The Pandemic in Africa: Opportunities and Challenges

By Víctor M. Treviño*

“If COVID-19 is not beaten in Africa it will return to haunt us all,” Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Nobel Peace Prize

ADDIS ABABA – Back on 11 March, when the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, officially declared the coronavirus (COVID-19) as a pandemic, the regular citizen in this globalized world didn’t know that health policies where in charge of an African, an Ethiopian national that previously served as Minister of Health and Minister of Foreign Affairs of his country.

The ignorance about the professional merits that made Dr. Tedros be at the front of the most important international organization on health issues, particularly at the time when a pandemic without precedence for our generation started, is similar to the stereotyped perception that Africa is a homogeneous whole, a solid block, poor and underdeveloped.

The WHO chief is precisely an example of this, he has been accused of partiality by some Western countries in the middle of the pandemic. He was also the one who firmly condemned the “racist declarations” of two French scientists who suggested that Africa should become the testing ground for vaccines against coronavirus.

In this context, this article offers a brief description of the impact on the pandemic in Africa and its continental response, as well as the consequences for the world –in case it continues to ignore the continent considered as the cradle of civilization, home to around 1. 2 bln people and composed by 55 countries with their own language, culture and development.

Impact of the pandemic

On 8 May, among the 55 member states of the African Union, there were 54,434 cases, 2,079 deaths and 18,857 people recovered. Although this is unfortunate on itself, the number of cases is minimal when compared to those reported at the global level. The world has around 4 million positive cases of COVID-19, including 272,778 deaths, and some of the most affected countries are industrialized nations with large weight in the global economy: United States, Spain, Italy, United Kingdom, Russia, and France.

For that reason, it could be considered as a symptom that –except for South Africa– the most affected countries in the African continent are precisely those in Northern Africa, those who share a common border with Europe through the Mediterranean Sea: Egypt, Morocco and Algeria, those who have an important number of tourists and diaspora in France, Spain and Italy.

On the other hand, the least affected countries in the continent are located in Sub-Saharan Africa, where a dozen of countries have no reported deaths or, as in the case of Ethiopia, with an estimated population of 110 million inhabitants –the second largest in the continent–, only 5 deaths caused by COVID-19. Besides the reasons why cases in Africa are lower than in other regions, considering conditions such as a mild winter weather and a younger population than Europe, it must be noted that African citizens have adopted –with discipline and conviction– practices like frequent handwashing –despite water scarcity in some countries–, social distancing, use of masks and lockdown.

These measures are remarkable given that the majority of people in Africa, like in Mexico, face every day the difficult decision between going to work to support themselves –with the risk of getting infected by coronavirus– or staying at home and suffer from hunger.

African governments not only face the challenge of combating the pandemic, but also putting measures in place to ease lockdown and the economic crisis that comes with it. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) estimated that a one-month lockdown in the African continent costs around 2.5% of its GDP –approximately 65 billion dollars. In that sense, the efforts put in place by the 42 African countries that adopted partial or total lockdown measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 must be highlighted.

According to the United Nations, the COVID-19 pandemic might cost from 300 thousand to 3 million lives in Africa. Moreover, up to 130 million people could be left in starvation, in addition to the dessert locust plague–the largest in the past 75 years– that is destroying crops in Eastern Africa, Central Africa and the Middle East, threatening food security in the region.

In the political sphere, particularly in electoral and democratic affairs, the pandemic is affecting the elections scheduled in a dozen of African countries, because within the context of a sanitary crisis and its economic impacts, there are no adequate conditions to hold elections in uncertain times when the priority of governments –and its frail electoral institutions– is to respond to the needs of people to combat coronavirus.

This is not a minor issue considering the significant progress that African countries have made in the last decades. In the case of Ethiopia, host of the African Union, the implications for regional stability are fundamental because it will have –for the first time– a democratic process, consistent with the political and economic reforms put in place by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, making it unfeasible to call for general elections on next 29 August, as it was originally scheduled. The Ethiopian government decreed a State of Emergency since 4 April to face the pandemic, and therefore the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) is not in a position to organize and call for –moral and politically legitimate– elections in only four months.

In that regard, the Ethiopian Parliament is debating a constitutionally accepted formula to officially postpone the elections. On the past 7 May, four legal possibilities were analyzed: i) dissolution of the Parliament; ii) State of Emergency; iii) amendments to the Constitution; and iv) constitutional interpretation through the Parliament. The last option was chosen, so discussions will continue to reach consensus between the representatives of different political parties to agree on a legal interpretation to formally announce the postponement of elections in Ethiopia.

Concerning Africa’s response to the pandemic, there is an important sense of unity. South Africa has made remarkable efforts –as president of the African Union– so that G20 members and other European countries forgive the debt that African nations have with them. With that objective, three officials were appointed on 12 April as Special Envoys of the African Union to mobilize international economic support for continental fight against COVID-19. The Special Envoys will have to ask for rapid and concrete support as pledged by the G20, the European Union and other international financial institutions.

In the same way, the Heads of State and Government of member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held an extraordinary session by the end of April to coordinate actions against COVID-19. During the session they recognized the negative impact of the pandemic in the political, social and economic spheres, particularly in the regional integration process embodied by the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Final remarks

Although the African continent does not have a high number of cases and deaths, the political and economic impact of the pandemic may lead them to a crisis –in addition to the sanitary– that could cause new outbreaks of the virus in the world.

The linkages between multilateralism and international cooperation for development are essential because the development of a vaccine against COVID-19 will not be enough to get into the “new normal”, further action is required to ensure that all regions in the world –including Africa– are benefited, with the help of both public and private sectors, leaving no one behind.

During the pandemic it is important that the protection of the rights of all people, particularly the most vulnerable groups, is taken into account at all times, in Africa as well as in Mexico and the world. That is why the Government of Mexico –through its Permanent Mission to the UN– proposed in April a resolution at the UN General Assembly on international cooperation to guarantee equal global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to combat COVID-19. The resolution was approved by 93% of all votes.

In addition, Mexico, as President Pro Tempore of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), has invited member States to join the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) with the aim to join efforts against COVID-19. In this capacity and with the same objective, Mexico also wishes to establish a dialogue between CELAC and the African Union.

Before the relaxation of measures in industrialized countries –and to avoid a second outbreak of the pandemic– we must act in a solidary way to act where the need is greater: in the world’s poorest countries. As Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stated, “If COVID-19 is not beaten in Africa it will return to haunt us all.”

The writer of this article, Víctor M. Treviño*, is Ambassador of Mexico to Ethiopia and Permanent Representative to the African Union

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