THE YEAR 2020 will be remembered as such a remarkable year and will remain so in the history of the world as the year that marked a watershed in many global affairs. Before 2020, never has there been any other year, since the Great Depression, in which the impact of a single event got transmitted globally so widely and rapidly. The 2007 to 2008 financial crisis was child’s play. The domino effect of Coronavirus (COVID-19) that took the world by storm since the first quarter of 2020 could be felt everywhere in every conceivable area of human endeavour and has come to redefine the way the world operates henceforth. Apart from the devastation of the world economy, from which many – particularly the developing – countries may not recover in the foreseeable future, the disease does not seem to be going away soon. COVID-19 pandemic has taught the world new ways of living, working and carrying out economic, social and political activities. The world has learnt through the hard way how to do virtual and remote engagement. Irreversibly, the pandemic has relegated some hitherto influential social and economic activities to the background while also elevating some hitherto obscure activities to the foreground.
The rate, robustness and sustainability of economic recovery for any country or region will depend on the adaptation, established coping mechanisms and tenacity of purpose to remain buoyant within the prevailing circumstance. These issues evoke great concerns for the continent of Africa in the year ahead and beyond. At the outset, the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by surprise. For most nations, the responses were done under panic, jitters and uncertainties. Africa, like other continents, was caught unprepared and the various countries within the continent responded in different ways at different speed. Draconian restrictive measures, instituted while the disease raged caused economic activities to come to a standstill, expedited downward spiral of individual and national fortunes and a shrinking of their economies. The resilience of economies was put to the test as many critical sectors were in jeopardy. Although the records of reported cases of prevalence, morbidity and mortalities from COVID-19 in Africa cannot be relied upon, the continent remains an outlier when compared with Europe, Asia, Pacific, Middle East and the Americas where clear alarming rates of deaths and spread of the disease were – and are still – being recorded. The only exception in Africa is South Africa, with higher cases than other African countries. South Africa has recorded 760,000 cases and 20,671 deaths so far.
There are reasons to be concerned about what happens next in Africa as restrictions are lifted and economies are opening up. While many countries in other parts of the world are quickly learning their lessons, adjusting their ways, enacting new rules and coming up with new innovations to enable them cope with COVID-19 and its aftermath, the same cannot be said of African countries. In Africa, the globally applicable preventive and protective protocols – though pervasive in emphasis – have only been applied to varying degrees. Although compliance fatigue has set in worldwide many months after the initial outbreak of COVID-19, it did set in early in Africa and it appears to have become more widespread, with possibilities of recurring spikes in infections, which may necessitate another bout of lockdown. The devastating impact of the ‘lockdown’ on many business enterprises in the dominant informal sector, even when quantified, is likely to be underrated, underestimated and far from accurate. Any projection about the successful handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Africa, the economic recovery that is expected to follow and the time frame could only be realistically treated as an educated guess at the very best. And the reasons are not far-fetched.
Most of the major solutions so far in the public domain on COVID-19 have been from outside Africa. While Africa’s economy was locked down, Asia, Europe and America were busy working on protective equipment, preventive products and remedies. While Africa locked down, these other continents were busy pouring private and public finances into research and development, leading to discoveries of new vaccines, many of which have either got to the final stages of trials, ready for deployment, or are about to reach the final stages. Vaccine production came in a manner comparable to a marathon race. Russia, in its haste, has produced and released what it called ‘Sputnik V’ vaccine and is ready to deploy. The United States too has got to an advanced stage, ready to deploy one brand from Pfizer and BioNTech. The United Kingdom has come up with its own, named Oxford vaccine and China is working with three corporate bodies to roll out its own brands. In addition to the concerns about “vaccine nationalism” – the competition instead of collaboration among those countries – in the vaccine race, other concerns for Africa include the suitability as well as affordability of such vaccines. The affordability question revolves around how the vaccines will get to every of the 1.26 billion Africans and who picks up the bill?
Government procurement, distribution and use of the vaccines may not have to be relied upon. Philanthropies will have to spend humongous sums of money if they are to get this done. Collaborating with the government, however, may help share the burden, but the extent of reach might not be encouraging enough. It remains to be seen how organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and GAVI vaccine alliance will be involved in such interventions in Africa. As countries struggle to wriggle out of COVID-19 grips, it is important to know about the post-COVID-19 diplomatic relationship between African countries and other COVID-19 vaccine-producing countries. How should African countries handle the ensuing vaccine diplomacy, considering that many countries of the world are keen to get theirs out to end users elsewhere? Which side determines the market: the supply side or the demand side? Some days ago, Russian Direct Investment Fund The fund announced that it has received requests for more than 1.2 billion doses of Sputnik V from more than 50 countries, even when it is still embarking upon clinical trials.
In what specific ways will African countries engage with COVAX, a partnership steered by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and WHO towards equitable access to successful vaccines? The initial refusal of China to come out clean on the origin of the pandemic, the early mishandling of the disease that led to its worldwide spread and the disruption caused by the pandemic should not be swept under the carpet. Should Africa accept, receive or buy COVID-19 vaccines from China? Would doing so not amount to rewarding China for its destructive role in the pandemic? Or, will African countries meekly go after China, seeking help on vaccines after all the damage done to the continent’s economy? In Nigeria, there is a great merit in investigating the motives behind a hasty push for a law on infectious diseases in Nigeria, spearheaded by the country’s speaker of the House of Representatives, without widespread consultation at the peak of the pandemic.
Even though they seem desperately needed, African countries are not expected to accept any COVID-19 vaccine without questions. Although 10 candidate vaccines have made it to the critical phase 3 of trials, none has been officially approved for use under the GAVI initiative. It may be that some will be churned out before the end of 2020, most of the others are likely to come up anytime from 2021. How efficacious these disparate trademark vaccines are, how well they compare with each other and what level and duration of immunity they confer would be of particular interest whenever and wherever they are deployed. In Africa, in particular, it remains to be seen how effective these vaccines would be in circumstances where testing and seromonitoring have not been done on any significant proportion of the population. So, the basis of deployment of vaccines becomes questionable. Even in cases of polyvalent vaccines, it is reasonable to express some reservations on the efficacies of any or all of these vaccines in Africa, especially as some scientific evidences have emerged in some parts of the world that there could be mutant strains of COVID-19. The recent incidences at the Southern tip of Chile and the mink farms in Denmark are good reasons to consider possible animal-to-human transmissions of some yet-to-be-identified strains of COVID-19, which may prove equally as virulent or even more deadly for man. The hidden danger therefore is that, rather than protecting African countries with these emerging vaccines, Africans could – for the most part – serve as guinea pigs in their deployment for now, to provide feedback for producers on the efficacies of their vaccines.
Survival of African countries in the years ahead is a subject of concern. At ordinary times, Africa was a net recipient of food aid. The situation can only get worse after the COVID 19 outbreak, given the poor response to livelihood issues. Imported goods and health consumables needed for many day-to-day uses will take heavy tolls on the countries’ economies. Drugs, vaccines and medical supplies will stretch health budgets to the limits in many countries. The various technologies that enable people to live and work remotely are mostly of foreign origin. Part of the strategies of Africa should be to domesticate some of these technologies, modify them or provide incentives for their manufacturers locally at affordable prices. These will enable Africa to catch up with many other developing countries elsewhere and will reduce capital flight which erodes the strength of struggling economies. It will also provide for ubiquitous use of relevant technologies as enablers of economic development.
In addition to strict enforcement of social distancing, African governments embarked on fiscal distancing, with anything but encouraging official responses to cushioning the harsh impacts of the pandemic. Economic stimulus packages formed part of the pandemic response in many countries in the global north. The European Union COVID-19 €100bn relief fund was an additional safeguard to the eurozone’s bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), meant to help the EU countries cope with effects of the pandemic. One notable response from Africa was the COVID 19 bond floated by the African Development Bank (AfDB). The sudden and shocking disruption of global supply chain during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic has taught the multinationals in the world some great lessons. With many companies adjusting and modifying their operations, the evolution of regional supply chains could mean a lot for Africa as companies now prefer proximal sources of inputs and raw materials. Africa may be at a disadvantage where distance is long. The ascendancy of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) may open a floodgate of manufacturing investment opportunities in Africa that could tap into commodities within the continent. How quickly Africa recovers from lost transactions or how quickly AfCFTA enables the continent to tap into local substitutes will determine, to a good extent, the post-COVID-19 rate of recovery across the continent. From all indications, Africa is on a long road to recovery.