Angolan Government Relying on Partner Assistance to Fight Covid-19

The Angolan government is relying on partners at home and abroad to support its Covid-19 response. The southwest African country was quick to develop and mobilize a plan, leading to a relatively low caseload. As of June 24, the country has logged only 189 cases and 10 deaths, representing some of the lowest numbers on the African continent. In order to sustain this momentum, Angola will require continued support from international partners including measures to strengthen the country’s long-neglected health and social sectors.

Q1: How has the Angolan government managed the pandemic?

A1: Luanda swiftly implemented its “National Contingency Plan to Manage the Pandemic,” a whole-of-government strategy it finalized in February focused on education, testing, and contact tracing. For example, the Ministry of Fisheries, in collaboration with the Health Ministry, sent representatives in early April to artisanal fishing communities to educate them about the virus, while the military has helped distribute testing kits and supplies throughout the country. National Assembly support for counter-virus measures, including multiple renewals and adjustments of the state of emergency, has crossed party lines. UNITA, the main opposition party, has not hesitated to point out issues in implementation, but its leaders have publicly defended the government’s policy toward the pandemic and supported it in the National Assembly. In February, the government began requiring Angolan residents arriving from Covid-19 hotspots to quarantine and has since ramped up efforts to contain the virus’s spread beyond Luanda province. The government has rigorously cordoned off neighborhoods in Luanda as part of its containment and tracing strategy and has prioritized preventing the virus’s spread beyond Luanda province. The government has benefited from Angolan nongovernmental organizations and religious groups who have leaned forward in promoting education and awareness within their communities.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Angola’s plan has been the terms of its state of emergency and how it has managed its enforcement. Over 70 percent of the Angolan population works in the informal economy, a sector deeply affected by the state of emergency as informal markets that failed to meet health and safety requirements were shuttered. The absence of a robust social safety net has left many of these families in dire straits, and nongovernmental organizations are unable to help due to state-of-emergency restrictions. In addition, members of the political opposition and civil society have accused Angolan security services of killing at least five citizens and detaining thousands of others for violating the state of emergency. The National Assembly recently passed legislation allowing for a “State of Calamity,” a lesser form of a State of Emergency, but one which critics fear may be unconstitutional.

Q2: What are some challenges hindering Angola’s response?

A2: A troubled economy and weak health sector have left Angola ill-equipped to independently implement its pandemic management plan. Angolan economic growth declined between 2015 and 2018 and contracted again at the start of 2019. The subsequent drop earlier this year in both oil prices and Chinese demand for Angolan oil dealt another devastating blow to the economy, knocking Angola down a peg from the continent’s third- to its fourth-largest economy. The oil sector represents 90 percent of the country’s exports, of which China is its primary importer. Further darkening Angola’s economic picture is its public debt. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts Angolan debt will increase to 132 percent of its GDP this year. Senior Angolan officials, in consultation with the IMF, have committed Angola to the G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative and are negotiating debt payments with other government lenders in an effort to free up funds for its Covid-19 efforts.

Angola’s weak health care system has been another hinderance to Luanda’s ability to manage the pandemic alone and a likely factor in the government’s aggressive approach to prevention and containment. The Angolan public health care system lacks adequately trained medical professionals, medicine, and systems to efficiently track patient records. As of early May, Angola had 110 intensive care beds and 220 ventilators, far below what would be necessary if infections peak over 2,000 as models currently predict. In addition, the country has roughly 2.1 physicians per 10,000 inhabitants, but very few of these professionals are trained to use ventilation systems. Private health centers offer slightly better services, but even so, Angolan elite typically seek medical treatment abroad, an option unavailable to them under the state of emergency.

Q3: How has the international community supported Angola in its response?

A3: The international community has been essential in providing Angolan national and provincial government health officials with funding, material, and training to support the implementation of the government’s plan. In fact, Angolan officials developed the country’s pandemic response with foreign assistance in mind. When she presented the plan, Health Minister Silvia Lutucuta told the foreign diplomatic corps in Luanda that she was counting on their support.

  • Multilateral partnerships. Luanda based its national response plan on international health guidelines and continues to engage with multilateral health organizations. The Ministry of Health, with support from the World Health Organization, deployed public health specialists from Luanda to the provinces to train local health professionals on monitoring and preventing Covid-19 in the countryside. The Angolan government, with UNICEF support, is providing radio- and television-based academic programs to students, subsidies to families with young children, and shelter to homeless youth.
  • Government support. The Angolan government has stepped up diplomatic outreach to bilateral partners to improve its testing and treatment capacity. The U.S. government committed more than $3.5 million to help Angola procure laboratory and testing supplies, create education and training programs, and develop protocols for contact tracing. The European Union has committed approximately $12 million in assistance to vulnerable populations, while Qatar last month donated 10 tons of personal protective equipment to Angola. Cuba sent 244 of its doctors and some medical supplies to Angola to support its Covid-19 response, while Portugal last week provided the Angolan health and transportation ministries additional protective equipment and medicines.
  • Private sector donations. Angola has also benefited from philanthropic donations. In May, ExxonMobil funded a program to track families in quarantine in Zaire province, which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo. Chevron in April delivered to Cabinda province over 500 hygiene stations, food, and training to 130 community agents to educate locals about the virus. The Jack Ma Foundation in March donated protective equipment, ventilators, and testing swabs to the health ministry.

Q4: How can the Angolan government and its partners strengthen the country’s economic and health responses going forward?

A4: In the short term, Angola will need assistance in expanding its testing capability, particularly as it reopens to foreign visitors. The government is already prioritizing the distribution of protective equipment and testing agents to border provinces because of their high risk of exposure. While the government increased its daily testing capacity from 90 to 300 in April, Minister of Health Lutucuta in May called for continued international cooperation in containing the virus and said Angola’s next challenge would be in increasing testing and controlling entry of foreign travelers. Angola’s neighbors Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have both recorded high infection rates—including in provinces that border Angola—making testing and containment measures in these areas an essential piece of Angola’s containment strategy.

Looking beyond the pandemic’s immediate demands, some ministers have indicated a desire to institutionalize new programs and initiatives, creating an opportunity for Angola’s partners abroad to expand collaboration in long-term projects in social welfare, health, and scientific research.

  • Deepen social support programs. The Ministry of Social Action plans to use the pandemic as an opportunity to implement programs to assist vulnerable populations over the long term, a particularly important initiative considering the economic impact on the informal economy. Religious leaders and Angolan civil society organizations are similarly calling on the government to introduce long-term social support programs to assist those most affected by the state of emergency, including the creation of a national food bank and youth training programs.
  • Expand health systems. Angolan government plans to expand field hospitals and laboratories outside of Luanda to provide an opportunity to strengthen cooperation with Angolan researchers and expand health care in a handful of Angola’s provincial capitals. In addition, international partners should collaborate with the Angolan government in deploying the planned Luanda-based treatment center for Covid-19 and future disease outbreaks to ensure the center benefits the local community as claimed.
  • Enhance private sector ties. U.S. businesses should explore opportunities to increase engagement with Angola’s private sector as the country works to diversify its economy and address growing unemployment. Last year, a handful of Angolan startups sought to bring informal sector trades into the mainstream, including with apps to help independent farmers sell their produce directly to buyers. This month, the United Nations Development Program and the Angolan Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Technology, and Innovation signed a memorandum to facilitate the Angolan tech sector’s growth, reflecting the government’s commitment to growing this sector.

Emilia Columbo is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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