COVID-19 should be a wake-up call for African self-dependence
Early in the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, there was great concern over its effects on Africa. Overcrowded and under-resourced health care networks across the continent, coupled with a high prevalence of other infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV, were seen as a potential time bomb. Eight months later, the direst health warnings have proven to be incorrect. For, while things are bad — worse than official numbers imply — they are not as devastating as initially feared, even with all the caveats duly inserted. But, for all that, Africa is clearly reeling from the devastating COVID-19-related economic fallout, which demands action. To cut to the chase, that would be to quickly commit to more intracontinental trade.
As the world marked the millionth reported COVID-19-related death in September, Africa’s total was just over 35,000. That is 3.5 percent for 17 percent of the world’s population. Is this accurate? To be sure, there has clearly been misreporting of infections and deaths, and of the severity of health issues. So it is important to address this first. Take East Africa. While Kenya and Uganda moved quickly to implement lockdowns and social distancing, Tanzania’s president encouraged his countrymen to attend churches and mosques because he said COVID-19 was the work of the devil and prayer could defeat the virus.
Unsurprisingly, exact numbers on COVID-19 cases in Tanzania are difficult to come by. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, Kenya (population 51.5 million) has had 45,000 cases and 832 deaths; Uganda (population 43 million) 10,000 cases and 96 deaths; and Nigeria (population 196 million) 61,000 cases and 1,125 deaths. Tanzania, with a population of 56 million, has reported just 509 cases of infection and 21 deaths.
Are there other cases of underreporting and misreporting? Certainly. But, as someone based on the continent, in South Africa, and who has lived through a succession of continental public-health issues from malaria and dengue to Ebola, I and others sense that the pandemic crisis is not nearly as bad as it could be.
Africa’s pandemic response is a convoluted and confusing story. Many governments established full and dramatic lockdowns. South Africa’s lockdown, which barred outdoor exercise and the sale of alcohol and tobacco, was one of the strictest in the world. Zimbabwe only began easing its lockdown in the last two months. Despite these measures, the virus has run rampant across the continent, but death rates are among the lowest globally.
The World Health Organization has repeatedly praised Africa’s response, noting that “most African governments quickly implemented restrictions on movement and gathering, and this created a window of opportunity to keep case numbers low and strengthen public-health capacities.”
Scientists believe the continent’s mostly young population is the primary reason for the low death rate. There is additional research suggesting that the BCG vaccination against tuberculosis, which is provided at birth in most African countries, can produce better outcomes in younger patients. We might never know the answer, but that should not prevent action over matters that we can control; namely the economic fallout.
Indeed, the economic consequences of the pandemic might eventually be deadlier than COVID-19 itself. Lockdowns, coupled with a plunging global economy, have put leading African economies in a precarious position. There has been massive unemployment and underemployment, while expatriate workers, such as in the Gulf states, have been retrenched and have returned to their countries — putting an end to their remittances and adding to unemployment numbers at home. It is still too early for official region-wide data, but there is obviously much more poverty and hunger across the continent. How far back Africa’s economic progress has been pushed is still being calculated, but it would not be an exaggeration to suppose at least a decade.
In perhaps the clearest and most significant sign of despair, South Africa has been forced to accept a $4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In Kenya, a regional trade hub, there was a 19 percent drop in total trade volumes in April. There was a modest increase in volume in July and August, but the damage from the initial shock has been profound and is still reverberating.
At this year’s annual IMF and World Bank meetings, held this month, pressure mounted on lenders to accelerate debt forgiveness and grants to struggling African countries. The IMF’s Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, called on the World Bank to disperse more grants to African countries and announced that the IMF had provided $26 billion in fast-track support to Africa since the start of the pandemic.
How far back Africa’s economic progress has been pushed is still being calculated, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suppose at least a decade.
Is this the right course of action? Perhaps in the immediate time frame, when emergency fiscal support is crucial to addressing rising poverty, hunger and the deepening of the economic crisis. But, in fact, the real answer to the question lies in the last issue: Economics. While the continent has, over the past decade, made progress building up local economic infrastructure — think of fintech — there is still too little of this. Crucially, Africa trades mostly with the world outside Africa, selling raw commodities to Asia and the West and buying finished goods from China, for example.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call for Africa to become more self-dependent through intracontinental trade, making it more resilient in the face of global downturns. With a lower percentage of people (i.e., the market) affected by COVID-19 than the West, robust intra-African trade would provide a buffer in terms of jobs (i.e., the supplier), keeping hunger at bay. Redirecting grants into building a bigger manufacturing sector is a critical long-term step that is needed to safeguard future generations of Africans from whatever turmoil might come their way.
COVID-19 can be — indeed, should be — the crisis that finally gets the promise of the African Continental Free Trade Area fulfilled.
- Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor in chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact. Copyright: Syndication Bureau