The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the fact that people-centred, inclusive, and sustainable development requires overcoming the multiple deprivations that people experience in Africa due to poverty, inequality, and unemployment. The pandemic also illustrated the importance and value of a strong evidence base and quality data on socio-economic vulnerabilities; a nuanced understanding of where, on a spatial level, these are experienced most; and if and how policy responses to the pandemic have worked.
These were some of the key points from the final keynote address by ACEIR director, Prof. Murray Leibbrandt, to the third biennial conference of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA). The conference convened from 17 – 19 November 2021 under the theme of Global Public Health Challenges: Facing them in Africa.
Drawing on ACEIR’s research and with inputs from ACEIR’s node conveners in Ghana and Kenya, Prof. Murray Leibbrandt reflected in his keynote address on the socio-economic vulnerability to COVID-19 and the impact of the pandemic and policies to counter these.
Pandemics and income inequality
Tackling the processes which generate income inequality is paramount for inclusive growth, Prof. Leibbrandt told the hybrid (online and in-person) gathering at the University of Pretoria.
“High income inequality hampers economic growth; it makes poverty reduction challenging; it undermines political stability; and weakens social cohesion. It is therefore vital to confront the inequality, poverty and the multiple deprivations that are the daily experiences of hundreds of millions on the continent.”
And pandemics worsen the situation.
"It's the poor – the bottom 10% to 20% – whose income shares have declined through all major recent pandemics: SARS, H1N1, MERS, Ebola, Zika ..."
Data from South Africa’s National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) 2020 and the Quarterly Labour Force Surveys show that the country under lockdown lost almost the total number of jobs created in the previous 10 years. When the market began to recover, women remained behind in regaining employment, Prof. Leibbrandt explained. At the same time, women made up only between 35% – 39% of beneficiaries of the Unemployment Insurance Fund Temporary Employment of Relief Scheme (UIF-TERS) and COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress grant.
ACEIR Ghana convener, Prof. Robert D. Osei from the Institute for Statistical, Social and Economic Research, University of Ghana, Legon, told the conference that lockdown measures also severely impacted urban employment or loss of income in that country. Drawing on a subsample of the Ghana Socioeconomic Panel Survey (GSPS), he illustrated that the impact was more pronounced in the informal sector – at 67.6%; while 54.9% in the formal sector reported loss of employment or income. Prof. Osei said the levels of income earning have not yet returned to pre-COVID figures.
Unsurprisingly, income earning was also negatively affected by COVID-19 lockdown in Kenya, according to Prof. Damiano K. Manda from the School of Economics, University of Nairobi, where ACEIR’s Kenya node is based. He told the conference that 1.72 million jobs were lost in that country in the first three months of lockdown in 2020 alongside pay cuts for those who remained in waged employment.
Applying a gender lens to data from the Kenyan Life Panel Survey’s COVID-19 Survey in 2020, Prof. Manda said preliminary findings show that the impact of business lockdown was lower for women than for men.
“But we found that women with COVID-19 infection or symptoms engaged in paid work more than infected or COVID-19 symptomatic men. We also found women refrained from taking up paid work outside the home, while men continued to seek work during the lockdown. It is not clear if this was due to the behaviour of the men’s labour market or whether men were more taking the risk of seeking work during the pandemic.”
While the ACEIR team in Kenya are seeking possible explanations for these results as the work continues, the many vulnerabilities experienced by people because of poverty and inequality are essential components to understanding – and addressing – the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pandemics and multiple vulnerabilities
A recent study of data from 54 African countries has shown people’s inability to keep themselves safe from the COVID-19 virus because of multiple deprivations, said Prof Leibbrandt.
“The study showed that 722.5 million people in Africa live together in households with six or more people, making social distancing impossible. The majority (71.7%) on the continent lack water at their home sites, meaning they must leave the safety of their homes to get water elsewhere. And 57.4% do not have soap or washing facilities – that amounts to over 703 million people. Almost 50% of the continent’s population share toilets with other households.”
Such inequality in access to basic services mean those who are more prepared to deal with a pandemic like COVID-19 are less vulnerable to its impact.
By applying a wealth index to GSPS data, Prof. Osei illustrated lockdown preparedness of people in Ghana. The northern part of Ghana has a higher vulnerability to COVID-19, and this was also reflected in the data on preparedness of households to keep themselves safe.
“The GSPS panel data show that none of the households in the lowest wealth quintile (the bottom 20% who are least wealthy) were fully prepared for lockdown. In essence, the poorest households were hit the hardest by the pandemic because they were the least prepared to deal with lockdown measures.”
Prof. Leibbrandt stressed that policymakers need to understand who are most at risk during pandemics to be able to respond appropriately.
“In the case of COVID-19, those most at risk are in high-density areas; they have a high level of social contact (whether through their jobs or needing to mingle with others regularly by for example fetching water at a shared tap); they use public transport; and have pre-existing health conditions.”
As was illustrated by the GSPS data on a higher vulnerability to COVID-19 in the northern part of Ghana, there is a distinct spatial inequality dynamic to understanding socio-economic vulnerabilities under the pandemic. Research by ACEIR’s South Africa node also shows that these vulnerabilities are higher in South Africa’s poorer provinces – and are clustered in poorer areas inside provinces.
The role of data in preparing for future pandemics
Good-quality data that can be disaggregated from the national to local levels are therefore important in facing (global) pandemics in Africa – as well as in planning for inclusive and sustainable recovery and growth on the continent.
One example of ACEIR’s aim to help inform and stimulate poverty and inequality policy discussions on the continent is the centre’s series of inequality trends country reports. The first three were published in collaboration with the national statistics agencies of Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa, and the Agence Française de Développement as part of the Research Facility on Inequality funded by the European Union.
Prof. Leibbrandt pointed out that these diagnostics reflected pre-COVID-19 inequalities in those three countries. With similar diagnostics underway in other African countries, this research also can serve as a useful resource to compare changes in poverty and inequality as a result of the pandemic.
He concluded that the increased employment and growth on the African continent since the late 1990s didn’t translate into less poverty, especially in extremely unequal countries like South Africa.
“The COVID-19 pandemic again reminded us of the ongoing high levels of deprivations and vulnerabilities experienced by most people on the continent because of poverty and inequality.”
Prof. Leibbrandt’s take-home message for policymakers was clear: the challenge of inclusive growth must be tackled with a developmental strategy that reduces absolute poverty and inequality by raising income levels and growth and dealing with distribution and distributional changes.
Watch the keynote address: