If COVID-19 has taught the world anything, it is that we should always expect – and prepare – for the unexpected.
Consider some of these statistics.
The United States has an annual federal health budget that runs into trillions of dollars, or about 17 percent of the national budget, with per capita spending well over US$10,000.
At the same time, in many African countries, health spending as percentage of the national budget is consistently below 10 percent, and the per capita allocation is anything between US$5 and US$100.
By any measure, going by the spending trends and the investment in systems, training and infrastructure, Africa was woefully unprepared for COVID-19.
Yet by some stroke of something that can only be attributed to Divine Providence, the coronavirus pandemic has done its worst damage in the United States and has largely spared unprepared Africa.
Unfortunately, the rash, the happy-go-lucky, the blinkered and the ephemeral-minded amongst us have taken this as an excuse to carry on with life as if COVID-19 is more of a Western problem than both a personal one and a global one.
Denialists are mushrooming with each passing day, pontificating their mumbo jumbo on the basis of their qualifications from the University of WhatsApp and the Facebook Medical School that the new coronavirus is a conspiracy theory, that vaccines are poisons or the mark of the beast, and that COVID-19 will not hurt Africa.
Balderdash, baloney, claptrap and undiluted nonsense!
Even more unfortunate is when policymakers look at the relatively lower – but still fatal – impact of COVID-19 in Africa and think that they can trundle along and emerge from future disasters.
The reality is Africa has largely dodged a bullet this time around. But we will not always be so (relatively) lucky.
We need to prepare.
Even before COVID-19, disasters were on the rise and the experts had been issuing warnings to this effect for years.
The 2019 annual report of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change pointed out that 91 percent of all major disasters and 77 percent of economic losses from natural disasters during the year were attributable to extreme weather events.
And this percentage is expected to increase, with the World Meteorological Organisation projecting global temperatures to rise by between three and five degrees Celsius by the year 2100.
Here in Southern Africa, we are seeing this. The cycles of floods, cyclones and droughts are getting smaller and more devastating.
Further, we have to contend with increasing incidence of infestations such as armyworm and locusts.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says that a small swarm of locusts can eat enough food to feed 35,000 people in just one day.
Hence the importance of operationalising and implementing the SADC Regional Disaster Preparedness and Response Strategy and Fund 2016-2030.
According to the SADC Secretariat, members of the bloc are “vulnerable to a range of natural disasters and, since many events affect several countries simultaneously, a regional approach to managing the risks is appropriate and necessary”.
“Since 2000, countries in Southern Africa have experienced an increase in the frequency, magnitude and impact of drought and flood events,” the bloc continues. “Climate change is expected to significantly affect the region and increase risks related to water resources, fire, and agriculture and food security.
“Furthermore, island states, such as Seychelles, have their own unique set of problems – climate change has left the country in danger of losing its protective reef barrier and a sea-level rise could threaten its survival.
“Social and economic under-development, disease epidemics and the impacts of HIV & AIDS exacerbate the situation, posing significant threat to the SADC region and the ability to achieve (sustainable development).”
Among the problems the SADC region has faced when it comes to preparing for, managing and recovering from disasters have been weak institutional frameworks at domestic and regional levels; poor data collection, processing and application; and insufficient tackling of underlying risk factors.
“Planning in a number of cases is not informed by a comprehensive risk analysis and thus it may not address the priority needs for effective disaster risk reduction,” notes the SADC Secretariat.
Which is why the region needs not only full activation of the SADC Regional Disaster Preparedness and Response Strategy and Fund 2016-2030, but also – and perhaps more importantly – a Protocol on Disaster Risk Reduction and Management.
At present, the region largely relies on the protocols on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation; and on Health; and the Regional Water Policy to formulate what are ideally supposed to be harmonised responses to disasters before, during and after they occur.
At the 2020 meeting of the SADC Committee of Ministers Responsible for Disaster Risk Management in Tanzania, officials concurred that we cannot proceed with a business-as-usual approach.
Among other things, the ministers called on member states to “timeously share national data on weather and climate with the SADC Secretariat to enable the production of early warning information”; “strengthen capacities and investment in early warning systems at both regional and national levels to enable the control of cross border infection”; “engage and co-operate for effective management of transboundary risks through mutually agreeable mechanisms”; and remain vigilant and work together and share information to jointly control the advance of the migratory pests that could have serious implications for the food security of the region”.
This week, the SADC Secretariat tells us that a record number of people in the region face hunger over the coming year.
At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic is not going anywhere anytime soon; pests like locust and armyworm are sure to plague us again; and we know not what new horrors the elements will conjure by way of cyclone, flood and drought.
So while we hope for the best, we must prepare for the worst. And that starts with establishing robust disaster preparedness, management and recovery mechanisms as individual states and as a bloc.