Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
The novel Covid-19 pandemic poses unique challenges to global geopolitics especially at a time when global responses to the virus has shown serious gaps in the ability of current systems to manage such unforeseen crises within Western democracies. Even the European Union (EU), which has been dubbed the most advanced model of economic integration with a political principle worth modelling, displayed a lacklustre response to Italy when it sought support during the early days of the coronavirus; indeed this is the opposite of cooperation. Italy currently has the largest number of recorded deaths in the world after the United States of America. Though the EU has admitted this damage through a late apology, one wonders if the much needed regional support that consists of an early coordinated approach, concise and consistent communication and messaging, facilitating solidarity, could have reduced the 26,644 death toll that Italy has recorded since the outbreak of the virus. On the other hand, the United States of America, which is also now leading with over 50,000 deaths, has displayed bouts of inconsistent governance over the crisis, and some media reports suggest that a number of Americans are sceptical of their president’s ability to manage the crisis. It is becoming increasingly clear that the virus knows no borders and respects no system of governance. However, it requires a response that is borderless, instructive on cooperation and solidarity and reflective of community.
Against this backdrop, will the African Union (AU) assume a style that will portray its management of this disease as not only crucial to how Africans view it, but how the institution reaffirms its authority at the time when achieving a unifying regional voice amidst varying interests, actions, nationalist and protectionist responses remains a challenge? In addition, the coronavirus pandemic puts more emphasis on the need for a holistic Pan-African response that will not just react to the immediate pandemic, but manage its attendant impacts through commitments to jointly shared instruments, robust economic packages and meaningful investments in public healthcare, education, and science and technology for the advancement and betterment of its citizens. This is important because, healthcare, like many other public goods and services in many parts of the world, is currently challenged in Africa. According to a Brookings survey, citizens perceptions of national health services in Africa are at the optimal low and perform poorly or unsatisfactorily. Their 2019 report cites Nigeria and other African countries witnessing a massive exodus of medical personnel, to the detriment of the health sector. For these reasons amongst others, Covid-19 in Africa could be as devastating as it is currently being experienced in other parts of the world, more so because its health system is already grappling with existing diseases like malaria, Ebola and a recorded 25.7 million people living with HIV. This suggests that the increasing spread of the novel Covid-19 virus will ultimately strain this failing system if a concerted regional approach to its management fails to deploy.
As of 27 April 2020, about 207,431 deaths and 2,989,090 confirmed infected cases have been recorded globally, of which over 31,977 cases and 1,427 deaths of these were in 52 African countries. While the pandemic is still brewing and spreading worldwide, reactions by African leaders swung between different extremes. These include initial denial and delays in action to swift development and procurement of materials for testing and surveillance prevention, control and clinical management, crisis management information, provision of social welfare packages including restrictions on local movement and international travel. National Centres for Disease Control have also engaged in testing, treatments, and tracing of contacts and the AU’s African Centre for Disease Control activated its emergency operation centre and Incident Management System as a continental response to the global pandemic. The relatively low cases of infections on a continent that is scapegoated and feared to be more vulnerable to the virus could therefore be attributed to the ongoing national intervention measures taken to stop the spread. However, this is not enough.
Potentials for economic growth abound in Africa, home to seven of the ten fastest growing economies, though its challenges are persistent. This is evidenced in the two-way goods trade between the United States of America and Sub-Saharan African countries in 2018, which was US$40.9 billion in total. Equally, Africa’s two-way trade with China grew by 2.2 percent in 2019 to a tune of US$208.7 billion, whereas the EU-African trade statistics show that the 27 countries of the EU were the biggest goods exporters into Africa with a total value of nearly US$170 billion in 2018. Additionally, the United Kingdom and Russia have also positioned themselves to invest in this high rate of returns that will come from potential economic and political partnership with Africa. In all this, the index cases of Covid-19 in African countries were all traceable to travellers from outside the continent. Therefore, in as much as trade and travel offers economic benefits, they are also a vector for transmission of diseases with attendant impact on pandemics. While the pandemic continues to spread with neither vaccine nor proven cure discovered yet, the above reinforces the urgent need to develop continent-wide mechanisms that will manage pandemics irrespective of where or how they start.
The AU, which is the continental body of 55 African countries is guided by the vision of an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, that is also driven by its own citizens while representing a dynamic force in the global arena. However, the threats and aftermath shocks from this virus on the continent could make this vision very difficult to achieve. Although the preparedness of the African Centre for Disease Control is laudable, a continent that is historically affected by high incidents of poverty and conflict will need more than an immediate and fire brigade response to crises such as these.
While the unfolding turn of events brought about by the coronavirus has thrown a spotlight between the two extremes of the radical deterioration of basic needs and an ideal scenario of public goods and services globally, it has also shed more light on the preparedness of the African continent that just experienced a similar epidemic in the form of Ebola. These lessons which include improved hygienic practices such as hand washing and social distancing have informed behavioural changes that are now touted as some of the basic preventive measures for the coronavirus by the WHO. The lessons also include good information on infection dynamics and the mobilisation of national early warning signals and surveillance systems to manage the crisis. Notwithstanding these best practices and models, the state of public goods in Africa is still of concern and the AU must step up and chart the cause for responsible and responsive governance from its member states. Against this backdrop, the importance, provision and governance of public goods have to be taken seriously as they are key assets to human development; ensuring their supply and effective management will ultimately foster growth. Social protection, welfare provisions, basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity, healthcare and education, amongst others, must not be lacking or compromised. Where social palliatives or welfare measures are implemented, they must be well thought-out, sustainable and take a form of more than handouts to the most vulnerable. Moreover, a global public health crisis should shape funding priorities for African countries and the AU in driving conscious and sustainable policy support for the mandate of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, training of personnel, as well as an overall increase towards scientific research and development at national and continental levels. National governments, as a matter of government policy and objective, must also be encouraged to not only abide by the 2001 Abuja Declaration of the AU where the leaders pledged to commit at least 15 percent of their annual budgets to improving their health sectors, but increase their budgets for public provision of healthcare beyond this agreed percentage of national expenditure. The current practice of reducing the role of the state and always shifting the buck to the private sector or multinational corporations should be discouraged. Nigeria is one country case example where the public health sector remains evidently weak and privatised health services have replaced a national public health service through the so called social corporate responsibility schemes of international oil companies who disparately build health clinics in communities where they operate. Countries like Ethiopia, which have revolutionalised their health sector through people-centred health polices, should serve as positive referent points in this regard. In all truth, public goods and services in Africa are in need of a state-led overhaul and this must be driven by state actors.
Looking beyond Covid-19
Though Africa still accounts for a small number of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide we must recognise that Covid-19 is a global health crisis whose shock will produce a global recession. The pandemic also has grave implications for the economies of countries that are dependent on trade as it is estimated that Africa’s GDP may contract by 0.8% in 2020 and shrink by as much as 4.5% if the pandemic and global disruptions are severe and endure. Additionally, countries such as Nigeria and Angola, whose economies are dependent on rent from export in oil and other natural resources will be greatly impacted by the collapsing and broken supply chain with China, while nearly two-thirds of African countries that are net importers of food items will be impacted by basic food shortages and food insecurity. Furthermore, the planned operationalisation of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in July 2020 is at risk, largely because of the closures of national borders, and disruptions in manufacturing services. This then throws more light on the volatility of globalisation, intra-African and international trade and the much-required buffer solutions that regional economic communities can provide in instances like these.
Admitting that it is the primary responsibility of individual countries to provide public goods and services and that the AU member states are sovereign in their jurisdiction and management of resources, the call for reforms in this regard is imminent, and the AU has to take the lead in managing Africa’s return to stability, while coordinating and ensuring compliance and accountability.
To achieve these, I recommend that in the first instance the AU has to implement a continental crisis cell to take on the responsibility for the following short, medium and long-term approaches:
- call for the continent-wide suspension of all international travel to or from affected countries for at least two weeks, as this will contain the spread of the virus; where flights have been made, implement adequate quarantine and testing measures;
- increase coordination and coherence in developing robust crisis management communication strategy alongside WHO guidelines and information and ensure that this is disseminated across Africa. This will prevent the increasing wave of misinformation and disinformation and give a unified African voice to the global pandemic;
- while calling for expansion in treatments and testing, monitor that country by country and localised responses adhere to WHO rules and can be replicated in other African countries – this can be achieved through calling for solidarity, harmonising response mechanisms across the board, best practice and sharing knowledge and lessons;
- encourage national governments to support the provision of sustainable and well-defined social safety and protection nets for the vulnerable and poor within their countries; and implement a means to back-track and check these measures;
- encourage financial regulatory institutions of member states to provide bail-out or emergency funds to support businesses and individuals that will be affected by the impact of Covid-19;
- review objective criteria and continental frameworks that set the basis for and expectations of governance and delivery of public goods and services in Africa. Also, hold accountable, with very stringent measures, countries that fail to adhere to the provisions of these continental guidelines;
- engage with stakeholders to ensure that the planning and provisions towards the operationalisation of the AfCFTA as well as other activities remain ongoing;
- monitor national budgetary provisions for essential public goods and services and ensure that they meet the standard deliverable requirements;
- through specialised agencies like African Development Bank (AfDB), New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and development partners, support the mobilisation of resources for economic recovery – this also includes sourcing for direct and indirect financial assistance to support the rebounding of economies;
- mobilise national and international support towards research, innovation, and development in science and technology; in particular ensure that all lessons learnt are kept and periodically reviewed;
- develop capacities to produce much needed personal protective equipment (masks, gloves), medical equipment and drugs in Africa and secure the associated supply chain to ensure speedy delivery to countries where they may be needed;
- develop a crisis preparedness and response funding pool that can be deployed in emergency, this can be achieved through voluntary donations.