As of April 28, there are more than 33,627 confirmed cases of COVID 19 across Africa. With the exception of Comoros and Lesotho, the pandemic has spread to 52 countries in the continent. Egypt, South Africa, Morocco and Algeria are the countries with large number of cases. This global pandemic has brought the public health infrastructure in the region under stress. It is also likely to have a damaging effect on the African economy. As African countries firm up strategies to deal with the pandemic, they are looking for support from long standing partners such as India.
Vulnerable Health Systems
The number of COVID positive patients in Africa is comparatively less than many other parts of the world. For example, as of April 29, there are over a million confirmed cases in the United States, over 82,858 in China and 92,584 in Iran. In comparison, South Africa, the country with highest numbers in Africa, had only 4,996 confirmed cases. However, it is clear that the pandemic will stretch the health care facilities of the continent to the limits.
The Director General of World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, former health minister of Ethiopia, has urged the African countries to wake up to the threat, as the continent is least equipped to deal with the highly infectious disease. However, Africa is not new to virus outbreaks and has successfully dealt with HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) and Ebola in the past. While the healthcare systems have been strengthened since the 2014 Ebola crisis, critical gaps still remain. Lifesaving equipment such as ventilators are a luxury for some African countries. There is also a critical shortage of intensive care unit (ICU) beds, personal protective equipment (PPE), testing equipment and masks.
The World Bank has forecast that the pandemic will lead Sub-Saharan Africa into its first recession in 25 years. It predicts that economic growth in the region will decline from 2.4 per cent in 2019 to between -2.1 per cent and -5.1 per cent in 2020. It also anticipates greater poverty and food insecurity in the region. Simultaneously, several African economies are also dealing with the double shock of plunging commodity prices. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant suspension of global economic activity have had a disastrous impact on commodity prices. It has led to a fall in the prices of industrial metals like copper. The price of the metal fell to a four-year low last month. This is bad news for African countries such as Zambia where copper accounts for 70 per cent of the country’s exports.
In the commodities market, the impact is most visible in the case of crude oil. Last week in the United States, for the first time in history, the Western Texas crude oil prices turned negative $44 per barrel. The oil price collapse has had a deep impact on African economies dependant on oil revenues. Oil exports are a major source of revenue for nations such as Nigeria, Angola, Algeria, Egypt, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, and others. The impact would be devastating in case of Nigeria and Angola, as oil accounts for 90 per cent of their export earnings and two-thirds of the government revenue.
The coronavirus has also hit the tourism sector on the continent. Over the years, tourism had become an important source of revenue in many African economies. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), tourism contributed 8.5 per cent of the continent’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018. Also, the tourism industry in Africa grew speedily, next to Asia-Pacific, in the same year. However, due to the pandemic, tourist hotspots and hotels are shut all across Africa. It is estimated that this closure will lead to a loss of $50 billion.
Coping With Pandemic
Going by their past experience, the African governments have stressed on prevention strategies to deal with the crisis. Several countries announced closure of schools and other educational institutions before documenting their first COVID-19 cases. Most African governments took pre-emptive measures by declaring a state emergency or proclaiming the onset of a national disaster. Many countries like South Africa, Uganda, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Kenya have been in a lockdown to deal with the crisis.
At the continental level, the African Union has established an Africa Taskforce for Coronavirus (AFTCOR) to develop a unified strategy. African governments have also decided to set up an African Union COVID-19 Response Fund. This fund, launched jointly by the African Union and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), calls for a public-private partnership and aims to raise between US$ 150-400 million for a sustainable medical response to the pandemic. Several African countries have provided the initial funding of US$ 12.5 million for this initiative. Private sector organisations such as Africa Health Business, Global Infectious Disease Services and SpeakUpAfrica are partnering in the initiative. Similarly, banks such as the Standard Bank and Ecobank are also contributing to this initiative. Though a laudable initiative, it is minuscule given the requirements of the continent. According to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), Africa needs an estimated $114 billion in 2020 in its fight against COVID-19.
Africa lacks the financial resources and the capacity to mount an effective response to the pandemic. African leaders have appealed for international support to deal with the crisis. Calls have also been made for debt cancellation. India has a special relationship with Africa. In recent years, it has given a high priority to improving relations with countries on the continent. During the last India-Africa Forum Summit, India had pledged support of US$ 10 billion for development projects in the region. It had also offered an additional grant US$ 600 million. It is hoped that India will come up with a structured response to support the African countries in their fight against the pandemic.
At the moment, India’s response is limited to supply of anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, considered to be effective in treating COVID-19 cases, to several African countries including Zambia, Madagascar, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Congo, Egypt, Chad, Zimbabwe, Jordan, Kenya, Netherlands, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Algeria, Mauritius and Seychelles. A video conference with member countries of the African Union to explore further cooperation may be considered. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the need of the hour that India and the African countries collaborate to control the outbreak of the pandemic and to mitigate its long-term economic impact.
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