Coronavirus, Africa and the world
Posted on 17th March, 2020 in Director's Blog
The coronavirus Covid-19 has delivered a massive shock to the world. We will all be adjusting to it not just for months but for years. It has major implications for Britain, for Africa and for the whole world, and it is not too soon to start thinking about them, even while the immediate priority must be to tackle the infection and reduce the death toll.
As infections go, this is by no means the most deadly. But it is clearly extremely infectious and capable of spreading extraordinarily fast. In the space of a week, the UK has moved from containment, with more or less business as usual, to being one step from lockdown. Africa, which until last week had appeared relatively impervious to infection, is beginning to see a more extensive spread of the virus among local populations. According to President Ramaphosa, South Africa has started to identify internal infections, and in Kenya too the infection is reported to have spread from an infected expat to a Kenyan national.
There is reason to hope that Africa will be able to avoid the extreme level of disruption that has affected China last month and European countries over the past week or two. Firstly there is the experience of Ebola which, as Paul Richards has written in African Arguments, has taught important lessons about engaging communities in dealing with infectious diseases. Many African governments, including Ethiopia, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, Zambia and Rwanda are also well ahead of the curve in introducing new restrictive measures, including the closure of schools and banning of football matches as well as a ban on inward visitors from infected countries, before the infection has taken hold. Some may feel these steps are disproportionate, but the evidence from Europe and the US suggests it is wiser to be cautious and act sooner rather than later. As Arkebe Oqubay has written for ODI, there are lessons to learn, both good and bad, from Europe’s efforts to tackle the virus.
But Africa cannot dodge the hit to the world economy. In the medium term, it already looks as though the economic damage of the infection may well outweigh its medical impact. It is not just the plummeting stock markets, prices and interest rates, but the direct hit on major industries, including travel, transport, and services of almost all kinds (see the BBC’s useful summary from yesterday) that has precipitated a global economic crisis. Western governments will step in to prop up businesses by spreading cash around. But few African governments have those kinds of resources available.
This economic hit comes on top of the man-made crises including the US-China trade war, Brexit, and the oil price war precipitated by Saudi Arabia and Russia. The combination is already impacting African economies and there appears little African governments can do to protect themselves. Countries still dependent on commodity exports – oil producers above all, but others too – and those already deep in debt with little room to borrow more, are the most vulnerable to the chill winds of global recession.
Here too, though, Africa has a degree of resilience. Those dependent on subsistence farming and living in rural communities are relatively well-placed to ride out a global financial slump as well as the infection. The growing number of urban-dwellers – now nearly half of all Africans – will find it more difficult, though a return to live with relatives in rural areas can help by thinning people out and spreading the burden of feeding, if it happens before infection has spread too far. Mobile communications technology in these circumstances can help by spreading practical advice and factual information, if used wisely.
But the efforts to reduce poverty in Africa, both by governments and the private sector, will take a hit.
Eventually the infection will pass and the world economy will rebound. But much of the damage will be lasting. Companies will have disappeared; savings been consumed; and markets will have been lost. Every crisis presents opportunities, and that will be true in Africa too. But to seize those opportunities needs some access to capital, which it may be that only external sources can provide. So, for both governments and people it will be essential that the IMF, World Bank, donors and other international lenders, continue to play their part and provide adequate financial support for Africa in its time of need, especially if there is a slump in remittances.
But there will be political ramifications as well.
One thing that is already clear is that the weakest response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been from nationalist populist governments. Covid-19 is not a challenge susceptible to being deflected by fake news, xenophobia or bombast. It requires scientific evidence, rational judgement, a national consensus and international cooperation, which the deliberate divisiveness and insularity of populist leaders is incapable of delivering. The British Prime Minister is trying to convert himself overnight from partisan joker to trusted national statesman – a challenging transformation – and the US President appears to be not even making the effort, to the cost of US citizens who find themselves effectively leaderless in the crisis.
Dealing with Covid-19, in all countries, depends heavily on social cohesion. To accept, and adapt to, the drastic social measures necessary to limit contagion requires a degree of social sympathy and understanding, a willingness to help each other, as well as acceptance of and trust in the authority of government to impose controls, that only cohesive societies have. What is likely to save the US will be its people, who can be cooperative as well as competitive, not its government, which seeks only political (or personal) advantage from every action.
In Africa too, it may be people more than governments that demonstrate national maturity in tackling the disease. So in this crisis, governments would be wise to listen to their people as well as direct them. Let us hope that lesson is learnt swiftly.
Nick Westcott is the director of the RAS.