Diseases, locusts and grey rhinos: Time to get our spears and shields

Wednesday April 01 2020

On Monday, unable to fly to Djibouti, the leaders of the Intergovernmental Authority (Igad) on Development (presidents Yoweri Museveni, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh Ali, Somalia’s Mohamed Farmajo, and prime ministers Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, Sudan’s Abdallah Hamdok, and South Sudan’s First Vice President Riek Machar) held a teleconference on Monday.

The Igad special virtual summit on the coronavirus pandemic, among other things, agreed to strengthen the regional organisation’s “mechanism for responding to the outbreak of pandemic diseases” and to bulk up its “regional disease surveillance and early warning response system”.

In short, Igad wants to be able to better blow the whistle early on a virus like Covid-19 or Ebola; when adverse weather conditions (drought, floods) could likely hit; when locusts are breeding in faraway places and could likely come to Eastern Africa, and so forth.

It was well thought, for in this age, the greatest threats have become grey rhinos (“highly probable, high impact yet neglected threat …not random surprises, but occur after a series of warnings and visible evidence”) like Covid-19, locusts, earthquakes, and, increasingly, black swans (events that come as a surprise, have a major effect, and after they happen people claim that it was indeed explainable and predictable).
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, to who we owe the black swan theory, gave us examples as the rise of the Internet, and the personal computer, among others.

Igad at one point was big on grey rhinos. There are a series of framed maps in the corridors of its executive floor at its headquarters in Djibouti. One is a seismic and volcanic hazard map of the Igad region, ie where are earthquakes and volcano eruptions likely to occur.
The other is a desert locust map, and the third a flood hazard map of the region.

All the three are a little dated, because Igad became a sclerotic organisation until recently. In adding pandemics to its docket, the Igad leaders are piling on a task that the organisation still has muscle memory for; and rebooting it to do the old early warning stuff again pandemic crystal ball gazing, is not a tall order – if only they can put money into it.


The above would not be enough to manage the risks of the times, though. Igad would also need to go into smart forecasting and robust scenario building. That is something it can do in partnership with institutions in the region that have gotten fairly good at it like the Society for International Development, East Africa, that has done some wonderful scenario work on Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, and the East African scenarios.

The Institute of Economic Affairs in Nairobi (disclosure, the author is a board member), and Economic Policy Research Centre at Makerere University too have in the past done some brilliant modelling work, though be it in economy-related areas. These organisations have tools and skills that Igad and others like it don’t, but magic could come from collaboration.

Consider this: In 2009, a good friend who was the SID East Africa leadership, was invited by the Rockefeller Foundation to input in their “Scenarios for the Future of Technology and International Development”.
They published the scenarios in May 2010. Here is part of what the report said:

“In 2012, the pandemic…finally hit. Unlike 2009’s H1N1, this new influenza strain—originating from wild geese - was extremely virulent and deadly. Even the most pandemic-prepared nations were quickly overwhelmed when the virus streaked around the world, infecting nearly 20 per cent of the global population and killing eight million in just seven months…

“The pandemic also had a deadly effect on economies: International mobility of both people and goods screeched to a halt, debilitating industries like tourism and breaking global supply chains. Even locally, normally bustling shops and office buildings sat empty for months, devoid of both employees and customers.

The pandemic blanketed the planet—though disproportionate numbers died in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America, where the virus spread like wildfire in the absence of official containment protocols.

“But even in developed countries, containment was a challenge. The United States’ initial policy of “strongly discouraging” citizens from flying proved deadly in its leniency, accelerating the spread of the virus...

“However, a few countries did fare better—China in particular. The Chinese government’s quick imposition and enforcement of mandatory quarantine for all citizens, as well as its instant and near-hermetic sealing off of all borders, saved millions of lives, stopping the spread of the virus far earlier than in other countries and enabling a swifter post- pandemic recovery”.

That was 10 years ago. They were eight years early, but unlike some films like the uncannily prescient Contagion (2011) that take just the headline, they actually detailed pretty much a lot of what is happening with coronavirus. Time for Africa to really get some skin in this game.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com.