It is important to put into context that the novel Coronavirus has hit the African continent at a time when it has consistently witnessed rapid economic growth, demonstrated in the fact that over the past 15 to 20 years at least six or seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world were located in Africa. COVID-19 thus presents a great economic challenge, inasmuch as it also presents a health crisis. With large parts of the world currently in varying degrees of lockdown, Africa’s growth and development projections in the immediate period will be under strain. COVID-19 also hits at a time when global cooperation is at a very low point both within the transatlantic partnership and in other regions of the world, impacting efforts to coordinate the fight against COVID-19. Multilateral institutions geared to encourage global cooperation have thus not been able to boost cooperation in the midst of a global pandemic due to existing interstate tensions.
However, it is important to note that despite having limited resources, the African continent has been able to draw from its previous experience of dealing with pandemics and epidemics in their individual countries and regions. The idea of responding to pandemics and epidemics on the continent is thus not new, although the resources are limited. Some African countries were thus going into lockdown even before their first cases of Coronavirus were detected, which was also borne from a realization that they cannot afford to allow their healthcare systems to be overrun by the virus, leading to fragile health facilities being completely compromised. This urgency in the early stages has helped to stem the rapid expansion of COVID-19 on the continent, which has been very important. It has also gone to show that some of the early analysis which predicted with a sense of inevitability that Africa would be the next epicenter after Wuhan did not materialize.
It is important to acknowledge some of these early measures, which slowed down the spread of the virus. It is equally important to acknowledge that these proactive measures were taking place within an environment of inequality and poor infrastructure on the continent. There have also been various efforts to mobilize resources from the private sector and NGOs whilst coordinating efforts at a continental level to avoid going at it alone. We saw that in Europe during the early stages there were challenges around coordination and demonstrating solidarity as a ‘me first’ attitude was initially on display. In seeking to avoid that, we’ve seen efforts on the African continent to source vital medical equipment collectively in order to reduce costs and avoid a scenario where only the bigger countries have access to medical supplies whilst smaller countries have to wait at the back, this has been positive and demonstrated cooperation at a time when it is in short supply globally. We’ve however also seen challenges in enforcing strict lockdowns, especially in unequal societies and areas where social distancing practices are difficult. This has led to security forces at times using an excessive amount of force, which has mostly impacted poor communities.
As the dynamics of the pandemic continue to evolve, the management of supply chains has been a particularly important matter for the African continent, especially given its location within the geopolitical landscape, which places it at the end of the line in procuring important medical supplies, exposing Africa’s weaknesses within global value chains. The opportunity here is for the continent to continue to pursue and implement its identified priorities as set out in Agenda 2063 and among the regional economic communities through their regional indicative strategies for development, manufacturing and building regional value chains. What this crisis has exposed for the continent is that in the absence of these important regional value chains, it will remain vulnerable because these pandemics will continue. In order to build resilience, Africa will have to press ahead with prioritizing the development of regional value chains and growing manufacturing. This is something that the African Continental Free Trade (AFCFTA) should assist in catalyzing.
Lastly, in order to ensure that we build more resilience in our economies and regions, Africa will have to use its international engagements and partnerships strategically in order to support the creation and development of regional value chains. Whether through the Belt and Road Initiative, the forthcoming Africa-EU Summit, the India-Africa Forum Summit, or the Russia-Africa Summit, one area that will have to consistently be emphasized by both individual countries and through a collective diplomatic effort is that our international partners must support African efforts to build regional value chains and attract manufacturing. If the continent manages to do that both collectively and as individual countries we will be able to sufficiently influence our international partnerships towards supporting those regional value chains, which will be very important for a continent that is set to double its population by the year 2050.
Dr. Philani Mthembu is Executive Director at the Institute for Global Dialogue. This article is based on his address in a DIRCO Webinar on the African Response to COVID-19, held on the 28th May, 2020.