SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

Lessons still to be learned from the pandemic.

Let us put it this way: every crisis is an opportunity to learn, change and transform ourselves, our society, our country. This could be applied to the actual pandemic, which indeed has provided an enormous chance to pause and reflect, urging us to find new ways and to rethink social, political, and economic macro-structures.

According to this approach, then, Covid-19 should teach us some lessons we still need to learn from Africa, the first one is that the perhaps the real plague goes far beyond the health impact of the virus originating in China. The effects of the lockdown throughout the African continent and globally are revealing the most dangerous ‘illness’ is the effect of the lockdown on the informal sector and the dependency on remittances.

As Tonderayi Mukeredzi has reported on the impact of the Coronavirus crisis in Zimbabwe which Samuel Wadzai, spokesperson for the Vendors' Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (VISET) say has allowed local authorities to demolish stalls used by informal vendors in the streets of Harare and Chitungwiza, leaving more than 3,000,000 people employed in the informal economic system without a job and on the verge of starvation(1). Apparently, authorities claimed that the operation had been carried out with the consent of the vendors and that it aimed at keeping cities clear and organized. The declaration was followed by the promise of new, well-defined urban spaces where informal vendors will be relocated, after being legalised. Given that informal sector stalls have been regularly targeted and demolished in Zimbabwe since operation Murambatsvina (2) in 2005 it may be difficult to believe the promise of relocation to improved well-defined spaces. While the authorities may say there was consent, vendors like Bidnock Kunaka, say they learnt about the demolition of their stalls and posts from the press and the media (1). The luckiest ones are now growing vegetables in their home garden to make ends meet, but all have suffered huge economic loss (1). Zimbabwe is the most poignant examples of the tragic situation in the informal sector, which is revealing its vulnerable aspects.

The second African social and economic ‘plague’ is people’s loss of remittances from family members abroad and dependence rather on foreign investments. Blocking the economies of those countries, such as the US, Germany, UK, Italy, France, etc., the Covid -19 emergency has dramatically cut off the flood of remittances (by nearly 83 bn $ per year, according to (3)), endangering food security . The drastic fall by about 20% of money sent home from abroad will neither easily nor quickly recover. But hunger cannot wait. Honestly, we cannot wait for the governments and the politicians to end corruption, improve public health, and provide assistance to those in need while, at the same time, developing a sustainable economy. 

There is clearly a need for countries to deepen their domestic savings to ensure economic growth, but not only are remittances which would add to these savings reduced, but unacceptably exorbitant charges and fees on remittances are taking a slice out of remittances that do go through (4). Fees and charges are between 7 and 10% (4). A pandemic and the response to it, even on a global scale, will not be enough to break the old, vicious cycles.

What we can do is ask ourselves why these two main economic pillars of most African country’s economies, namely the informal economy and remissions,  have collapsed unexpectedly and possibly irremediably? Considering and reflecting on this may be that is the first, hard lesson to learn from Covid-19. If so, how should we respond?


Written by James Chapman in collaboration with Maria Taglioli




Photo by Farah Nabil on Unsplash


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