IDEAS FIRST, AFRICA! A perspective from the West on the impact of Covid-19 on Africa

“Ideas First, Africa! Reproduces summaries of deliberations publicized by RFI on the topic “Africa and Coronavirus: A solid challenge for International Cooperation”. The deliberations elicited candid reflections from the discussants identified as Serge Michail, a former World Bank director and researcher; and Thierry Vircoulon, coordinator of the Observatory for Central and Southern Africa of the French Institute of International Relations. The viewpoints sharedmay prove useful tonational policy making.
The world has entered into a sanitation war, with Africa attracting the concernsof all as the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) devastates economies across the world. According the UN, of the 1.3 billion people currently living below the poverty line, 30% are in Africa.
Question (Q) Inmid-February, amidst the general climate of indifference that greeted the announcement of the virus in China, Bill Gates predicted that the spread of the virus would create greater havoc in Africa than in China. Africans believed they had been spared the disease only to soon realizethat it had announced its presence in nearly all African countries. What are your impressions on this development?

Discussants’ Views (DV): The epidemic has revealed major weaknesses in Africa— weaknesses in the economies and in the health and sanitation systems with the likelihood of weaknesses in the political systems setting in. Africa’s youthful population appears to have been an important asset in the fight against the virus considering that the death toll on the continent is much lower than say that of Europe which has an older population.That said, Africa’s high population densities, overcrowded slum dwellings and poor sanitation systems, cast doubt on the effectiveness of social distancing measures under such difficult circumstances.

Q: What about the observation that populations of developing countries are usually confronted with challenges such as poor health systems and compromised immunity owing to malnutrition, tuberculosis and HIV?
DV: There is the risk of an accumulation of physiological weaknesses that could amplify the epidemic caused by the virus. The virus arrived much later in Africa (after China and Europe) and it is a credit to African governments for having reacted speedily in preparing for itsarrival and in taking due preventative measures.
Q: In 2014 and 2015, Ebola killed about 11 000 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Canit be said that the experience gathered from managing Ebola would help Africans in the fight againstCoronavirus?
DV: Africans reacted well to the Ebola crisis with support from governmentsand foundations across the globe.

The sheer speed at which Coronavirus spreads may overwhelm the capabilities of health systems in place in Africa which are generally underfunded. Furthermore, widespread sanitation problems aggravate the already difficult situation. Africa received some training and resources in the fight against HIV and in the dispensation of primary health care policy. However, hospital infrastructure remains under-financed and under-resourced and that has had a major impact in the fight against the virus.

Q: What do you say about the problem of under-resourcing of Sub-Sahara African hospitals where there is 1 doctor to 10 hospital beds available for 10 000 inhabitants whereas in the Europe Union the ratio is 36 doctors to 51 beds?

DV: According tothe Global Health Security Index of the John Hopkins Center for Health Security that appraisesthe sanitation capabilities of countries, African states are either in red or orange which is a frightening situation. Sanitation, notably in Sub-Sahara Africa has been under-financed for a long time.For example; Cameroun’s sanitation budget over the years has varied between 3.5% and 5.5% of the total national budget whereas the international recommendation is 15%.

Cameroun’s example typifies the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa where there isvery limited capacity for taking on sickpeople. The practical option left for Africa is prevention.
Q: Now the economic issues.Weakened global demand has led to a fall in petrol prices, reduced tourism, and the withdrawal of an estimated 83 billion US dollars by foreigninvestors since the beginning of the crisis. Demand for exportsof developing countries on which they are highly dependent has slowed down. Your views?

DV: The totality of African exports i.e. oil, copper, cocoa etc has fallen. A disturbing issue for countries that have piled up debt as a result of the pandemic has been the absence of the coming together of donors with substantial reserves to compensate for the loss of budgetary revenue of these countries. It must be noted that quite a number of these countries have benefitted from debt payment deferment. It appears that rich countries may have taken too long in responding tothe difficulties faced by the impacted countries.
Q: Experts contend that Africa must remain anabsolute priority to the international community in regard to substantial investment. The UN estimates that 3,000,000,000,000 US dollars would be needed to combat the effects of COVID-19 and to support the economies of developing countries.Your views.

DV: What is revealing is the fact that many African economies are still in a state of dependency: i.e. being exporters of primary raw materials and therefore sensitive to exogenous shocks such as a fall in the prices of minerals and of a barrel of crude oil. These countries, having been incapable of diversifying and building their own industrial base find themselves in the deplorable situation of being extremely vulnerableto a change in their economic situation. Another challenge is the provision of food security where again many of these countries continue to struggle because of their dependence on external supply: for example in Kinshasa, when the first case of COVID 19 became known, the news triggered off sharp increases in the price of foodstuffs, and threatened to worsen the condition of the populace that was already in economic survival mode —meaning that they had little financial resources in reserve.

Q: Three financial multilateral institutions (FAO, WHO, WTO) alerted the world to the problems of shortages andimminent escalations in food prices, andincreased perishability of agricultural products and foodstuffs caused by the reduced mobility of food and agricultural workers. It’s amazing how such interconnections haveimpactedAfrica.

DV: Let’s take the case of the city of Kinshasa where confining huge numbers of its population and restricting their movements has rendered most of them helpless since they have little humanitarian and financial resources on which to get by. It’s a dramatic situation compared with that of Europe. African economies will take a long time to recover.Goods meant for exports have remained at the ports.African populations might become restless under the restrictions and this could lead to tensionsand riots that may engender political instability.

Q: What are the consequences of Africa not being able meet its needs?
DV: Africa has hardly been able to meet its own needs. Europe and America, having been severely hit by the virus, have fallen into serious economic crisis. We shouldn’tdelude ourselves into believing that Europe and America would immediately dispatch a massive aid package to “save” Africa.Each country is managing its own affairs at its level.
Q: Now the geopolitical issue. China has considerable influence in Africa and continues to gain ground with deliveries of medicalsupplies to the continent. Will Africa remember those that came to its aid?
DV: The West has a problem in this regard. If the West does not intervenequickly and significantly in Africa, China will!It is hoped that traditional Institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and aid institutions of the EU will be imaginative and intervene. It must be said thatChina hasreallybecome Africa’s primary negotiator on the global scene. China has been on the charm offensive for quite some time now andhas taken advantage of the crisis to accentuate itsdiplomatic influence there.
The presenter of Ideas First, Africa! is a member of staff of the Ghana Parliamentary Service

By Pius Acolatse

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