Agents of Action: The Youth’s Contribution to the Fight against COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa
Sub-Saharan Africa reported its first COVID-19 case in Nigeria on 25 February 2020. Since then, most of the countries have seen a rise in infections across the continent. Although relatively less impacted by the COVID-19 in terms of transmission, the socioeconomic effects continue to abound. Several attempts at containment through mandatory quarantine, lockdowns, contact tracing and testing have yielded quite positive results. In all this disarray, it is important to highlight the contribution of Africa’s youth in the fight against the virus. Africa has the largest number of youth in the world with three quarters of its population between the ages of 15-35. Over the years, through the implementation of policies including the African Youth Charter, young people are becoming more involved in political and public governance. Africa’s youth are increasingly becoming transformational agents and their contribution has been greatly evident in COVID-19 responses in many countries.
In the wake of the pandemic, Africa’s youth have actively assisted states and non-state actors in a number of ways to counter the effects of the virus. In Liberia, in a bid to increase local production to fulfil local demand for personal protective equipment, the youth have remodelled their entrepreneurial ventures in dressmaking to produce colourful and high standard masks and gloves. In Ghana, several innovative substitutes to provide convenient running tap water for handwashing have been created or versions of existing products like the “Veronica Bucket” invented over thirty years ago have been revamped to suit the COVID-19 context. Innovations such as a solar-powered handwashing sink and an electronic bucket from three Ghanaian students have enabled community members to access clean running water for handwashing to prevent the spread of the virus.
Large sections of youth in Africa have gained employment working for local breweries and personal protective equipment production industries further contributing to mitigating the effects of the pandemic. They have been key to producing alcohol-based hand sanitizers from local brews to fulfil high demand in African countries as a result of shortages of expensive imported sanitizers. As community health volunteers, laboratory technicians and researchers, the youth have predominantly contributed to contact tracing and testing to detect COVID-19 cases as swiftly as possible. When it comes to building isolation centres for the infected, young people have been employed as architects and artisans to accelerate its construction for immediate use.
Acting as awareness raising and sensitisation agents, the youth have been key in spreading messages on preventative measures, mental health, and relevant information specific to COVID-19. They have taken up roles of panellists and participants in virtual discussions on Africa’s COVID-19 response further enriching the continental COVID-19 discourse. In Kenya, an app has been developed by young Kenyans to support contact tracing and dissemination of accurate information to dispel misinformation and reduce the effects of COVID-19 “infodemic”.
Young people have also intervened to enhance the delivery of virtual and remote education for students that are learning at home as a result of the closure of schools and universities. A website in Liberia and Sierra Leone, for example, has been made accessible to students by a local organisation largely made up of young teachers. These youth-led or youth-involved efforts complement state actions to broadcast courses on radio and television to reach students across their countries especially poorer communities. Many youth-led community-based organisations across the continent have organised virtual fundraising events or created accounts on mobile money platforms to solicit financial support for the vulnerable who have been affected by the pandemic. Such donations have been used to provide food and other essential items for the poor, needy, aged, persons with disabilities and to support frontline health workers.
These commendable actions are being implemented within the context of socioeconomic challenges either brought about or worsened by the pandemic. Africa’s informal workforce makes up about 86% of employment. It is mainly comprised of the youth who were the most vulnerable to poverty and food insecurity especially during the lockdowns. Young entrepreneurs have experienced a dip in demand for their products and low capital to fund their activities. Youth working in agriculture, hospitality, aviation, and non-governmental organisations have lost their jobs or received salary reductions due to unavailability of funds. Thus, COVID-19 has elevated the already high rate of unemployment in Africa. The indefinite closure of educational institutions is disproportionately affecting disadvantaged youth who lack access to internet, remote-learning software, infrastructure, stable electricity or do not have requisite IT skills. The rate of domestic violence against young women and girls has risen as a result of movement restrictions leaving a majority of people to work or learn from home. Consequently, the gains made in addressing gender inequality and human rights abuses has been undermined.
Despite these challenges posed by COVID-19 and the resounding predictions that the effects of the virus may become possibly unmanageable, the youth are actively continuing to influence transnational, governmental, and sub-national responses as agents of action and transformation in the fight against COVID-19. Long-term solutions would have to be implemented to reduce the adverse socio-economic effects of the virus on Africa’s youth.