[Op-Ed] Coronavirus: for Africa’s sake, the West should be selfish this time - writes Professor Carlos Lopes for the Africa Report.
Coronavirus: for Africa’s sake, the West should be selfish this time by Professor Carlos Lopes
Published in The Africa Report, 14 April 2020
A man wearing face masks and gloves to protect against coronavirus, walks on the street at Alexandra township in Johannesburg, South Africa, Saturday, April 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
The COVID-19 pandemic cannot be classified as a surprise. Several studies, intelligence reports and epidemiologic knowledge all predicted some infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome would likely spread around the world.
The recent warnings of coronavirus type of infections had been limited in geographical range to circumscribed regions, but strong enough to justify world preparedness. As we know better now, these alerts did not produce serious vigilance or readiness.
Unsurprisingly the economic actors acted in panic as the full extent of the current outbreak unfolded. Herd mentality did the rest. We are now in the middle of a discussion on whether the world will face a recession or a depression. The former defined as a slowdown of economic activity whereas the latter is associated with a long-term downturn of the same.
We shall know soon. But in the meantime, we can predict that African countries will most likely find themselves in the depression category unless some major effort is made to rescue their precarious economies.
In all honesty we cannot blame the Africans this time.
Before COVID-19, the IMF economic growth forecast for the continent this year was 3.2%, with 16 African countries amongst the 30 best performing in the world, and more than half of the population in the continent living in countries with 5% economic growth or more.
The naysayers will point to the myriad of problems the African continent has not been able to address, and they are right. Inequality, unemployment, lack of proper safety nets and slow structural transformation progress are sizable challenges, not fake news.
But we are forced to admit the positive changes taking place in many fronts are notable; allowing Africa to post in the last two decades some of its best socio-economic indicators since independence.
In just a few weeks all the above seemed like history. The competition is now to size the amount of damage COVID-19 will cause. McKinsey predicts a loss in the continent between $90 and $200bn this year; the World Bank estimates an economic contraction between 2.6% and 7% while the African Union predicts a more modest drop of 1.1% from earlier growth projections, if the crisis lasts a few months.
Scarier global forecasts such as the ILO are projecting 200 million jobs at risk; UNCTAD estimating a 40% foreign direct investment contraction, the WTO is worried about a fall between 13% and 32% of world trade. With the IMF talk of serious recession already upon us, let our imagination worry about the size these impacts will have across Africa.
African leaders have been swift in taking measures to flatten the virus infections’ curve, such as curfews or more stringent confinement rules; imitating similar measures taken by more powerful economies. The difference is that rich countries can attenuate the damaging economic costs of social distancing with compensatory packages that protect employment and social safety nets. Such measures drag economies into a halt. This is hard to follow for most African countries.
There is a dramatic return to Keynesian policies by those who once kept at arm’s length what they considered a sin: to consider public services as public goods that are to be properly funded.
Additional health-related costs necessary to combat the pandemic are punitive for African economies to face at the time of shrinking fiscal space. With 22% of revenues being used to service sovereign debt, local currencies are losing up to 30% of their exchange rate value, evaporating income from depressed commodity prices and a stoppage of global value chains. Indeed a perfect storm is brewing, and it’s one that’s risks evaporating the immense reform efforts of the last two decades.
It is reassuring though, to realize that COVID-19 has democratized this crisis. African dilemmas and difficulties may be one gamut higher than rest, but it seems that the world is in this together. Flattening the curve only serves to give respite to overwhelmed health facilities and personnel, falling short of eliminating the threat. The virus can come back in a second or third wave.
READ MORE: Africa needs debt relief to fight COVID-19
Since we cannot quarantine inequality, the virus can viciously take shelter amongst the less protected in order to strike again when convenient. After all only health conditions everywhere protect more anywhere.
The COVID-19 virus has demonstrated that we can do many things that seemed impossible. In just a few weeks it has managed to suspend essential activities and production lines all over the world. An economic system which we were told was impossible to slow down or redirect just seized. To the ecological arguments on the change of richer countries and elites’ lifestyles, we always opposed the argument of the rules of the markets, even their exuberance. Yet the world reversed gears fast this time.
We are now allowed to think it is possible to contemplate a different set of rules and norms. There is a dramatic return to Keynesian policies by those who once kept at arm’s length what they considered a sin: to consider public services as public goods that are to be properly funded. Treating them as investments instead of as liabilities though the promotion of a fiscal system brutally more progressive, capable of catering for what we all require rather than playing with what we all need. There is recognition that the key role of the state is back.
The best examples of structural transformation taking shape in Africa were inspired by the developmental state model that has successfully achieved both economic growth and historical poverty reduction and social transformation across South East Asia and in China.
The role states are already playing and will continue to play in OECD countries – with historical stimulus packages, historical debt to GDP ratios, historical social spending and historical domestic consumer lending – will hopefully curtail any criticism of what Africans were trying themselves to do, albeit in a more modest way and with limited resources.
The new economic policy debate playing field can makes us believe it should be possible to calmly address divergent views about the preferred trajectory for Africa’s structural transformation.
The realization that it is time for a fresher look is, nevertheless, extremely urgent.
The pandemic drama may allow a more creative way of addressing Africa’s many challenges. This moment – propped with benign support from the continent’s traditional partners – should be seized. Debt relief, investment drives or food security and humanitarian and health response are welcome, but remain in the short term.
There is a need for an overhaul of Africa’s policy space as well. It has become more evident that it is in the best interest of Africa’s western partners to be more generous, more open-minded and less cynical.
The world will be a better place if it is not threatened by a virus that certainly loves the poverty that is prevalent in many parts of Africa; poverty that will shield it. And if we deal parsimoniously with the current threat, it is just a matter of time before another pandemic may surface.
For selfish reasons – if not for other reasons- the West should not allow that to happen. The costs are too high.
[Op-Ed] South Africa—can its achievement in containing COVID-19 lead to sustained success in dealing with the crisis? - writes Professor Alan Hirsch
This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.
Empty streets in Cape Town, South Africa, during the Covid 19 lockdown. April 2nd 2020. Photo: Shutterstock
On April 21st, President Ramaphosa announced a huge economic support programme designed to assist the vulnerable poor and sustain small and medium businesses in distress. The package is valued at R500bn or $25bn, including R200bn in credit guarantees and R130bn through reprioritisation of the budget. Some of the funds will also come from the Unemployment Insurance Fund. It is a massive package by South African standards at 10 percent of GDP or a third of the annual budget. The package has been widely acclaimed, almost across the entire political spectrum. It is pro-poor and pro-formal sector employee; and supports businesses through SME support, a job creation and retention fund, as well as through credit support.
President Ramaphosa has also been acclaimed for his continental leadership as Africa’s G20 member and as Chair of the African Union. Working with the Chair of the AU commission, he has established a strong team of African financial leaders to lobby for the continent across the financial community.
South Africa has been recognised globally for its success in flattening the curve. On April 16th, The Economist reported that in South Africa “in the week to March 28th the number of confirmed cases quadrupled. But it took 17 days for the reported tally to double after that date. What looked at first like a Britain-style trajectory has come to appear more like South Korea’s (see chart).” This was a result of President Ramaphosa listening to experts and responding quickly with social distancing introduced on March 15th and a lock-down on March 27th.
Success in flattening the curve has been the result of a strict “level 5” lockdown, prior to the easing of restrictions on April 23rd “to level 4”. South Africans have been allowed to go outside of their homes to buy essentials or for medical needs, but not to exercise or walk the dog. The sale of alcohol is banned, as well as cigarettes and “cooked hot food” (the latter two to be lifted on Friday). The streets are largely deserted except for a few of the homeless poor who have evaded efforts to corral them into emergency camps for safety purposes. A number of these measures have been faced with legal challenges: one court case contested the ban on the sale of cigarettes; another the ban on the sale of cooked hot food. Both court actions have derived from the extreme restrictiveness of the South African lockdown.
The rationale for this tough regime in South Africa (and in some other developing countries) is a lack of confidence in the national capacity to treat and cure COVID-19 and other patients. Compared with developed countries, most developing countries also have poorer testing capacities and weaker tracing systems. However, compared with many other developing countries South Africa has the (dubious) advantage of having driven a huge public health initiative to combat the spread and impact of HIV/AIDS. It has skills, knowledge and systems, but the capacity of the health system and access to intensive care and assisted breathing facilities are still limited.
The strictness of the lockdown has evolved into a paternalistic approach that has verged on control-freakishness. There have been several cases of excessive force used by police and soldiers who conduct patrols to enforce the lock-down. Level 4 includes a 9-hour curfew from 20.00 to 05.00, with a recently increased call out of the defence force, presumably to enforce the curfew.
This could be a result of a trust deficit between government and citizens. Francis Fukuyama has argued that the difference between successful “flatten the curve” initiatives and weaker outcomes is not explained by the authoritarian/liberal divide, but by the degree of confidence of citizens in the competence of their government and the quality of leadership. While President Ramaphosa’s already high popularity rating seems to have risen as a result of his decisive responses to the crisis, the trust of South African citizens in government and political parties is considerably lower. It may be knowledge of the lack of trust in government institutions that has led to the paternalistic behaviour by many parts of government.
The extreme lockdown also raised huge questions of welfare and economic sustainability. 42 percent of firms responding to a new national survey indicated that they doubted they could survive the lockdown. Sixty-six percent of respondents to another new national survey were struggling to pay their expenses and 28 percent indicated that they had gone to bed hungry since the lockdown began. Many children relied on a wide-scale school-feeding scheme, which was stopped when the schools closed, and many poor providers relied on precarious sources of income, that they have been unable to tap. While 70 percent of the middle classes were comfortable with a continuation of the lock-down, only 35 percent of the very poor agreed.
The capacity of the government to intervene is limited financially when the government is under severe financial stress, with a wide range of heavily indebted institutions including the Land Bank (the state agricultural bank) which defaulted on a loan on April 21. This follows a series of downgrades of South African government debt well into junk grade before the COVID-19 crisis struck. This was a result of mismanagement of government and government agency finances for many years which the Ramaphosa government has as yet been unable to reverse. Many developing countries are indebted and few are able to raise additional funds at anything but extortionate rates, except for the limited amount of concessional finance currently available. Some financial analysts are concerned that South Africa may already be relying too much on cash it doesn’t have to address the crisis.
Even if South Africa and other developing countries had more funds, channelling those funds to the neediest is very difficult. South Africa has a strong system of social transfers, but many in the informal sector will not be reached through it. For all these reasons, the issue of phasedown is very urgent in South Africa, as it is in other developing countries. Some moved quicker – Ghana lifted its lockdown of two cities after three weeks, citing its severe impact on the poor and improved testing capabilities. Though the Indian lockdown was extended to May 4th, from April 20th low risk zones known as green zones had some restrictions removed.
The new budget and the debt it will incur, make it all the more urgent that the economy begins operating at a higher level soon, and that economic growth is raised above pre-crisis levels. The next step is the judicious “risk-adjusted “phasing down of the lockdown. With its repurposed HIV/AIDS testing systems, South Africa is currently testing more than 9,000 people per day, with a total of 178,470 tested by April 27th. This should make the process of conducting carefully managed, constantly evaluated phasing in of increased economic activity possible in the near future. It will also need a further adjustment of attitudes between state and citizens away from paternalism and compliance towards trust and cooperation.
Coronavirus: together we can come out stronger and united, originally published in The Africa Report, 13 April 2020.
Coronavirus: together we can come out stronger and united
Originally published in The Africa Report, 13 April 2020
A worker sews surgical-type face masks to be used to curb transmission of the new coronavirus, at the New Dawn company in Kikuyu, north of Nairobi, in Kenya Saturday, April 4, 2020. The masks will be distributed by the Kenyan government to hospitals and also those commuting on public transport. (AP Photo/John Muchucha)
An intellectuals Appeal on COVID-19 co-written by Professor Carlos Lopes has since been signed by 50 public intellectuals including Achille Mbembe, Alioune Sall, Kako Nukupo, Tiken Jah Fokolly, Mamadou Diouf:
50 African intellectuals including Kako Nubukpo, Alioune Sall, Carlos Lopes, Cristina Duarte, Felwine Sarr, Achille Mbembe, Reckya Madougou, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Franck Hermann Ekra and Hakim Ben Hammouda co-signed this call to mobilize the intelligence, resources and creativity of Africans to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Updated 17h00 Paris
Severe Acute Respiratory Ryndrome Coronavirus 2, (SARS-CoV-2), is the scientific name for the virus responsible for a highly contagious and potentially fatal respiratory disease. Initially an epidemic and then reclassified as a pandemic by the WHO on 11 March 2020, its devastating effects are sowing death, plunging the most powerful economies into recession.
The virus could be a precursor to disastrous days ahead for the African continent and its inhabitants. Africa is not where this pandemic started, yet it is facing its harsh effects, through increasing human contagion and the sharp contraction of a significant part of essential social and economic activities.
READ MORE: Coronavirus not a new visitor to the world
The continent must therefore provide an essential, powerful and sustainable response to a real threat that should neither be exaggerated nor minimized, but rather tackled rationally.
The Malthusian prognosis, which is being used in this this pandemic for a thinly veiled speculation on the so-called excessive African demography, which is now the target of the new civilizers, must be defeated.
Disaster scenarios, considered all over the continent, could de facto have a negative impact on economies and risk assessments generally unfavorable to Africa prior to COVID-19, with investors in complete uncertainty.
The crisis is a historic opportunity for Africans to mobilize their resources that are spread spread over all continents – traditional, diasporic, scientific, new, digital, their creativite – to emerge stronger from a disaster that some have already predicted for them.
In the next few days we will exceed the 2 million mark of COVID-19 infections. The virus continues to spread with speed with the focus now turning to the readiness of health systems in African countries in the face of the virus. The supply of health services, equipment, and qualified personnel, is now the source of all concern.
The WHO has even recently called on African countries to “wake up” and “expect the worst”.
READ MORE: Africa needs debt relief to fight COVID-19
It should be recalled that Africa is, for the moment, the least impacted continent, with its first case confirmed in February 2020 in Egypt. Fears about the impatc of the virus on Africa so far, lack concrete and documented justifications.
Yes, local ecosystems, demographic factors, the mutated nature of the virus, the intensity of international traffic and other elements will limit the spread of the pandemic. Though it remains hypothetical, it is also necessary to note the impact of several drastic measures decided by governments: closures of borders, schools, businesses and worship places.
Notwithstanding the stressful nature of the pandemic, local political contexts more generally lead to an eager social demand in search of efficiency. The observation of uneven public responses around the world and the relative unpredictability of the pandemic may explain a process of trial and error.
While the responsiveness of African countries remains varied, we must quite rightly acknowledge and remember the catastrophic effect of decades of structural adjustment on public health and health provision in African countries. In spite of everything, many health systems have substantially evolved, driven by the determination to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, notwithstanding the gaps to be filled and the obvious failures.
Depending on the country, the state of African health equipment is certainly unsatisfactory and health services are ill-equipped overall, but it would be wrong to portray non-existent health systems, paving the way for an inevitable decline. Moreover, health care is often social and community-based, relying also on cultural ties that require solidarity and family management of disease.
For these reasons, self-fulfilling prophecies cannot be justified. Disaster scenarios, considered all over the continent, could de facto have a negative impact on economies and risk assessments generally unfavorable to Africa prior to COVID-19, with investors in complete uncertainty.
The coronavirus pandemic has given some Western chancelleries the opportunity to reactivate an Afro-pessimism that was thought to be from another age.
Health systems in Africa need to be totally revamped in the light of many current considerations and limitations. We should not wait for the possible breakdowns caused by a pandemic of this magnitude before acting diligently and effectively.
A number of actions should be taken:
While COVID-19 brings economies to a standstill and disrupts the functioning of societies, it is paradoxically time for Africa to overcome its challenges and find a new place in the world. Of course, the challenge we are facing is major because, in addition to our sluggish economies, the coronavirus pandemic has given some Western treasuries the opportunity to reactivate an Afro-pessimism that was thought to be from another age.
In some scenarios, Africa is a vulnerable continent, where the dead could be counted not in thousands but in millions of people. We must affirm that this scenario is not an inevitability from which the continent cannot escape. It speaks more about its authors than about the reality in Africa, where the future cannot be pre-empted and assumed to bleak in principle.
It is time to remember that periods of world upheaval have always brought about a paradigmatic, cultural and sometimes civilizational renewal for those who embrace the demands of change. We must therefore face up to the challenges that lie ahead and resolutely engage in the necessary struggles.
We call upon on all African intellectuals, researchers from all disciplines and the dynamic forces of our countries to join the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, to enlighten us with their thoughts and talents, to enrich us with the fruits of their research and with their constructive proposals. We must set an optimistic course, while being courageously aware of the gaps that need to be filled.
Another Africa is possible as is another humanity in which compassion, empathy, equity and solidarity would define societies. What might have seemed like a utopia has now entered the realm of the possible. History is watching us and will condemn us if we allow ourselves to conjugate our future in the past tense.
Let us dare to remain confident in the future or in ourselves. Let us dare to fight together against the spread of COVID-19, let us dare to defeat together the global precariat created by the eponymous pandemic.
This piece was co-signed by: Kako Nubukpo, Alioune Sall, Reckya Madougou, Martial Ze Belinga, Felwine Sarr, Carlos Lopes, Cristina Duarte, Achille Mbembe, Francis Akindès, Aminata Dramane Traore, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Lionel Zinsou, Nadia Yala Kisukidi, Demba Moussa Dembélé, Franck Hermann Ekra, Alinah Segobye, Mamadou Koulibaly, Karim El Aynaoui, Mamadou Diouf, Hakim Ben Hammouda, Paulo Gomes, Carlos Cardoso, Gilles Yabi, Adebayo Olukoshi, Augustin Holl, Abdoulaye Bathily, Cheryl Hendricks, Lala Aicha Ben Barka, El Hadj Kassé, Taoufik Ben Abdallah, Frédéric Grah Mel, Didier Acouetey, Yousra Abourabi, Didier Awadi, Marguerite Abouet, Valsero, Smockey, Monza, Fadel Barro, Lassane Zohoré, Mehdi Alioua, Véronique Tadjo, Madani Tall, Willy Zekid, Khadja Nin, Qudus Onikeku, Folashade Souley, Teddy Mazina, Joseph Tonda, Tiken Jah Fakoly
Professor Carlos Lopes speaks to the Voice of the Cape.
“Since 2000, Europe and African leaders have been talking about giving the partnership between the two continents a "new strategic' dimension. In 2007, they reiterated their ambition to come together. So is this the time to add size, scale and speed to EU/ Africa relations post covid-19.” Listen to the full interview here.
Professor Carlos Lopes writes for The Conversation: "Europe and African relations post COVID-19: time to add size, scale and speed"
by Professor Carlos Lopes, originally published in The Conversation, 31 March 2020
Since 2000, European and African leaders have been talking about giving the partnership between the two continents a “new strategic” dimension. In 2007, they reiterated their ambition to come together in awareness of the lessons and experiences of the past, but also in the certainty that our common future requires an audacious approach.
Why then, despite such good intentions, have they fallen so far behind?
The financial crisis of 2008, protracted Brexit negotiations, the EU’s fragmented approach in its engagement with Africa and the reluctance in certain quarters to recognise the leadership role of the African Union have all exacted a toll. And now there’s the coronavirus cyclone.
A new partnership is important for Africa and Europe alike. The entry into force of the African Continental Free Trade Area, the world’s largest free-trade area by number of countries, can provide investment opportunities for European business.
But Europe needs to realise that 2020 is bringing a new reality. It is no longer possible to do business as usual after COVID-19. The time is ripe to put an end to dialogue fatigue and cynicism about new unilateral European initiatives, each one announced with pomp and circumstance.
Instead, EU-Africa relations should be guided by an instrument that frames the continent-to-continent partnership clearly, with joint governance and agreed goals and targets. Serious negotiations should take place when COVID-19 offers a respite.
The EU likes to emphasise that it is Africa’s largest trading and investment partner and its top aid provider, but that position is declining fast.
Nor is it a one-way street. Africa is Europe’s third-largest trading partner, after the US and China, but ahead of either Japan or India. Africa’s youthful population can be a problem but also a unique opportunity given Europe’s aging population.
There are dangers too. The spread of conflicts in the Sahel, reinforcement of terrorist networks and human trafficking in Africa signal growing threats that both continents need to address.
Climate action is a priority and an area made for multilateral cooperation. As we know better now, health conditions everywhere protect more anywhere.
Fortunately, there is a renewed sense of urgency from the EU. The administration of Ursula Von der Leyen, president of the European commission, has prioritised relations with Africa. She recently visited Addis Ababa, seat of the AU, accompanied by 22 European commissioners, the largest such a delegation ever. And an EU African strategy was announced this month. The AU is formulating its own strategy towards Europe too.
The world faces its worst economic contraction since the Great Depression. Trillions of dollars in stimulus packages will certainly revive the central economies. But the peripherical ones will face a different scale of challenges.
The geostrategic dynamics, particularly the increased international interest in the continent that was demonstrated – not only by China, but from the Gulf States and the likes of India, UAE, Russia and Turkey – are bound to be deeply affected by the coronavirus crisis. In this context, African countries are openly speaking of the need to give substance to the partnership with Europe and for it to show “deliverables”, turning the rhetoric heard since 2000 into more tangible action.
To be fair, many voices in Europe say the same.
Giving substance means moving beyond the tendency of listing the areas of cooperation around which the continents can cooperate, the usual shopping list approach. In fact, EU-AU common priorities are straightforward. Cooperation around issues such as peace and security, trade and investment, climate change, human mobility or education are key and have been given significant European resources in the past. What was often controversial were the approaches to tackle them. We can now add size, scale and speed to the debate.
Stimulus packages in central economies will certainly provoke higher risk for the countries that cannot afford the same. With depressed prices for most of its major commodities and shrinking demand resulting from a production halt, Africa will be facing a perfect storm. Its internal demand will contract, its informal sector collapse, most major players looking for scarce bridge financing and governments struggling with a $44 billion debt servicing in 2020, while facing the most adverse fiscal environment of the last 20 years.
This is the time Europe’s new approach towards Africa can show its teeth. The solidarity required to combat a pandemic seems obvious to scientists and most pundits. But it has been challenged even inside the EU. Will the space to look even beyond the European borders be there to comfort the strategic southern neighbour?
Most agreements engaging the EU with various configurations of African countries and the African Union expire this year. Another reminder it is time to turn the page. These are all signs of changing winds. The time for talk is over.