Africa Needs a United, Multidimensional Approach to Coronavirus

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Africa does have some important tools that it can deploy in facing this unique combination of public health and security challenges. Some parts of Africa can harness lessons learned from managing other diseases, such as the Ebola outbreak. Also, with an average population age of 19.7 years, demographics may work to the continent’s advantage. Nevertheless, the continent’s ability to weather the crisis should not be taken for granted. Furthermore, the pandemic should not be used as an opportunity for African leaders to clutch onto more power by exploiting national disasters for political advantage.

Plenty of Pledges…

Across the world, efforts to support African states have been trickling in, but with little overall coordination. The G20 pledged a global stimulus fund of $5 trillion; France’s president was pushing for a suspension of debt but only managed to secure a debt payment freeze; the African Development Bank has created a $10 billion fund; the World Bank donated $8 billion to Ethiopia, and the IMF approved a $147 million payment to Gabon. Nigeria, Africa's second-biggest economy, is to receive $3.4 billion from the IMF, $2.5 billion from the World Bank and $1 billion from the African Development Bank to combat the impact of coronavirus. Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, and the Jack Ma Foundation coordinated the mobilisation and distribution of a third round of emergency health equipment to all 54 African states.  

But Little Coordination

Despite these efforts, global coordination is lacking. To date, the UN Security Council cannot agree on cooperative steps to combat the pandemic in line with Article 39 of the UN Charter. Africa organisations have also been slow to coordinate. The Chairperson of the African Union (AU), President Cyril Ramaphosa, has convened collective talks with Ethiopia, Rwanda, Senegal, Egypt, Zimbabwe, DRC and Kenya, and with the AU Director-General, WHO Director-General and the AU Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to coordinate and mitigate the economic impact of coronavirus. There is not, however, a strategy or a multidimensional approach across the continent to combat the pandemic. And there is little thought to addressing the unintended consequences of combatting the pandemic such as the negative impact on governance and security, as well as the social and health sectors.

Financial Strains

Over the coming decade, Africa is estimated to require yearly economic growth of 8% to meet its development needs. The pandemic will drastically set back economic growth and for this reason, an immediate $100-150 billion emergency stimulus package for the continent is estimated to be required. But this could rise to $200 billion.

Africa’s small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) are particularly vulnerable to the economic shock of the pandemic, and up to 90% of the continent’s private sector is made up of SMEs. These SMEs are often led by women and employ significant numbers of casual labourers and petty traders. The virtual disappearance of the tourism sector during the health crisis is another heavy blow: tourism in East Africa accounts for around 8.8% of GDP, and in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania tourism employs millions of people, causing the East African Business Council to warn that at least $5.4 billion in revenues for 2020 will be lost.

The pandemic comes at a time when many African countries are already facing economic shocks. East African countries are dealing with a locust invasion which threatens their food security, while parts of West Africa have been experiencing droughts. Meanwhile, oil-exporting countries are being heavily hit by the global collapse in oil prices.

African Approaches to the Pandemic

Despite facing a common threat, African leaders have responded in different ways to the pandemic. Botswana's government has guaranteed commercial bank loans and promised wage subsidies to the worst-hit businesses. Ghana's government has been a trailblazer, approving a tax waiver for medical products and granting nurses a three-month tax holiday.  It also launched a Coronavirus Alleviation Programme with $219 million from its Contingency Fund to provide economic stimulus to businesses, and to provide food and water for households facing disruption in economic activities and has now lifted the three-week lockdown.

There has also been a diverse response to the implications of the pandemic for democracy in Africa. While Mali and Guinea have held elections, Ghana and Ethiopia, amongst others, have decided to postpone elections. In Cote d'Ivoire, Niger and Guinea, where incumbents are due to finish presidential terms, there have been no announcements about future elections, raising concerns that the pandemic will be used as a pretext to extend terms in office. Burundi, Benin and Malawi are scheduled to have elections, and will be test cases for how governments balance the demands of managing the pandemic with constitutional requirements.  

Regional organisations have also dealt with the situation differently. In the Horn of Africa, the International Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), kick-started regional efforts by disbursing funds to member states. IGAD finance ministers have also discussed the establishment of a sustainable emergency fund. The Economic Community of West African States and its West African Health Organisation, have also agreed on a Regional Strategic Plan to financially support the purchase of medical supplies and equipment. But, by and large, the response from regional bodies has been inadequate.

Countering Fragility, Instability and Insecurity

The coronavirus crisis can be expected to have a significant impact on Africa’s conflict environment. It is likely to change the priorities and capacities of conflict actors and affect many of the key political, social and economic drivers of peace and conflict. While governments across the continent have moved quickly to implement lockdowns, it is clear that states’ capacity to deal simultaneously with the outbreak of the pandemic and armed non-state groups is inadequate.

In recent weeks, Boko Haram militants have killed 47 Nigerian and 92 Chadian soldiers, while in Mozambique the flag of the Islamic State was flown over the port of Mocímboa da Praia after it was temporarily captured by insurgents. In Somalia, Al-Shabab continues its attacks, recently killing the governor of Puntland.

There is also a clear difference between the way violent non-state actors are responding to the pandemic. Older insurgency groups in Sudan, Cameroon and South Sudan have announced they will extend ceasefires. In contrast, Islamist groups in Mozambique, Nigeria, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Somalia are refusing to acknowledge the UN Secretary General’s ceasefire call and are capitalising on the pandemic and the decreased ability of states to respond to their actions.

As was demonstrated in 2010 with the outbreak of cholera in Haiti, when UN peacekeepers were the source of the infection, there is a need to have a strategy to deal with the potential transmission of the virus to civilians from international military personnel and staff deployed to missions in Africa. This will need to go beyond just halting rotation in the short term.

Tackling the Health Crisis Head-on

The coronavirus crisis should be an opportunity for African leaders to unify their countries and societies and shape a more just, sustainable and prosperous vision of the future, provided they consider the following:

  • Engage the capacity of regional economic communities and mechanisms to build consensus and set up regional task forces to manage the outbreak of the pandemic and mitigate the spread of the virus.
  • The AU, AU Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and regional economic communities, with support from the UN, should assemble African and global health and security specialists and set up a rapid-response team of intergovernmental experts, similar to the existing UN Mediation Support Unit, but on a larger scale.
  • African states now need to look ahead by recognising and planning for increased costs throughout all supply chains by securing sea and land transportation for cargo. Given Africa imports $35 billion worth of food and that this is set to rise to $110 billion by 2025, diversifying to different sources of food and other basic needs from different geographical areas ahead of time will be key.
  • To strengthen the coordination and implementation of public health recommendations, states now need to start developing and empowering coronavirus  committees at the regional level, which should be headed by local health officials and experts.
  • Create a synchronised African economic response rather than the current assortment of funding commitments and initiatives.
  • Consideration should be given to reallocating money from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to the fight against coronavirus.

Notwithstanding all these huge challenges, Africa has already shown that it can respond with innovation to the current crisis – just see the app developed by the Ghana Institution of Surveyors to trace suspected coronavirus-infected persons in real-time, or Kenya’s rapid   conversion of factories for mask production. Still, efforts like these need to be replicated across the continent. And there has to be determination to deal with the political aftermath stemming from this pandemic.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Dr Andrew E. Yaw Tchie

Associate Fellow

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