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Africa amid the pandemic

Even if contagion is stemmed on the African continent, its states and economies will struggle to endure the global lockdown for long

Mostafa Ahmady , Friday 10 Apr 2020
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Streets are empty; cities are deserted; flights are grounded; nations are disconnected and the world is on lockdown. This is not a scene in the American movie “Contagion” or post-devastation life in Will Smith’s “I am Legend.” It is reality in the face of an invisible life-threatening enemy, codenamed the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since the outbreak of the deadly virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the world has held its breath in anticipation of the rising death toll and new infection cases around the clock. The most visible result that has emerged in the coronavirus-hit world is the fragility of the system. Nobody ever thought that Italy, one of the G7 members and one of the most advanced nations in terms of its healthcare system could collapse that easily facing a ferocious 125-nanometre virus.

It was also quite shocking to hear the president of the United States, the pre-coronavirus world superpower, saying that “the system” was not designed for this, referring to the large number of infections in the country. 

For Africa, the situation may be far more disastrous if not well contained. Though the spread of the pandemic has not been exponential so far in the continent compared to the northern hemisphere, things may get worse in the very near future.

As many African nations are expecting seasonal torrential rains in a couple of months, and with both poor hygiene and lack of access to clean water, unless strict precautionary measures are taken it may be a matter of time before the coronavirus finds home in Africa. It is true that African nations have followed suit with other world countries, taking similar steps to prevent the spread of the contagion, particularly the lockdown, but they cannot sustain it for long. 

That is why, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation, former Ethiopian minister of both health and foreign affairs, has rung the alarm, warning that “Africa should wake up!” In response, African leaders held their first “virtual” summit to discuss means of combating the deadly virus and its impact on African economies.

In a mini-summit online, the leaders of Egypt and South Africa (both the former and current chair of the African Union) together with their counterparts from Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali agreed to establish a fund for the mobilisation of the necessary resources to stand up to the virus. Earlier, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called for raising $150 billion in emergency finance to help African nations in their fight against Covid-19. He also proposed writing off all interest payment on government loans, as the virus poses an “existential” threat to African economies. 

Indeed, African economies are the most vulnerable to current and post-coronavirus economic repercussions. Most nations will not be able to handle a prolonged lockdown or suspending flights, particularly with Africa’s number one trading partner, China. Many African nations are highly connected to China with powerful commercial and economic ties, especially as gigantic Chinese corporations are in charge of executing development plans and infrastructure projects in different corners of Africa. 

The Addis Ababa-based Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), affiliated to the UN, has warned that Africa may lose “half” of its GDP, roughly over $1 trillion. Falling oil revenues, as oil prices continue to tumble, may cost African nations more than a $100 billion, with Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer of oil, expected to lose $19 billion alone.

Food security is another issue to heed because two thirds of African nations are importers of basic commodities and given the shutdown in major exporter countries, prices will hike and food supplies will be interrupted, leading to a disastrous food security crisis in some already ailing economies in the continent. The ECA has also warned that a sharp decrease in commodity prices could lead to fiscal pressures for such big economies in Africa as Egypt, Algeria, South Africa, Nigeria and Angola. 

As trade links with non-African countries are interrupted because of the coronavirus, it may be the golden opportunity for African countries to boost their intra-Africa trade and fully enforce the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA). The ECA has also urged African countries to “prioritise” African markets, especially in the export of pharmaceuticals and food supplies, now much needed for many African nations. In practise, this would help African economies to mitigate the negative effects of the global lockdown, on the one hand, and protect other countries against acute shortages on the other. 

This is the time for asserting solidarity with one another. Many African nations will not be able to put up a fight on their own. The G20 Summit has pledged to inject $5 trillion into the global economy to ease the social and economic burdens caused by humanity’s now number one enemy: the coronavirus.

A handsome portion of the amount should go to Africa, as most African countries, either due to instability or poor economic potentials, lack basic health services and well-equipped medical facilities to combat Covid-19. For years, Africa has been milked and its immense resources and raw materials have been usurped. There is now a moral obligation to pay back Africa in such critical times till the world finds the means to win the fight against the pandemic.  

The coronavirus may serve as a blessing in disguise for African nations to join hands and boost intra-Africa trade. It may be also the opportune moment for African interdependence and an urgent call for integration, thrashing out the issues and working together for a safer and stronger Africa. Collective African leadership is now needed more than ever before. A virus that knows no borders, no colour and does not tell rich from poor needs to be faced up firmly. 

In an important piece contributed to The Financial Times, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has warned that unless the virus is beaten in Africa, it will only “bounce” back to the rest of the world.

*The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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