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Nigerians are heading back to supermarkets and pharmacies (chemists), while Kenyans seem more skittish about venturing out. Ugandans are shunning buses and other transport, while Rwandans climb aboard. And South Africans, hardest hit by the virus, are staying well away from workplaces and stores. Well away.

Big data is allowing us, like an omniscient deity, to glimpse how Africans are reacting to the coronavirus crisis in this ever so weird endurance test called 2020. The data is so useful, that even the researchers at the International Monetary Fund in Washington are delving into this trove for clues as to how African economies will recover from the calamity.

The magic comes from Google Covid-19 Community Mobility Reports, which pull from the same data torrent that shows you the busiest time of day at a store or restaurant on Google Maps. When such places were actually busy.

Here’s my quite simplistic, non-techie understanding of this phenomenon: Google amasses location data from zillions of mobile phones, aggregates the info into an anonymous mass of indicators and, just like that, renders a portrait of Africa in anti-virus lockdown – or liberation.

“As global communities respond to Covid-19, we’ve heard from public health officials that the same type of aggregated, anonymized insights we use in products such as Google Maps could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat Covid-19,” Google explains on the web site of this stupendous data set.

The movement data for July 21, a Tuesday, shows that visits in Nigeria to buy food or pick up medications are down only 9 percent from a pre-pandemic baseline. That’s a significant comeback from the consumer slump in June. In Kenya, similar visits are still down by 15 percent.

The Google data offers a glimpse of the economic impact that is likely to cause South Africa’s economy to shrink this year by 8 percent, the most in about 90 years. Trips associated with retail and restaurants are 35 percent below the baseline. Visits to workplaces are 36 percent lower. And trips to beaches, parks and public gardens in the sun-splashed tourism magnet are down 24 percent.

The explanation for these downbeat numbers? South Africa’s strict lockdown, possibly the toughest in the world. Fighting the virus has carried heavy economic and social costs, which prompted the IMF to approve a $4.3 billion loan on July 27, the largest made in Africa under a Covid-19 emergency support program. South Africa borrowed from the IMF for the first time, a move intended to attract other financing to get through the crisis, which has massively reduced tax revenue.

In a July 12 speech to the nation, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa urged people to stay safe and vigilant as infections peak in different regions between late July and the end of September. Covid-19 cases are approaching 500,000, and deaths have reached 7,257 (For the latest data, go to the World Health Organization.) “The coronavirus storm is far fiercer and more destructive than any we have known before,” he said. “It is stretching our resources and our resolve to their limits.”

President Ramaphosa addresses South Africans about Covid-19 on July 12 (SA Government photo)

That Covid-19 can hit one place harder than another is revealed by the Google panorama of humans moving around. Where available, the Google data delves into the level of cities and regions in each country report. In Dakar, for instance, trips to workplaces are down 15 percent as of July 25 versus the baseline, almost twice as much as the national figure in Senegal.

Google sets the baseline as the median value for the corresponding day of the week during the five-week period from January 3 to February 6. And, in case the median has slipped forever from your high school brain, a refresher: “a value in an ordered set of values below and above which there are an equal number of values,” says America’s benchmark Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. Hence why Google chooses from five weeks to determine the middle value.

(Google cautions that local conditions, such as a public holiday on a given day during the baseline period, might influence the comparison. Also, day of the week matters – movements during a workday look different than during a weekend. Review Google’s guidance to understand how to read the mobility findings.)

On January 30, as the virus spread from its presumed origin in China to 20 other countries, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. By March, the virus was crippling northern Italy and overwhelming hospitals with desperately ill patients, and beginning to slip into Africa.

Nigerians reclaim their shopping vibe

Strikingly, one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most dynamic economies is showing signs of resilience after a hard lockdown against the coronavirus. In April and May, Ghana’s government used stringent measures to keep people from moving as usual and interacting in meetings, schools and places of worship. Air, land and sea borders slammed shut to human traffic. Now people are picking up daily habits once more, while wearing masks, face shields and worry. The country recorded as many as 1,385 Covid-19 cases in a single day in the last week of July.

The IMF forecasts that Ghana’s economy will manage to grow 1.5 percent this year and almost 6 percent in 2021, remarkable figures given the battering across Africa. Between February and May, capital outflows amounted to about 0.5 percent of Ghana’s GDP as investors fled to safety. While that might not sound so bad, the trend was enough to prompt the IMF to loan Ghana $1 billion in April as part of global emergency support.

Ghana’s economy draws strength from commodities whose prices are headed in different directions thanks to coronavirus: crude oil (shaky yet much improved from the March crash), gold (soaring) and cocoa (recovering as we stress-nibble on chocolate, though around 22 percent below its 52-week high price.)

Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, the recession is deepening, with dire implications for the poorest, those living on the equivalent of less than 2 U.S. dollars per day, according to the IMF. Extreme poverty is set to increase, in a rebuke to the “Africa rising” narrative of recent years, according to  IMF and African Development Bank forecasts.

Use of public transportation is just one measure of the pain, and varies hugely across Africa in crisis. In Uganda, tracked visits to bus and train stations recorded on July 21 were down 41 percent from the baseline and not much improved from early June. In South Africa, those trips to transport hubs were 53 percent below the pre-crisis norm.

Commuter trains in Durban on the Indian Ocean are being readied for socially distant use, as the provincial minister for transport, Bheki Ntuli, saw recently (picture).

Rwanda is a contrasting story. Transport-related trips on July 21 were just 20 percent below the baseline. Perhaps that’s because Rwandans aren’t quite so homebound as folks in other countries. Mobility to residences is up 11 percent versus the baseline compared with 15 percent in Kenya and 19 percent in South Africa, which accounts for 60 percent of the continent’s cases of coronavirus disease, better known as Covid-19.

The World Health Organization recorded fewer than 1,900 Covid-19 cases and five deaths in Rwanda from March 15 through July 28. That’s much higher than in neighboring Burundi (378 cases and 1 death), which has almost as many people, yet a far lower rate relative to population than in Kenya. Cases in Kenya are approaching 18,000 and 285 people have died.

Ultimately, struggling South Africans will show us how to come back from the worst pandemic in a century. When they can. For now folks from Durban to Joburg to Cape Town aren’t moving around much as they hunker down at home and google for a way out of this mess.

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