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Africa needs more help with its pandemic response

Hunger and disease are beckoning in small and fragile states

by Financial Times Jul 28th 2020 · 2 min read
Local residents wearing protective face masks wait at a bus stop in the Imizamo Yethu township area of Hout Bay, in Cape Town, South Africa © Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg
Local residents wearing protective face masks wait at a bus stop in the Imizamo Yethu township area of Hout Bay, in Cape Town, South Africa © Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic there were dire predictions about the impact on Africa, the world’s poorest continent. Microsoft founder Bill Gates warned there could be 10m deaths. So far, it has not turned out that way. By late July, of 825,000 recorded infections, 15,244 people have died — a fraction of those in Europe or the US.

These are early days. The pandemic could yet spiral out of control. South Africa has seen an explosion in infections and deaths. It could simply be ahead of the curve.

South Africa acted resolutely, implementing a lockdown before a single death was recorded. Many other African governments, with fewer resources, have been no less decisive. Measures including lockdowns, curfews, bans on mass gatherings, border closures and public health campaigns have been implemented in the majority of Africa’s 54 states.

These actions have slowed the march of the pandemic, saving tens of thousands of lives. African institutions, including the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the African Union, should be commended. They have taken on board lessons from previous epidemics, such as Ebola, and from the chronic prevalence of other diseases, including tuberculosis and malaria.

But these actions have come at a cost. The IMF predicts the continent will suffer its worst recession since the 1970s. Lockdowns have had a disproportionate impact on informal workers who need to earn to live. Remittances and revenues from commodity exports have plummeted. Before the pandemic, several African countries were among the fastest growing in the world. They could be set back a generation.

In more fragile states, including Somalia, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, and the Sahel, hunger beckons. The World Food Programme says that by the end of the year 265m people worldwide could be acutely hungry, many of them in Africa. As scarce resources are diverted to fighting Covid-19, other health priorities suffer. Measles immunisation campaigns have been suspended in 27 countries. For the very poorest, the secondary and tertiary impacts of the pandemic could be far more severe than coronavirus itself.

So far, the international community has been slow to respond. This smacks of hypocrisy. Western policymakers have been quick adopters of economic unorthodoxy at home, paying people not to work, letting deficits rip and encouraging loan standstills. Yet, when it comes to poor countries they have been less flexible. Talk of debt moratoriums has brought warnings of rating downgrades. A proposal to increase the issuance of Special Drawing Rights — a form of global money printing — to help poor countries has got nowhere. The idea of making cash available to some of the poorest people on Earth, either through grants, concessional loans or debt write-offs, has elicited tuts of moral hazard.

Mark Lowcock, emergency relief co-ordinator at the UN, estimates it would cost $90bn to protect the poorest 10 per cent of the world’s people from the worst impacts of coronavirus. That includes many people in Africa as well as in countries such as Afghanistan and Syria. It may sound like a lot, but it is 1 per cent of the stimulus rich countries have spent on themselves.

The consequences of not acting are all too predictable: hunger, violence, political instability and migration. The cost of action is relatively small. Some of the world’s poorest countries have shown they are far from helpless. But they could do with a hand. The world needs to pay them more attention. It is both the right and the wise thing to do.

last updated: 2020-07-28@02:07