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Post-Covid Africa will have to save itself. It is a terrifying task

- William Gumede

African countries, with their lack of quality leaders, weak states and little fiscal reserves face economic, political and social disorder.

It is very likely that many African countries will increase debt, unemployment and social disorder. Many countries may reverse back to the terrifying instability of the 1970s, when African countries were characteristics by economic stagnation, social unrests and coups.

The countries that have more successfully dealt with Covid-19, such as South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand had at least three things in common: quality leadership, capable states and substantial financial reserves following pre-Covid19 prudent management of their country finances.

African countries are unlikely to get the substantial global financial, medical and technical support they received during past epidemics. In previous health epidemics in Africa, such as HIV/Aids, Ebola and cholera, industrial countries provided substantial financial, medical and equipment support.

Industrial countries have had to roll out large bailouts packages to tackle the financial crises fuelled by Covid-19, which will put pressure on their public finances for years. They will have very little remaining to provide the kind of financial support to African countries they had previously provided to Africans in previous health epidemics.

With Covid-19 impacting industrial countries also, they have not only sealed their borders to prevent the virus from spreading, they have also refocused their resources for domestic purposes to combat their own Covid-19 crises.

Some industrial countries producing critical medicines, equipment and food stopped these vital items from being exported to poorer countries, for local use instead. This deprived many African countries of similar support they received from Western countries during previous epidemics.

The European Union imposed temporary restrictions on the export of medical protective equipment from within the bloc to outside countries.

The US was accused by German biopharmaceutical firm CureVac of wanting to procure a coronavirus vaccine the company was developing exclusively for the US. German ministers reacted with anger to the US offer. India curbed exports of basic medicines, such as painkillers, for use for its own citizens.

Global trade wars preceded the Covid-19 outbreak, with the US battling China; and Russia and Saudi Arabia embroiled in an oil price war. In June 2020, the US threatened the EU with stricter tariffs. Tensions have escalated between China and India over disputed border territory in the Himalayas. India is putting restrictions on Chinese trade, businesses and interests in India.

Based on the nationalistic behaviour of many countries during the Covid-19 crisis, it is very likely that industrial countries that will successfully manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine, will prioritise their populations first, before they provide it to other countries.

Nationalism have risen across the globe with industrial countries becoming less altruistic, increasingly focusing on their own interests.

In previous African epidemics, multilateral organisations, such as the World Health Organisation was crucial in mobilising resources, expertise and funding for African countries. However, the rising nationalism preceding Covid-19, and countries’ sealing of borders and stockpiling their resources for almost solely for domestic efforts to combat the virus, has played out at multilateral organisations too.

Prior to Covid-19, the US and Israel withdrew funding from certain multilateral organisations. The US formally withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2019, accusing the organisation of anti-Israel bias. UNESCO has criticised the Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and granted Palestine full membership in 2011. The US withdrew its funding from UNESCO.

US President Donald Trump in June 2020 said he would formally withdraw the US from the World Health Organisation, accusing it of being under control of China. The US withdrawal from the WHO means there is less resources, to support African countries struggling with Covid-19, as they did when these countries battled previous epidemics.  

Many African countries have undermined their own Covid-19 recoveries by blaming conspiracies for the spread of the virus, and therefore not acting decisively, using untested quack treatments under the guise of “traditional” African media and local “solutions” and shutting out the WHO from helping them.

The International Monetary Fund have estimated that some African economies could contract as much as 8%. The World Bank reported that up to 30million people are at risk of extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa because of Covid-19. The exports of Africa’s commodities have declined following contractions in industrial economies which imports the continent’s commodities. African countries have experience large revenue losses. The already poor capacity of many African governments have been severely undermined during Covid-19, many governments unable to deliver essential services.

Africa’s tourism, hospital, media and transport sectors have been badly hit across the continent, with businesses closures, job losses and investments put on halt. The African Development Bank in a research note said that Africa’s tourist-dependent economies will decline up 10%. The economies of its oil exporters will decline up to 4%. The economies of oil exporters were already batters following the fall in oil prices in the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Covid-19 have seen further oil production cuts.

Hunger, starvation and food shortages will continue as local and global food production and imports decline because logistical networks and supply chains are disrupted. Africa imports 85% of its food.

The IMF estimates that Africa will need US$110bn (R1.85trillion) in new funding in 2020 to tackled the socio-economic impact of the pandemic. The IMF has provided Covi-19 support to many African countries in the form of emergency loans and debt-service relief initiatives. The IMF has distributed US$10.1bn to 29 SubSaharan African countries in emergency lending or in augmentation of existing lending.

The IMF has given debt-service relief for 21 sub-Saharan African countries for an initial six-month phase ending mid-October 2020. The IMF has also provided a debt service suspension for highly indebted African countries as part of an initiative started by the Group of 20 leading economies that waived up to $U14bn in payments for poor, most of them African. Nevertheless, Covid-19 will increase African debt levels.

During Covid-19 countries sealed their borders to contain the spread of the virus. Given the new rise in nationalism in industrial countries, it is very likely that many industrial countries will keep the same Covid-19 border restrictions even when the virus is eventually contained, to keep out economic migrants from poorer African countries. This means that many struggling Africans that would try to seek new livelihoods in industrial countries will now be stuck in their own impoverished countries. Angry, impoverished and jobless Africans, with little alternatives, will become mass power kegs easily ignited.

Many African countries have also autocratic measures to enforce compliance to Covid-19 measures. The hard-handed measures have prompted anger, protests and defiance from citizens against leaders and governments – which may continue as socio-economic conditions worsen in the aftermath of Covid-19. Many African countries may see rising coups in which autocratic governments are ousted violently.

Others will see a rise in terrorist attacks, as terror movements see an opportunity in the rising poverty, collapse in public service delivery and popular anger against autocratic governments to recruit members, serve as alternative service providers and to unleash terror campaigns. Africa may see devastating food riots.

It will be crucial that African civil society be included in Covid-19 funding from multilateral organisations such the World Bank and IMF.

Furthermore, these multilateral organisations must put democracy conditions to their Covid-19 funding, such as compelling countries receive in the funding to govern honestly, respect human rights and uphold freedom of expression. African media, civil society organisations and watchdog organisations must ensure that Covid-19 related funding is used honestly, prudently and equitably.

African governments will have to govern more honestly, inclusively and caringly. African countries will have to muster the political will to genuinely formed an free trade area, trade more with each other and use their own country resources, skills, business and civil society capacity better.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg). This article was first published in Times Select.