PANDEMICS HAVE BEEN infrequent occurrences since the past half a century – the age of unprecedented breakthroughs in life sciences. When they occurred, their spread, prevalence, the morbidity, mortality or case fatality rates have not been as scary to nations, political leaders, business communities and medical professionals as the affliction that befell the world in the closing days of 2019, beginning from Wuhan, an industrial city and an economic nerve centre of Hubei province in China and spreading to other continents therefrom.
The disease, initially given a notation as nCOV, an acronym or a shorthand for novel Coronavirus, was later renamed COVID-19 in an apparent bid to etch the name of the year (2019) of its discovery on the minds of all of mankind. With the advent of COVID -19, a new global order was born. Considering its nature and impact, the politics and economics of the world are set to undergo tectonic shifts, the kind that would shock neo-liberals, undo many sociopolitical and economic gains of the past quarter of a century and redefine norms on all fronts.
The manifestations are already becoming evident. First, the disease has affected almost all the countries of the world with, with attendant huge human and economic tolls. It has jolted the health systems, leaving millions infected and hundreds of thousands killed globally within six months. The traditional statistician bell curves of fatalities may not have neatly fitted into most medical epidemiologists’ expectations as very little was initially known about the virus, its virulence and stability. With various models emerging, it possible that the entire world may have to settle with endemic situation, in what the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently described, saying that the virus may not go away soon. The various countries will thus have to devise their national coping strategies, which may vary from country to country.
This becomes all the more important as convergence at the level of global leadership has been difficult to achieve in combating the Coronavirus affliction. After weeks of observing draconian orders of national governments to stay at home, the patience of individuals and corporate businesses appeared to have worn thin and many governments have had to review these orders in response to people’s plights and have begun relaxing their rules, allowing people to return to work and businesses to reopen. Very tough decision has to be made. More crucial of all is the balance between keeping people at home with no definite end date in mind in an attempt to stop COVID-19 spread and possibly eradicate it at the expense of the economy, or relaxing the rules to bring the ailing economy back on track while the disease continues to spread unabated, with more deaths recorded.
While European countries, South Korea, some other Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand are reopening their countries to the world, with some caution, Africa is just beginning to battle with rising reported cases of infections and deaths. From Mauritius to Mauritania, Accra to Addis Ababa, Cape Town to Cairo, Africa’s experience with COVID-19 has been disappointing. Despite the long lead time, since it was first reported in Asia, the US and the countries of Europe, Africa’s response has been too low, too slow, uncoordinated and inadequate. For a continent with a large population of the youth, an endemic COVID-19 may spark off a demographic crisis in which a large proportion of the young and energetic become COVID-19 patients. This could have a devastating effect on the labour, youthful energy and national productivity.
The peculiarities of modern day African communities are such as create conducive environment for COVID-19 spread. Africa’s population growth and people’s concentration are tending more towards urbanisation, with nearly half of the population now living in the cities and more cities are attaining the one million people mark. Although Ed Glaeser, in his thought-provoking book, The Triumph of the City, attempted to dispel fears about cities, citing the poverty in Kinshasa, the slum in Rio de Janaero’s favelas and their hidden wealth-creating potential, it is now clear that any worries about possibilities of serving as hotbed of epidemics are not misplaced. The Gauteng province in Johannesburg, the Kibera slum in Nairobi and the Ajegunle slum in Lagos are therefore places to watch as potential reservoir for covid-19. These are places with limited development and very poor hygiene, inhabited for the most part by the poor, the jobless and the homeless.
The rudimentary and underfunded health systems in Africa will find it difficult to cope with the COVID-19 fallout. The rural population will be neglected, in part because of logistic challenge and poor access roads on one hand and the inadequacy of health care manpower on the other. The urban population will make disproportionate demands on health workers for services they are ill-equipped to render, with constraints amplified by non-affordability.
The poor regulation and control of people’s movement across national borders and various ports of entry will pose enormous problems for the control of COVID-19 throughout Africa. Mozambique, a country that is yet to recover from the devastation caused by Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, will find it hard to confront COVID-19. Zimbabwe, a neighbouring country that took a lesser share of the cyclones, but reels in drought and crop failures, will have to solve the difficult problems of food insecurity amid global pandemic. The East Africa’s recent locust invasion has dimmed the food security prospects for Uganda and Kenya: if not controlled, it could further devastate other countries in the region.
No less worrisome is the security crisis in some parts of West Africa, in countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali. Diseases spread and thrive more in the periods of war when institutions, including health care, break down and become dysfunctional. As individual countries struggle to overcome their fundamental challenges, it is clear that many cannot do much to overcome the COVID-19. International support and solidarity are therefore required to beat it. The landmarks of the European Union (EU) has been impressive. It has gone beyond the direct interventions for member countries. It is leading an international effort to develop a vaccine.
African countries also need to come together in manners similar to the EU’s. This is because the problems peculiar to the continent would be better solved by people of Africa. Accordingly, the establishment of Africa Taskforce for Coronavirus (AFTCOR) by the African Union (AU) to develop a unified continent-wide strategy— and sectoral strategies to combat the virus and its impact raises some hope.
The urgent task ahead now is how Africa would garner the financial resources, the infrastructure and the human capacity needed for an effective and offensive against the problem. How African countries will raise the estimated $200 billion needed to implement the Africa-CDC preparedness strategy remains a conjecture. While it is advisable to cast a wide net for global support for Africa, let’s wait and see what the call of António Guterres, the United Nations’ Secretary-General on the G20 leaders to adopt a stimulus package for developing countries will achieve for Africa. The humanitarian appeal for US$ 2 billion launched recently could make some impacts. Let’s daydream a little, assuming that an African Anti-COVID-19 Fund established by the Bureau of the Assembly of the African Union Heads of State and Government, will make a difference.
With the debt repayment concession granted 19 African countries by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently, many African countries should be able to chart clear paths forward on Coronavirus. Sadly, Africa faces a big hurdle in the form of poverty and food insecurity. These twin-problems will need to be overcome while attempting to tackle COVID-19. How Africa overcomes that challenge matters as the transition into the post-COVID-19 follows. Africa has great prospects of leading global advocacy campaigns on strong health systems, good nutrition and clean air. There’s no doubt that China’s loan to Africa in the buildup to FOCAC of 2018 was about $60 billion. With the economic downturn in the aftermath of COVID-19, it is important for Africa to evolve strategies for responding in the event of China’s refusal to reschedule the debt owed it by Africa.
Africa also needs an urgent rethink as global supply chains will undergo significant transformation and major importing countries will more likely hedge against the unforeseen by choosing rather to deal more with suppliers in close proximity. Africa may thus need to review its alliance with China and henceforth avoid locking itself in China’s debt cage. Overall, African leaders need to work together, leaving no weak country behind in the struggle to keep fit and become stronger after the pandemic.