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Pandemic threatens Africa’s workforce

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CAPE TOWN – The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has put between 300,000 and 3.3 million people at a high risk of losing their jobs, depending on the intervention measures taken to stop the spread, the Kenyan publication Standard reports.

In efforts to curtail the spread of Covid-19, most African countries have implemented lockdowns, resulting in, among other things, a halt in business operations.

Currently, Africa has 23,148 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 1,131 deaths and a total of 5,877 recoveries, as reported by Worldometer.

According to a recent report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the possibility of job losses is indicative of the fact that Africa has far fewer doctors, hospital beds and ventilators per person than any other region in the world, and the outbreak could fracture an already struggling or in some cases non-existent health sector.

While governments, the private sector and NGOs are offering solutions to tackle the coronavirus crisis, the pandemic still poses a worldwide economic risk.

The report raises concerns that the employment or incomes of around 150 million Africans are vulnerable in the crisis, in both the formal and informal sectors.

This is proportional to about a third of the continent’s total employment, which is around 440 million. Currently, the informal sector is projected to account for 300 million jobs, while the formal employed sector accounts for around 140 million jobs.

Some of the most vulnerable sectors, such as manufacturing, retail, wholesale, tourism and construction, could possibly affect more than half the workforce. Within the manufacturing and construction industries, this includes casual craft, commercial and plant-operating jobs. However, as most informal-sector workers in Africa are involved in subsistence agriculture, they will not be negatively affected.

On April 17, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the African Union (AU) declared the food and agricultural sector to be an essential service which must continue to function during times of lockdown.

The hospitality and floriculture industries in Kenya have experienced the swift impact of the virus, with many hotels closing down or laying off workers. 

It’s been reported that close to 30,000 flower farm workers have been affected because the lockdown has slowed down flower exports.

Another devastating blow struck by the pandemic is its immediate impact on vulnerable sectors or companies. For instance, state-owned South African Airlines (SAA) is facing imminent bankruptcy after failing to receive aid from the government.  

SAA is reported to have offered severance packages to all 4,700 staff members as it plans to lay off all its employees.

Some sectors, such as print media, which have already seen a downward trend, may see an increased decline, leading to additional job losses as more people turn to online websites for regular news and updates.

A McKinsey report indicates that additional stimulus may be necessary to lessen harm to economies and livelihoods. Small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) and the jobs of the people who work for them should also be safeguarded during this difficult time.

The UN Economic Commission for Africa has also called for a safety net of $100 billion for the African continent, including suspending payments for external debt.