Africa remains so far relatively preserved from the coronavirus pandemic. It is only a matter of time, however, before African countries feel the brunt of the virus, catching up with those most hit and even possibly surpassing them. This is most unfortunate, as African countries were on the verge of finalising their negotiations on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and proudly announcing its operationalisation in May 2020. They failed to anticipate which way the wind was blowing, and things moved contrary to their aspirations.
Having launched the negotiations on AfCFTA at the African Union (AU) Summit in 2015 in Johannesburg, African negotiators succeeded to finalise the agreement in record time. To date, 29 countries of the 55 AU member states have signed and ratified the AfCFTA with a view to promoting trade between them. By agreeing to reduce tariffs by 90 per cent on goods over a five-year period, gradually removing non-tariff barriers and unifying rules of origin among member states, African countries earned the world’s respect and admiration. African countries also agreed, for the first time, to liberalise trade in services and allow service providers to compete in their respective markets. But the coronavirus pandemic came to sabotage any progress. Scheduled meetings to conclude the negotiations were suspended. It may take years for AfCFTA to be effective.
As African countries were less integrated into the global financial markets, they escaped the severe 2008 financial crisis, which was considered by many economists to have been the most serious crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Such a luxury is not granted to the African continent with the coronavirus pandemic, which knows no borders and hardly cares about the extent of integration of countries into the global economy. Confirmed cases on the continent remain small compared to the rapid spread of coronavirus around the world. What we fear most — despite the fact that the majority of African countries remain out of danger — is what may be the repercussions of this pandemic on the effort and hard work of the African peoples during the past few years and the success of many of them in being among the fastest growing economies globally.
The fear that our continent will suffer more than others under the burden of the pandemic is justified and attributed to the fragility of the health systems of African countries. Hand washing is a luxury to those who lack clean water and who struggle to get water from miles afar. Nor is “social distancing” realistic for marginalised societies, which are not apt to provide work from home. The elite or middle class staying at home and working on the Internet is very different from the situation of migrant workers and day labourers. Such societies cannot afford a lockdown or social exclusion that thwarts their daily subsistence for survival.
The coexistence of generations of African people side by side across borders is a dilemma in itself when faced with the closure of borders, as largely enforced by the European Union between the Schengen countries. In addition, the closure within countries led to violent clashes between security forces and citizens in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, compelling security forces to impose a curfew from dawn to dusk. African populations can hardly be confined to their modest lodgings. Their lives are on the streets, interacting with each other and sharing their belongings. Disrupting their daily lives will lead to widespread hunger and famine. Nor do local authorities in many countries have the clinical capacities to identify infected cases. For example, Tanzania has tested only 273 out of 39,000 individuals coming from affected countries, while Germany has been able to maintain a low mortality rate due to its widespread tests.
Furthermore, the continent suffers under heavy debt, whose service alone costs more than what many countries spend on their health budgets. Africa’s debt burden of $283 billion is large as a proportion of the gross domestic product of its countries, exceeding the 60 per cent debt-to-GDP threshold. African countries have very limited space in their budgets to increase their payments on health needs. They depend for the most part on financial aid from developed countries. What will happen if parts of the donor supply chain are divested to confront the coronavirus pandemic? This will certainly cut off funding to the African continent. The dual effect of the debt burden and aid depletion will lessen the capabilities of African countries to confront the crisis. How can African countries obtain basic medical supplies and equipment from abroad in the face of a shortage of hard currency and where the lockdown can obliterate over 10 per cent of the continent’s GDP, as sectors such as tourism, aviation and trade slow down and airline traffic is stopped?
The situation will certainly look desperate once the virus starts spreading in Africa. However, this is far from being a forgone conclusion. African countries have succeeded against all odds to negotiate their continental free trade agreement in less than three years and have fought many a pandemic before. They are capable of fighting against the coronavirus and vanquishing it. African leaders were quick in creating a fund to provide the necessary financial resources to combat the outbreak. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s initiative for debt relief to African countries, introduced at the extraordinary virtual summit of the G20 held in late March, drew attention to the continent’s plight and the exorbitant costs of servicing its debt.
While African countries act decisively to stop the spread of the virus, the anticipated severe depression in the global economy and the impact on economies decimated by commodity price falls and lockdowns will exacerbate the situation. There is a need for international intervention to fight the impact of coronavirus in Africa. Today it is up to financial institutions and donor countries to do their part to prevent the pandemic from spreading in Africa to an irreversible point. The World Bank and the IMF must move quickly with a view to providing emergency financing. G20 finance ministers must ensure that African countries get the fiscal space required to get much needed medical supplies. Concerted action by the international community becomes a must in these dire times. It is crucial to meet Africa’s requests, and without the standard conditionality leveraged by multilateral financial institutions. The magnitude of the crisis necessitates unconventional responses to allow the defeat of coronavirus.
In the end, coronavirus is a test for the international community, as it spares no one, rich or poor, young or old, man or woman, targeting everyone without exception or mercy. The strength of our societies is equivalent to the strength of our most vulnerable citizens. Even the most powerful economies have not escaped the pandemic. The world must be certain that if Covid-19 is not defeated in Africa, it will bounce back to the rest of the world.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister for international economic affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly