The sudden emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic is giving a severe blow to economies, businesses and workers in sub-Saharan Africa. Countries are restricting access to restaurants, concert halls, some retail stores and other non-essential businesses where large groups of people risk coming into close contact with one another. These unprecedented challenges are having economic ripple effects as millions unexpectedly find themselves out of work with the potential for a significant increase in unemployment.
According to the World Bank forecast, the economic loss from COVID-19 for the region is between $37 billion and $79 billion US-Dollars in output losses for 2020 due to a combination of effects and also as a result of containment measures and the public response.
While most countries in the region have been affected by the pandemic to different degrees, real gross domestic product (GDP) growth is projected to fall particularly sharply in the Sub-Saharan economies. COVID-19 has hit as the majority of workers in the formal labour market, and even more have lost their jobs in the informal sectors while the future still looks gloomy.
Those in employment are also facing several consequences such as pay cuts and the removal of other allowances which formed part of their income. The power of unions may decline if drastic measures are not taken to save jobs as soon as possible.
Evaluating the response of governments in Sub-Saharan Africa on measures taken, we think that adopting a one-size-fits-all approach will not help and a complete lockdown might not be Africa’s best decision. As cases of the coronavirus increased in Wuhan this January, China took the step of imposing a drastic lockdown. In a country where over 23% of the population is over 55, the government introduced severe restrictions to mitigate the spread of the disease and avoid overwhelming the health system. As the disease spread to other parts of the world the likes of Japan, Europe and the US - all of which have even older populations than China's - employed the same strategy.
Now many governments in Africa have also imposed lockdowns to deal with the pandemic. Yet these countries have age demographics radically different to those in Asia and Europe. Exploring the demography of a continent with a median age of below 20 years, we need to define the containment measures to suite our context. In my view, social distancing measures, awareness creation of the disease and the compulsory wearing of masks in the world of work could be a good to start towards re-opening African markets, whilst borders remain closed until further observation. To African governments this should be a wakeup call for the ratification of the Occupational Safety and Health Convention (C-155) and the Safety and Health in Mines Convention (C-176) to ensure that employers take safety precautions seriously after the re-opening of our economies.
In Ghana organised labour in collaboration with government has just called off the lockdown as more workers risked losing jobs. Parties intend to develop a contextual approach to deal with the crises through social dialogue platforms.
Several African countries have gone to the International Monetary Fund for disbursements to reduce the economic and financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Morocco, Tunisia, Madagascar, Rwanda, Guinea, Gabon and Senegal are all among the countries receiving assistance, while Ghana is receiving the largest sum of about one billion US-Dollars. Other countries are expected to follow, with Nigeria and Chad both making applications for help.
It is my expectation that our governments use these IMF funds to roll out a stabilization plan. Funds should largely target the drivers of economic growth and not be directed towards household consumption. Taking into account that countries are likely to record a decline in GDP growth, I therefore propose a reorganization model that will revive business in the formal – and especially - in the informal sector, and that this must be done through dialogue between government, employers and unions.
Organised labour should constantly dialogue with government and employers on relief programmes and also draw up a country specific approach to dealing with job losses and a post covid world of work. Funds earmarked for economies must be discussed among social partners to examine the timing of the release of such funds to business as the timing plays an important role for business revival.
In countries like Ghana, where it is still not known if the planned elections will take place this year, people are wondering what the country might look like without a President. This is therefore the time for organised labour to bring people together in the political space to prevent workers from risking their lives in political conflicts – until the political system takes its due course again.
Emmanuel Adjei-Danso is the chair of IndustriAll’s sub-Saharan Africa Youth Committee. This youth structure was created in October 2019 with support of FES and consists of representatives from seven African countries, the majority of which are young women.