By Isaac Sebakijje
Los Angeles, May 25, 2020
Over the years, Africa has had the resilience to overcome great odds, massive setbacks, incredible injustice, apartheid and profound tragedies and now comes the devastating coronavirus. Let there be no doubt that the continent will overcome this enormous challenge despite the constant breaking news that predict the opposite.
While conspiracy theories linger, the reality is that this pandemic will not leave anything untouched. The infection numbers in Sub Saharan Africa are relatively lower than the rest of the world, but they are growing. As the daily number of new infections appears to fall in other parts of the world, the concern is that the virus's epicenters could move to the continent. It is too early to predict whether the continent, which has the world's youngest population averaging 25 years old, maybe spared widespread severe cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic mainly, affects older people with pre-existing health conditions and obesity levels in Africa are also lower than those in the USA. We also wait to see the outcome of countries like Sweden, Brazil and Tanzania that have taken contentious approaches to fight the pandemic.
Although Africa is not new to virus outbreaks, poverty, and hunger, COVI-19 presents an extremely challenging time for the continent’s resilience. The pandemic hit the continent when Africa was trying to absorb the shocks of the plunging commodity prices, locust invasion in East Africa, droughts in West Africa, and raging conflict zones. At the same time, 13 countries in Africa were in the process of organizing presidential elections. Africa’s developing economy and underfunded health systems could collapse and lead to a profound economic and humanitarian crisis. Projected growth is virtually at a standstill, and diaspora remittances will drop as the pandemic throttles advanced economies. The region must make painful macroeconomic adjustments that strike a balance between preservation of life and economic development.
There seems to be some generous philanthropic material assistance for Africa, and some multinational and African banking institutions have also accepted to offer debt relief and loan payment re-scheduling. Additionally, Senator Bernie Sanders and Republican Ilhan Omar have led over 300 Global Lawmakers to appeal to the IMF and World Bank to cancel low-income countries' debt in response to Coronavirus. African governments are also reviewing and seeking relief from the excessive amount of debt from China, although China may not be in the business of debt forgiveness. The already indebted continent should not seek for or accept more loans from anywhere at this time if it can be avoided.
Unfortunately, Africa cannot find materials and equipment to test for Coronavirus since it is out-bided by wealthier countries that pay inflated prices to protect their nations. There is arm-twisting, shameful scramble and stockpiling among a few developed countries to get their supplies relegating Africa and other developing countries to the back of the queue. Some states are known to send private jets to pick up supplies from manufacturers and buying months in production.
Furthermore, Africa cannot offer the same type of stimulus package and interventions as those unveiled in developed economies. In a continent where many individuals share a single room and depend on casual labor for each day's meal, social isolation is already challenging to enforce. It is an equation where prolonged lockdowns have the potential to increase hunger and starvation, create a violent social crisis leading to economic collapse. Therefore, African governments must find local, workable solutions that allow informal economic activities to continue. Indiscriminate lockdowns must be relaxed and instead, focus more on combating misinformation and false cure claims, public sensitization, hygiene, social distancing, and treatment as vaccines and cures are being developed. In April 2020, South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria took the lead in gradually phasing out lockdowns as concerns grew about the deadly impact on the poor.
First and foremost, this pandemic is not a death sentence. COVI-19 is a reality check for Africa’s politicians to develop an economic template that promotes less dependency on the rest of the world. The greatest threat to Africa is not posed by the pandemic itself but rather abdicating the responsibility for development and care for citizens. While the economic and geopolitical collapse is a possibility, the continent has the opportunity to change, not only to fight this pandemic but also to put the continent on a sustainable progressive path for generations to come. The post-COVID-19 era will bring a new world order as the current world order crumbles before our eyes. Capitalism, as we know, it will change, and global leadership roles will be reshuffled. Therefore, Africa must dive into a mental re-awakening and prepare to dismantle the obsolete, economic, and social structures that failed to deliver inclusive progress and prosperity.
The COVID-19 pandemic must jolt all African governments to snap out of complacency and build the health infrastructure at home. With a clear vision and political will, capacity building in Africa for world-class economic and social sectors is attainable. As a result of Coronavirus, autonomy and self-reliance can longer be empty slogans this time around.
Africa is home to some of the world's youngest populations, progressive women and the diaspora armed with a great burst of determination with a new entrepreneurial culture that can build impactful governments, thriving nations, and a prosperous continent. These groups are already changing the misconceptions about Africa because they are worldly, mobile-connected, and tech-savvy. They are capable of introducing competitive approaches and technologies needed across a wide range of sectors and even enabling Africa to join others into space. Africa must not depend on trickle-down technology from developed nations but rather innovate what serves the continent best.
Hopefully, the postponed implementation of the much anticipated African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA) will be short despite the coronavirus interruptions. For now, as COVID-19 takes a toll on the African economy and social order, the continent may seemingly appear weak and vulnerable. Disguised external forces may try to use this as an opportunity to incite divisions within the African nations to derail the AfCFTA. However, political will and commitment remain strong. Leading African business groups and most governments insist that the COVI-19 crisis is not a reason to delay the AfCFTA but rather a reason to accelerate its implementation using digital technology. African lives and the aspirations of our youth depend on it.
The African Union, along with regional African blocks and organizations are currently on trial. They must protect and speak with the voice of a continent, coordinate efforts, and facilitate ceasefires in conflict zones during this pandemic. This is no longer the time to maintain the status quo. More than ever before, Africans must unleash their potential by looking inward rather than outward for solutions and stop seeking validation from outside.
An organic re-birth of Africa must start by doing a few things and do them exceptionally well. Two of them being agriculture(the backbone and job creator for this vast continent with 60% of the world’s arable land) and healthcare (to increase funding and capacity of existing diseases and pandemics research centers). The African Union has reportedly established an Africa Taskforce for Coronavirus (AFTCOR) to develop a unified strategy that includes mobilizing laboratory, surveillance, and other response support where requested. Effective April 8, 2020, Africa CDC started holding weekly surveillance webinars in English and French to assist governments fighting the pandemic.
Although a “Marshall Plan” to help Africa is still needed, there are positive signs that Africans are already doing a lot to help themselves during this pandemic. Scientific know-how is no longer a monopoly of any one country or region. Many African leaders are already calling on local firms to switch to the production of the lifesaving equipment to help protect the lives of frontline health professionals. A group of 88 African intellectuals has jointly signed a letter to African leaders, calling for them to re-think health as an essential public need in light of the COVID-19. Gabon, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa already own virus research laboratories for highly infectious pathogens. The continent’s tech experts are inventing quick and affordable solutions including traditional herbal remedies to curb the spread of the virus. Countries like Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria have started manufacturing medical ventilators. Testing kits produced in Senegal will cost $1 each, and everyone in the country will be tested. The plan is to make these kits available throughout Africa. African scientists must be fully involved to ensure that these innovations are suitable for the continent. Equally important is to ensure that Africa does not become a dumping ground for untested and questionable vaccines and medicines that may do more harm than good for unsuspecting users.
While mainstream media hardly mentions it, an array of world-class African scientists, doctors, and engineers, including those in the diaspora, are working side by side with global researchers to find a vaccine and cure for Covid-19. Africans are progressively gaining competence in virology and genomics. There is a global silence on the victories Africa has made in handling the pandemic. What we mostly read about is how apocalyptic it would be once the disease hit the African continent. The world is merely dismissing what Africans are doing, and they continue to paint the region with one brush ignoring the fact that results vary from country to country.
Dealing with the economy, a four-member team of economic professionals was appointed by the African Union to mobilize international support for Africa's efforts to address the financial challenges African countries will face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Africa.com is also conducting a webinar series, "Crisis Management for African Business Leaders." Other high-level corporate strategies and solutions are being discussed through webinar series by the diaspora and the continent's CEOs to mitigate Coronavirus's impact. With so many focused on critical interventions to deal with this pandemic, predictions of apocalypse in Africa will not happen.
Africa is ready to partner with the rest of the world to find solutions for humanity through the firm and informed global leadership that is mindful of our collective understanding, discard prejudices, and combat social inequality. COVID-19 is a global medical emergency and a global economic crisis that requires global collaboration instead of partisan contests, appeals of nationalism, closed borders, and building walls. That’s why the idea of two French doctors who suggested using Africans as guinea pigs for COVID-19 trials was despicable and drew widespread condemnation from all peoples of Africa and the World Health Organization. The same goes for China and India, where there are reports of xenophobic hostility towards Africans, including students over this killer disease.
It is perplexing that Africa is still viewed through a web of pervasive myths rather than its capacity to contribute significantly to the world, including efforts to defeat the Coronavirus. There is no reason why people must continue to be misinformed about or dismiss Africa unless it is by design and choice.