Kennedy Odede suggest instead setting up direct cash transfers to populations, in order to avoid the chaos of food distributions.

They also believe that international donors, themselves confronted with the coronavirus, will have to come to the aid.

Another solution to avoid total containment and the collapse of economies would be to carry out mass tests. South Africa is the only country on the continent to dare this approach, but the number of tests conducted - around 70,000 - is still "far too low", recognized the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize.

Most African countries have only a limited ability to practice testing.

At the same time, the tightening of the measures applied on the continent was accompanied by an increase in brutality by the police, who often use force to obtain the consent of the populations.