In the fourth of our series on COVID-19 in Africa, we look at what lessons African countries have learnt from other recent pandemics and how they can be applied to COVID19.

Society-threatening health problems not new to Africa

Update on cases: The numbers of confirmed cases in Africa is rising – at the time of writing it stands at 23,720, more than double last week’s figure of 10,150. The numbers are still relatively low in the countries where Bread and Water for Africa UK supports projects: Burundi 6 (1 death), Kenya 281 (14 deaths), Rwanda 147 (0 deaths), Sierra Leone 50 (0 deaths), Zimbabwe 25 (3 deaths). We are monitoring the situation closely.

Over the last 20 years Africa has lived with the effects of malaria, seen millions wiped out by HIV/AIDS, and only a few years ago faced a vicious outbreak of Ebola. In a previous article, we noted the poor health systems in many countries in Africa. Despite, or maybe because of this, populations have developed other ways to cope.

The quarantine zone in Freetown, Sierra Leone in 2015Armed forces guard entry to quarantine area in Freetown, Sierra Leone, during Ebola (photo: BWAUK/GFYA, 16/02/2015)

Sierra Leone has learnt lessons from the Ebola epidemic. Here, government interventions were initially met with distrust from the local community, partly because they cut across local traditions and partly because of the aloof government approach. Communities learnt from bitter experience that Ebola was spread by close contact and how to contain the virus within households.

Community volunteers in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Community involvement is vital

To deal with this, one person was designated as a family carer until outside help arrived, and communities instigated safe funerals that respected local traditions. This showed the government that community support was the most important element in conquering the virus – which eventually died out, 17 months after its onset. The government also set up small local ‘community care centres’ (CCC) close to active transmission areas, so people felt more involved, and families worked closely with medical staff to fight the epidemic.

FHDO organisation delivers emergency food to quarantine families during Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone
Bread and Water for Africa UK's partner FHDO delivers emergency food during Ebola outbreak

In addition, Bread and Water for Africa UK helped local organisations like We Are the Future and FHDO distribute emergency food and soap for quarantined communities, and go from house to house to give critical information about prevention and hygiene. Later it helped reintegrate Ebola survivors and fight stigma.

Volunteer networks take the lead

John Donald Sandy from the We are the Future (WAF) project explains that since the beginning of the threat of COVID-19, WAF has been visiting families encouraging them to keep their houses spotless and to maintain high levels of hygiene. “Of course people know you need buckets, soap and clean water to wash your hands, but our stock is very limited. The cost of each bucket is $10, so we need funds to buy them”.

John sandy with buckets and soap for COVID response in Sierra Leone
John Sandy with buckets and soap to be distributed to households during COVID-19 lockdown in Sierra Leone

In Kenya, Melanie Blake, of Kamili Organisation, which provides mental health services, describes how a local Muslim volunteer initiative called Team Pankaj, lead by a local safari operator, is working with the government to distribute food parcels that can feed a family for 14 days. Other initiatives lead by private sector companies have seen the light over the past weeks. 

Another Kenyan NGO, LVCT Health, which works on HIV prevention and has developed a strong network of mentors and peer educators, is now visiting local communities to disseminate information about how to avoid COVID-19 and is working with the Kenyan government’s network of health workers.

"The cost of each bucket is $10, so we need funds to buy them."

Could COVID-19 lead to a different, more equal world economy

Some are hopeful that things could be different after the pandemic dies down. In an article Aid has failed: Covid 19 exposes this and offers the chance for a reset [1], Bobi Wine and Greg Mills argue that most aid to Africa is donor led, and goes on expensive infrastructure projects, used by incompetent or corrupt leaders to maintain their status.

COVID-19 has laid this situation bare in Africa, which despite the billions of dollars of aid has the worse health systems and the lowest number of doctors per capita in the world. This contrasts to most Asian countries which have taken ownership of their own development, setting priorities and leading donors.

"[...] Donor funding helps to keep many African leaders in power with little, if any, accountability."

In the same way that local people are leading initiatives to fight the spread of COVID-19, donors should listen to people ‘on the ground’. Wine and Mills argue that COVID-19 could be the opportunity for Africans to reset their politics, policies and economies. If donors want to be useful partners to African countries, they should reset theirs too.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has also pleaded that the COVID-19 crisis must lead to a different economy.

“Everything we do during and after this crisis must be with a strong focus on building more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change, and the many other global challenges we face”.

Will the developed world take up the challenge?

A model based on community leadership

At Bread and Water for Africa UK we strongly believe that our local partners are the best placed to lead the fight against COVID-19 and indeed their development in general. 

Our mission is to support grassroots organisations because we know they are best placed to understand the needs of their communities, identify the solutions that exist and work best.

At the moment, our partners need help to support their communities with emergency food, water, buckets and soap, so that they can weather this storm. With your precious support, we can help them get through this new crisis.

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[1] "Aid has failed. COVID-19 both exposes this and offers the chance for a reset.", Bobi Wine and Greg Mills, African Arguments, April 16, 2020,

by Daphne Davies, volunteer journalist