Cheryl Kahla
Deputy Online News Editor
3 minute read
30 Jul 2021
6:34 pm

Research: Lockdown doesn’t work in Africa – here’s why

Cheryl Kahla

'You can’t just wake up in the morning, declare lockdown and send soldiers and police to try and enforce it', says UJ Professor Ngepah.

Photo: iStock

We’ve had this debate among ourselves for more than a year: Is a lockdown during a pandemic really necessary? Doesn’t it cause more harm than good? Professor Nicholas Ngepah shed light on the matter.

UJ Professor Ngepah said in countries with high levels of poverty and corruption, lockdown measures should only be implemented once “other non-medical measures” have been exhausted.

Lockdown in Africa won’t work

Socio-economic conditions of African countries must be factored in, as the majority of people on the continent would not have access to nutrition, basic economic opportunities or infrastructure to survive a lockdown.

“People get locked down by strict regulations. […] It becomes almost impossible for a poor person to keep the rules of the lockdown”.

He said while lockdown rules are very strict, most people in South Africa – and many other African countries – will have no choice but to contravene regulations in order to “get their livelihoods going”.

A pandemic called poverty

While well-off citizens are able to rush to shops in a panic-buying spree, poor people do not have that luxury. You cannot stock up on supplies when you need to wait for the next paycheck to clear first.

“Rich people have resources to keep going, so their desperate actions only show much later. With poor people, their desperation shows immediately, because they have no reserves to fall back on.”

If the state took care of poor people before the pandemic, the outcome might have been different but that is not the case. Pandemic or not, the poor need services, support and infrastructure, he says.

“It’s intuitive. If you are constrained without an alternative means of survival, you will end up revolting.”

A pandemic called corruption

Unfortunately, South Africa – and Africa – had been saddled with a long list of challenges before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. These challenges include corruption, inequality, unemployment and HIV/AIDS.

Corruption makes it harder for the poor to obey lockdown regulations. Impoverished workers may feel they are asked to pay for the corruption of the rich in government, he says.

The continued looting of public funds in South Africa’s healthcare system didn’t help the situation, either.

A report released by the Financial Transparency Coalition revealed 63% of the Covid-19 recovery funds spent in developing countries only benefited large corporations, instead of being used for welfare and to boost the economy.

The way forward

Ngepah says to slow the spread of the Covid-19 and future pandemics, African policymakers and governments must use the social and economic measures available to them.

He says non-medical interventions can be very effective and suggests the public health capacity be enhanced to enable swift testing for the disease.

Once that is implemented, cases will remain isolated and easy to control while limiting the spread. African governments should also ensure the basic capacities are in place to cope with a lockdown period.

“For a country with high levels of inequality like South Africa, you can’t just wake up in the morning, declare lockdown and send soldiers and police to try and enforce it, without checking first how the more deprived people are living”, he says.

This is especially true in South Africa where more than half the population lives below the poverty line.

Adopt a pro-poor focus

He says management of internal population is vital as well as it can limit the growth of extremely poor neighbourhoods which are ideal for the spread of any pandemic.

The focus should be on pro-poor infrastructure and decentralisation.

“It isn’t just about bringing key public services into poor neighbourhoods. It is also about moving and redistributing government services so that they are closer to the majority of those who are most in need of them”.


Professor Nicholas Ngepah is a Professor of Economics at the University of Johannesburg. He is an expert in quantitative techniques, economic development and policy impact assessments.

Ngepah’s research titled “What lessons Africa can learn from the social determinants of Covid-19 spread, to better prepare for current and future pandemics on the continent” is published in a special issue of African Development Review.

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