Understanding the different characteristics of African cities will be crucial in responding effectively to COVID-19 on the continent

Buyana Kareem

For the International Science Council

Buyana Kareem is a researcher at the Urban Action Lab of Makerere University Uganda.

THE LONG READ: Developing an appropriate response to COVID-19 in Africa demands a nuanced understanding of the physical, economic and social factors that shape livelihoods in different African cities, argues Buyana Kareem.

Although global emphasis is on travel, cities are at the frontline of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) disease, and are critical to understanding what drives exposure to the virus, what its impacts will be, and – crucially – how to confront the pandemic. In Hubei province in China, most of the infections are centred in its capital city, Wuhan, where the outbreak is believed to have begun at a seafood market for urban foodies.

Cases in Italy emerged from the Lombardy region, whose capital is Milan, a global hub of fashion and finance, and cities in Tuscany, Liguria and Sicily have reported new infections. In South Korea, the capital city of Seoul has embarked on a large-scale coronavirus testing drive. It seems therefore fair to argue that as COVID-19 continues to spread, many of the impacts – and opportunities for learning and responding effectively – are likely to be concentrated in cities. However, the effects of the virus, and measures for responding, are likely to be different in African cities, due to contextual features which have not yet been given much attention in the scientific and societal discussions about the pandemic.

Hand-washing solutions imply improvisation using urban natural assets and local technologies

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), frequent and proper hand hygiene is one of the most important measures that can be used to prevent infection with the COVID-19 virus. Public health messages over radio, television and the internet are that we need to wash our hands at least for 20 seconds. But in a typical African city, where densely populated slums or informal settlements are most dominant, water for frequent hand-washing is in short supply – let alone 20 seconds worth – and households often spend 30 minutes or more sourcing water from springs, communal piped water points, swamps or through rain-water harvesting. Water has to be used sparingly for other hygiene purposes, including cleaning shared sanitation facilities, where shared keys to the toilet provide access for multiple households. On-site sanitation facilities such as pit-latrines and septic tanks often already present a risk of contaminating the water available to households, especially when such facilities are unsafely emptied directly into the environment, sending untreated sludge into natural waterways and impacting a city’s main sources of clean water. This and other factors may inhibit the efficacy of hand-washing solutions to COVID-19. Effective measures that match the constraints of the local context in African cities may call for innovative use of urban natural assets for water access (such as springs and swamps), and partnerships that create a safe and affordable system for sourcing clean water using locally-made water pumps.

In a typical African city, land travel systems matter

Land travel, which has been reported to be a likely route of introduction and spread of COVID-19, dominates metropolitan and neighbourhood transport in the cities of Africa. This is signalled by the ever-increasing number of minibuses and motorcycles that have come in to address the deficiencies of state-managed urban transport systems