People wearing face masks sell snacks and water to passengers at Obalende bus station in Lagos Nigeria. Picture: Sunday Alamba/AP
People wearing face masks sell snacks and water to passengers at Obalende bus station in Lagos Nigeria. Picture: Sunday Alamba/AP

Covid-19 in Africa: How governments across the continent are helping their poorest citizens

By Shannon Ebrahim, Group Foreign Editor Time of article published May 20, 2020

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Governments across the African continent are scrambling to address the urgent needs of the poor who have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. South Africa is leading the way in the provision of social assistance to those living in poverty, with President Cyril Ramaphosa having announced R500 billion worth of economic spending and loans. 

The bulk of the funding is going towards propping up businesses, subsidizing wages and creating new jobs, and food parcels are being delivered to 250,000 people. An additional R2 billion will be made available to assist small, medium and micro enterprises, spaza shop owners and small businesses. Cash transfers include child support grants that have increased by R500 a month, and other social grants which have gone up by R250. In total our government is investing up to 10% of GDP in economic and social recovery measures. 

Other governments on the continent may not have introduced such massive financial assistance measures, but a variety of measures have been taken to alleviate the suffering of ordinary people. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has announced what he calls ‘palliative measures,’ such as expanding the number of people in the cash transfer scheme from 2.6 million to 3.6 million. Just under 10% of the Nigerian population will receive an additional US$13 a month. Nigeria has also introduced tax relief measures, but given that 90% of the population works in the informal sector, it will not help many. 

Kenya is using a cash transfer program to boost payments to 1 million vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, disabled, or orphaned. The government has also announced a Covid-19 Support Stipend as part of a pro-poor approach. US$93 million has been earmarked for the fund which will target squatters, street hawkers, food vendors, taxi drivers and labourers who have lost their weekly payments. Kenya also initiated a pilot project in a Nairobi informal settlement called Kibera, where recipients received a once off US$19, which proved successful. Cash transfer schemes are a well proven means of supporting the vulnerable in times of crisis.

Rwanda and Uganda have chosen not to implement a cash transfer program, but are instead relying on food handouts which are delivered door to door. Uganda has reached 1 million people who have no income, and Rwanda has delivered food to 20,000 households in Kigali. Rwandan cabinet ministers, heads of public institutions, and senior institutions have also forfeited their April salaries. 

West African countries have been hit hard by the pandemic, particularly Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Senegal. Ghana has put in place measures to assist its people by halving its electricity costs and cancelling water bills for three months for those who do not have overdue water bills. It has also distributed food supplies. While free water and electricity is important, those measures still fail to provide relief to the most vulnerable. Ghana and Guinea also have plans for instituting debt relief. These measures benefit the middle class in particular as they have formal jobs and pay income tax, and have fully paid water bills, and loans, but this is not the case for those in the informal sector. In one of the largest investments in healthcare, however, the Ghanian government has 96 new hospitals planned for next year. 

In Senegal the government has initiated a Response Fund which is financed by the state and volunteer contributions. With 40,000 street kids, the government is faced with monumental challenges giving that street children are living in unhygienic conditions with poor sanitation. 

The Democratic Republic of Congo has implemented similar measures to many of the other African states, but has gone even further. In addition to granting a two month supply of water and electricity for free to households, hospitals and small and medium size enterprises, it has also prohibited the eviction of tenants who do not pay their rent between March and June. The DRC has also prohibited any mass dismissal of workers during the pandemic, and has granted grace periods on loan repayments. 

All of these measures are laudable and will provide some relief to the working poor and middle class, but new and creative strategies will need to be imagined to assist those in far flung rural areas, as well as those who struggle to survive in the informal economy. 

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