Using the Demographic Dividend as Anchor to Fight COVID-19 in Africa

The Year 2020 will be remembered as the year that heralded great global changes in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. This debilitating contagion has forced the entire world to rethink the future. Among them are stimulating the global economies and instituting newer social, professional and institutional protocols.

The first six months of the year 2020 under a pandemic have given us ample time for shoring up better resilient communities and providing adequate lessons on interventions that work and acknowledging those that stall our progress.

Africa cannot afford to ignore the initial drawbacks, hiccups and challenges that it has faced in dealing with COVID-19 and previous pandemics: COVID-19, just like Ebola Virus Disease outbreaks in West and Central Africa, have tested the continent’s level of preparedness, reengineered emergency responses and fast-tracked long-term future planning.

No doubt, these realities place more emphasis on the future. This is critical especially at such a time as we are currently fighting the pandemic and preparing for any other future infectious diseases outbreaks. We must invest in education, health, entrepreneurship, wealth creation, rights, governance and youth empowerment, as per the pillars of the African Union’s (AU) roadmap on harnessing the continent’s demographic dividend.

With a population estimated at 414 million people in 2016, and projected to reach one billion by 2050, the West and Central Africa region has enormous potential, yet faces many complex and interconnected challenges in the health, political, humanitarian, demographic and economic spheres.

At 87.2 per cent for the age groups 0 to 14 together with that of 65 and above, and with a rate of five children per woman (which is the world’s highest fertility rate), as well as an annual population growth estimated at 2.7 per cent, the West and Central African region has the highest dependency ratio globally.

Moreover, its population is predominantly young, with almost 60 per cent being under the age of 24. A number of countries in the region have reached the status of middle-income country, and are experiencing favorable economic growth, this positive trend has not impacted prosperity to the same scale due to inequalities and the slow demographic transition. While significant progress is being made in other parts of the world, African countries are almost all lagging behind in their demographic transition.

In most countries, the average number of children per woman is still high and does not currently show a significant decline. It is close to, or exceeds five children per woman. In some countries mostly in West and Central Africa, the population growth rate is estimated at nearly 3% per year, and populations under 25 account for almost two-thirds of the total population. With this current pace, their populations will double every 15 to 30 years.

It is clear that this demographic situation is likely to upset, if not undermine, the continent’s development prospects, especially if it is related to current economic growth figures. It has the effect of increasing the social demand and exerting considerable pressure on the resources of governments with a systematic increase of poverty and the extension of the fragility of the States because of a dependency rate which far to weaken, will be exacerbated by rising unemployment rates, particularly among young people

The main challenge for Africa is therefore clear: to control the dynamics of its population to make it a real economic potential, with a positive impact on development. Nevertheless, translating this demographic transition into accelerated economic growth depends on a number of institutional and policy reforms. These include investments for productive people, jobs and wealth creation for women together with the youth, and improved education and training, as well as access to reproductive health services including maternal health and family planning.

The COVID-19 Situation Report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) African Regional Office in late May shows that cumulatively 115,237 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the continent with 3,453 fatalities at the time. 80 per cent of Africa’s caseload is borne by South Africa, Algeria, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Senegal and Gabon. The WHO Situational Report goes on to note that Algeria, South Africa, Nigeria and Cameroon account for 68 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths in the continent. The WHO situational report further reveals the age demographics of COVID-19 cases by sub-region with an average age of most cases ranging between 25 – 55 years.

Given the average age bracket mostly affected by this pandemic in Africa, it is clear that the strain on Africa’s healthcare budget is not the only spillover effect as COVID-19 is also threatening the continent’s labor market and future prospects. This pandemic poses multiple socio-cultural-political and economic hazards to Africa.

It is on this quest that policy makers must find ways and means of incorporating the continent’s youth to realize the full demographic dividend and contain the perils modeled by COVID-19. This scenario places on us the heavy task of shaping our demographic pyramids as a major step towards demographic dividends and not give a chance to a “demographic liability” to become a reality and challenges the Africa We Want.

COVID-19 requires speed and agility, which are qualities found in the youth and this gives Africa the much-needed break of unleashing the vast resources imbued in its demographic dividend to face the future.

Africa’s large youth cohort represents a historic opportunity to introduce progress and adopt innovative solutions to ignite this change. Essential to this is to ensure young people’s participation in the political, economic and social systems, in their communities and countries are a reality.

In the last five years, UNFPA in West and Central Africa has strongly advocated for what has now become evident among key stakeholders in Africa: that the demographic dividend framework offers a strategic basis for focusing and prioritizing investments in people with a special focus on youth to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). Together with the AU, along with the African Development Bank and other partners, UNFPA helped to develop the AU’s Roadmap on the Demographic Dividend, which was endorsed at the AU Summit in January 2017, putting the youth at the center of Africa’s development agenda.

UNFPA advocates and engages in high-level policy dialogue with key players on the demographic dividend, and has systematically continued to support the #PutYoungPeopleFirst movement in West and Central Africa in this process. The #PutYoungPeopleFirst which is a holistic strategy embracing solid partnerships with governments, development agencies, clerics of all faiths together with community leaders to spur demographic dividend and boost healthy spaced families has grown into a movement boosting the realization of AU’s Agenda2063 best known as “The Africa we want”.

In 2019 we launched the “Decade of Action” which was to rededicate and boost regional efforts geared towards the attainment of SDGs targets. Shortly after the “Decade of Action” framework was unveiled and COVID-19 emerged, stalling much of the progress made. The global pandemic is now proving to be a strain on the realization of SDGs and undoing other gains of the past.

We will no doubt continue to face even bigger challenges in 2021 and beyond. The lesson, as we now know from the new realities posed by the pandemic, is that the youth are a vital asset in our present and future plans

COVID-19 grants the continent a rare opportunity to elevate and integrate the African youth in its post-pandemic socio-economic recovery strategies. #PutYoungPeopleFirst comes in handy and ready for replication in the continent, as it is much more than a social media slogan as experienced in West and Central Africa. Unleashing the potential of the youth to play active roles for co-generation of development ideas, bolstering action on the SDGs, implementing Agenda 2063 and galvanizing adequate responses to deal with present and future pandemics is what #PutYoungPeopleFirst is all about.

By Mabingue Ngom is the Regional Director of the UNFPA-West and Central African Regional Office

Published on 02-07-2020 in allAfrica