COVID-19 pandemic in Africa
The coronavirus crisis is global. Although the symptoms of the virus are common, the challenges differ greatly. The African continent is particularly vulnerable in the fight against the pandemic. The World Bank classifies the majority of African countries as low and lower-middle income countries. The World Health Organisation shows that most countries in West Africa have fewer than five hospital beds per 10 000 of the population and fewer than two medical doctors per 10 000 of the population (The Lancet Global Health 2020).
In response, the EU Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, said that the EU is willing to play its role in the global response to the pandemic, recognizing that “as long as the crisis continues somewhere in the world, we will not be safe”. The pandemic has once again highlighted the importance of international cooperation in research and innovation. As part of the European response to the crisis, the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership launched a COVID-19 specific call to support research activities in sub-Saharan Africa. In its recent Communication ‘Towards a comprehensive Strategy with Africa’, the Commission announced its desire to scale up joint academic and scientific cooperation in the renewed EU-AU partnership.
In The Guild's Insight paper, Prof. Peter Maassen demonstrated that African public universities play a key role in national research output, as strengthening African research universities is essential to developing the African knowledge society and economy. The scientific community both in Europe and Africa has swiftly responded to the crisis: in a matter of days universities moved their teaching activities online while researchers joined the global search for COVID-19 treatments. For instance, the University of Ghana has been leading the testing efforts in Ghana, whereas the government in Zimbabwe is relying on engineering universities to provide hand sanitizers, masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment to meet the local demand.
While the crisis has revealed that public universities are central to the responses of African governments to the pandemic, the capacities of universities to provide hospital beds, equipment and other resource lag significantly behind their European peers. As pointed out during the recent THE Southern Africa Impact Forum, “there is a lack of preparedness for crises like this, because of decades-long underinvestment both in terms of institutional reform and capacity”. If we want to enhance the resilience of African societies, the African Universities Research Alliance (ARUA) and The Guild have insisted that we must scale up investment in research capacities of Africa’s public universities – this includes investment in infrastructure, doctoral schools, early-career researchers, and an African Research Council. The scale of the common challenges we face, and the opportunities opened up through scientific and educational collaboration, require a new level of investment. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that this investment needs to start now.