Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak
Electricity access and resilience to COVID-19
Can electricity access help improve Sierra Leone's resilience to the COVID-19 crisis?
Background, challenges and context
While many studies have focused on how improved access to reliable electricity impacts people’s livelihoods, few have looked at how it can increase resilience and help populations cope with large health and economic shocks such as COVID-19.
Reliable power is critical for ensuring both the provision of and access to essential health systems. It can improve the quality of the health services provided, and citizens’ perception of the quality – encouraging more people to use the services. As such, health systems become more resilient.
The COVID-19 health crisis is likely the beginning of another more pervasive economic crisis. The United Nations estimates that at least 49 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty, undoing much of the progress that has been made over the past decades.
Access to reliable power improves citizens’ and businesses’ ability to cope with economic shocks, both by mitigating the negative consequences or speeding up the recovery process and making overall populations more resilient.
In Sierra Leone, as in other countries, there are restrictions on movement, and economic activity has decreased. Households and businesses with access to reliable power may benefit from being able to refrigerate, freeze or process otherwise perishable products – helping to reduce losses in income, livelihoods, and food security. As for health outcomes in the country, early reports have revealed that electrified clinics have a slightly higher (three to four per cent) utilisation rate for people suffering from COVID-19-like symptoms. Electrified clinics also have more vaccinations and drugs in cold storage, and more appliances – indicating electrification improves clinic quality.
Research overview and objectives
The focus of this research project is whether access to a functioning power supply improves economic and health resilience in the face of a pandemic.
The research team is currently conducting an impact evaluation of the Rural Renewable Energy Project (RREP), a large-scale electrification project in Sierra Leone, funded by DFID and implemented by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). The team is leveraging this ongoing evaluation and expanding its scope to assess if people in rural communities who have recently benefitted from the electrification programme are better able to cope with COVID-19 and mitigation policies (i.e. lockdowns) compared to those without access to reliable electricity.
Quasi-experimental methods are being employed to study 54 communities benefitting from RREP and 54 comparison (non-beneficiary) communities. The sample comprises about 4,500 respondents in 108 communities and 108 Community Health Clinics (CHCs), spread across all districts in Sierra Leone. Phone surveys will be carried out to collect data on key household and health clinic indicators.
The team will assess whether power supplies have been disrupted by the crisis; if households with (better) access to electricity are differently impacted; if the health services provided at CHCs have been disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis; and if health services provided by CHCs have been disrupted differently in places with (better) access to electricity.
For households, the team will focus on several outcomes: economic (availability and prices of basic commodities; farming; business; food security; and disruption of services, such as access to water and transportation); knowledge of the virus and preventative measures to reduce infection rates; and health (access to essential health services; health seeking behaviour for COVID-19-related symptoms; health seeking behaviour for non-COVID preventative care visits and illness/injury; and the health of children and adults). For CHCs, the team aims to capture changes in the quantity and quality of services provided; utilisation; and health seeking behaviour.
The data will be collected over a six-month period; as COVID-19 is a fast-moving and likely pervasive crisis, the aim is to capture time trends and track respondents over an extended period and assess whether electrification allows people to return to normality sooner after the shock. As conditions change rapidly (across markets in Sierra Leone, for example, there seems to be high price volatility for key staples, impacting household food consumption), it is important to monitor key indicators over a longer period and observe how they evolve. This will provide a clear indication on whether there are signs of recovery or further deterioration.
The team aims to provide evidence to help determine what has been learnt from COVID-19 on the contribution a functioning power supply makes to resilience during a pandemic; how shortfalls in the functioning of power supplies in developing countries have exacerbated the crisis or weakened resilience; and how lessons can help determine and influence future policy and energy planning approaches.
The team believes lessons can also be used to assess resilience to other shocks, such as outbreaks of diseases in other areas (Ebola in DRC, for example) and natural disasters such as severe flooding and droughts.
The team plans to share findings with relevant stakeholders effectively and in a timely way, and aims to inform decision-making that leads to reduced energy poverty and increased resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic in Sierra Leone and beyond.
Ministry of Energy (MoE)
Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS)
DFID, Sierra Leone office
Ministry of Finance (MoF), Research and Delivery Unit
United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)
International Growth Centre (IGC)