Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, there was great concern over its effect on Africa. Overcrowded and under-resourced health-care networks across the continent, coupled with a high prevalence of other infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV, were seen as a potential timebomb. Eight months later, the most dire health warnings have proven to be incorrect. For while things are bad – worse than official numbers imply – they are not as devastating as initially feared, even with all the caveats duly inserted. Nonetheless, Africa clearly is reeling from a devastating Covid-related economic fallout that demands action and, to cut to the chase, that means committing to more intra-continental trade, and quickly.
As the world marked the one-millionth reported Covid-related death in September, Africa’s total was just over 35,000. That’s 3.5 percent for 17 percent of the world’s population. Is this accurate? To be sure, there has clearly been misreporting of infections and deaths and of the severity of health issues. So it’s important to address this first.
Take East Africa. While Kenya and Uganda moved quickly to implement lockdowns and social distancing, Tanzania’s president encouraged his countrymen to attend churches and mosques because he said Covid-19 was the work of the Devil and could be defeated by prayer.
Unsurprisingly, exact numbers on Covid cases in Tanzania are difficult to come by. Meanwhile, Kenya (population: 51.5 million), has had 45,000 cases and 832 deaths; Uganda (population: 43 million), has had 10,000 cases and 96 deaths and Nigeria (population: 196 million), has had 61,000 cases and 1,125 deaths. Tanzania, with a population of 56 million, has reported 509 cases of infection. No data is available for Covid-related deaths.
Are there other cases of underreporting and misreporting? Certainly. But as someone based on the continent, in South Africa, who has lived through a succession of continental public health issues from malaria, dengue to Ebola, I and others sense that the pandemic crisis isn’t nearly as bad as it could be.
Africa’s pandemic response is a convoluted and confusing story. Many African governments established full and dramatic lockdowns. South Africa’s lockdown, which barred outdoor exercise and the sale of alcohol and tobacco, was one of the strictest in the world. Zimbabwe has only begun easing its lockdown in the last two months. Despite these measures, the virus has run rampant across the continent, but death rates are among the lowest globally.
The World Health Organization has repeatedly praised Africa’s response, noting that “most African governments quickly implemented restrictions on movement and gathering and this created a window of opportunity to keep case numbers low and strengthen public health capacities.”
Scientists believe the continent’s mostly young population is the primary reason for the low death rate. There is additional research suggesting that the BCG vaccination against tuberculosis, which is provided at birth in most African countries, can produce better outcomes in younger patients. We might never know the answer, but that shouldn’t prevent action over matters that we can control – namely, the economic fallout.
Indeed, the economic consequences of the pandemic might eventually be deadlier than Covid-19 itself. Lockdowns, coupled with a plunging global economy, has put leading African economies in a precarious position. There has been massive unemployment and under-employment and expatriate workers such as those in the Arabian Gulf states, have returned to their countries, thereby putting an end to the remittances they sent back and at the same time adding to the number of unemployed at home. It is still too early for official region-wide data, but there is obviously much more poverty and hunger across the continent. How far Africa’s economic progress has been pushed back is still being calculated, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suppose it is at least a decade.
In perhaps the clearest and most significant sign of despair, South Africa was forced to accept a $4 billion loan from the IMF. In Kenya, a regional trade hub, there was a 19 percent drop in total trade volumes in April. There was a modest increase in volume in July and August, but the damage from the initial shock has been profound and is still reverberating.
Calls are growing for more help from international organizations. At this year’s annual IMF and World Bank meetings, pressure mounted on lenders to accelerate debt forgiveness and grants to struggling African countries. The IMF’s managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, called on the World Bank to disperse more grants to African countries and announced that the IMF had provided $26 billion in fast-track support to Africa since the start of the pandemic.
Is this the right course of action? Perhaps in the immediate time frame, when emergency fiscal support is crucial to addressing rising poverty, hunger and the deepening economic crisis. But in fact, the real answer to the question lies in the last issue in that list: economics. While the continent has, over the past decade, made progress building up local economic infrastructure – think of fintech – there still is too little of this. Crucially, Africa trades mostly with the world beyond Africa, selling raw commodities to Asia and the West and buying finished goods from China, for example.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a wake-up call for Africa to become more self-reliant through intra-continental trade, making it more resilient in the face of global downturns. With a lower percentage of people (ie, the market) affected by Covid-19 than in the West, robust trade internally within the continent would provide a buffer in terms of jobs (ie, the supplier) and keep hunger at bay. Redirecting grants into building a bigger manufacturing sector is a critical long-term step to safeguard future generations of Africans from whatever turmoil might come their way.
Covid-19 can be – indeed, should be – the crisis that finally brings the promise of the African Continental Free Trade Area to fruition.
Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.