Human life in Africa is threatened more by the COVID-19 pandemic than any other continent due to the appalling living conditions for the majority of the population. During lock-down conditions, millions of Africans are faced with the choice of trying to just subsist day by day working in the informal economy to make enough money to feed one’s family or stay home and go hungry. However, the informal economy itself is part of the problem, since it no health insurance, no unemployment insurance, and income is precarious at best. The very existence of the informal economy is a malignancy that should have been eliminated decades ago, and replaced with an industrialized economy.
The International Labor Organization (ILO), estimates the total world labor force is 3.3 billion people, and about 2 billion of them, or 61% of the total, are working in the informal economy. The vast majority of such informal workers (93%) are to be found in the Third World. In the first month after the pandemic hit their countries, laborers in the informal economy suffered an average 60% drop in their income. Now, 1.6 billion of those 2 billion informal workers—almost 80% of all informal workers—have lost their jobs or are about to. Tragically, Africa has 86% of its labor force working in the informal economy-the highest of all continents.
RFI reports that Nigeria, with over 200 million people, has 40% of its population living in life threatening poverty. According to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), from September 2018, to October 2019, 82.9 million Nigerians earned less than 400 Naira-($1) per day. In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), which compromises the majority of the continent with almost 1 billion people, 41% live in extreme poverty-$1.90 per day or less. The NBS reports that poverty in Nigeria’s rural areas is more than 50 percent. The economic cruelties of life in Nigeria typify conditions throughout SSA.
Life is More Precious Than Debt
Prior to COVID-19 pandemic, African nations required a debt moratorium to save the lives of their people. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic intersecting the existent conditions of poverty, food insecurity and lack of healthcare infrastructure, Africa leaders are demanding debt cancellation, to prioritize addressing the economic and health needs of their nations. Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, Ethiopia and Nigeria are asking for debt relief.
Following Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy’s op-ed in the April 30 edition of the New York Times, PM Abiy wrote on May 1, that there is an “urgent need for the Global Health Pledging Conference.” In his essay, “ PM Abiy: A Pledge to Combat COVID-19 in Africa, he outlines the urgency for debt cancellation.
“Up to now, there has been a huge disconnect between the rhetoric of rich-country leaders – that this is an existential, once-in-a-century global crisis – and the support for the world’s poor and developing countries [is more] than they seem willing to contemplate. Indeed, until last week, African countries were spending more on debt payments than on health care.”
“In 34 of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 45 countries, annual per capita health spending is below $200 – and barely reaches $50 in many of these countries. Such low levels of spending make it impossible to fund acute-care hospital beds, ventilators, and the drugs needed to confront diseases like COVID-19. Paying for doctors, nurses, X-ray technicians, and other health professionals, together with their equipment, can seem almost like a luxury.”
Nigerian President Mahammadou Burhari, echoed PM Abiy’s demand for debt cancellation, in a May 4 meeting with heads of state from the Non-Aligned Movement. President Buhari “urged official lenders to help cushion the pandemic fallout with outright debt cancellation,” according Alonso Soto of Bloomberg. The article reports that, “nearly half of Nigeria’s outstanding external debt is with multilateral lenders, led by the World Bank Group with $10.1 billion. Beijing-based Export-Import Bank of China is the second-biggest creditor with loans totaling $3.2 billion, while Eurobonds account for $10.86 billion or 39% of external debt.”
Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the United Nations General Assembly, discussed how the spread of the coronavirus is a threat to those already suffering from poverty and food insecurity in a May 1, op-ed by published by Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. In his statement, Preventing a Pandemic Induced Food Emergency, Ambassador Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, head of the the Nigerian Mission to the UN, wrote: “two billion people did not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Indeed, hunger has been on the rise globally for the past four years
“The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing inequalities, putting immense strain on tenuous systems; and plunging those in the most precarious contexts deeper into poverty and hunger.
“In many places, travel restrictions aimed at containing COVID-19 has reduced access to markets; and the purchasing power of millions of people has been decimated as a result of an exponential increase in unemployment rates. Moreover, school closures have disturbed the main source of nutrition for over 370 million children around the world.
“Those suffering from hunger are at greater risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms as a result of associated health conditions, such as malnutrition and non-communicable diseases, which compromise the immune system. Compounding this is the fact that those who are hungry are often trapped in poverty and do not have access to health services, water and sanitation facilities, or indeed the space to quarantine or practice social distancing.
“In both our rapid response to the pandemic, and our long-term planning, it is imperative that we link food security to health interventions and investment in infrastructure.” (emphasis added)
For more analysis of COVID-19 and Africa, read my previous posts below:
Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in the economic development policy of Africa for 30 years. He is the creator of the blog: lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com
Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed: Debt Cancellation for the World to Survive
May 1, 2020
Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has made an audacious salient call for debt cancellation for low income countries. It was published in the Opinion section of the April 30, New York Times, Why the Global Debt of Poor Nations Must Be Canceled, (printed in full below). PM Abiy is correct, debt cancellation is absolutely necessary to save lives and for developing nations to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. To compel a nation like Ethiopia to spend almost half of its revenue on debt service, while its people are suffering from a perfect storm of Desert Locust swarms, food insufficiency, and a weak healthcare infrastructure, is immoral if not criminal. PM Abiy wrote:
“At the very least, the suspension of debt payments should last not just until the end of 2020 but rather until well after the pandemic is truly over. It should involve not just debt suspension but debt cancellation…
“These steps need to be taken with a sense of urgency. The resources freed up will save lives and livelihoods in the short term, bring back hope and dynamism to low-income economies in the medium term and enable them to continue as the engines of sustainable global prosperity in the long term.
“In 2019, 64 countries, nearly half of them in sub-Saharan Africa, spent more on servicing external debt than on health. Ethiopia spends twice as much on paying off external debt as on health. We spend 47 percent of our merchandise export revenue on debt servicing…
“The dilemma Ethiopia faces is stark: Do we continue to pay toward debt or redirect resources to save lives and livelihoods?”
PM Abiy’s analysis of the urgent need for the cancellation of debt service is relevant to the exacerbating effect of COVID-19 in Africa’s rising food insecurity.
COVID-19 Worsens Food Crisis
In the month from March 30 to April 30, COVID-19 cases in Africa rose from 4,760 to 37,296-800% increase, and the total of deaths from 146 to 1,619-1,100% increase. Experts are legitimately concerned, that millions more may die from hunger and poverty as a result of the needed efforts to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Closing borders, stay at home orders, loss of income, interruption of supply chains, and disruption of traditional animal migration cycles inauspiciously contribute to amplifying food insecurity.
“If the pandemic worsens, as many as 50 million more people could face a food crisis in the [Sahel} region,” according to Coumba Sow, Food and Agricultural Organization Resilience Coordinator for West Africa in her interview: FAO: COVID19: 50 Million in Sahel Could Face Food Crisis. Coumba Sow reports that across West Africa, 11 million people need immediate food assistance and that this number could rise to 17 million in the period from June to August. She says that it is “crucial to anticipate COVID-19’s impacts on agriculture, food security and the lives of vulnerable women and children. Ensuring that food systems and food supply chains are maintained is one of the most important action to take at national and regional levels.”
The World Food Programme (WFP) projects that the number of people facing acute food insecurity could rise from 135 million to 265 million in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. According to the WFP, five of the countries that had the worst food crisis in 2019 were located in Africa; Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Arif Husain, economist for the WFP said: “COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are hanging by a thread. It is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat it they earn a wage. Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock—like COVID-19 to push them over the edge.”
A New Financial Architecture Required
While debt cancellation is essential, international and federal mechanisms are required to issue i.e. create new lines of credit to build up nation-wide advanced healthcare infrastructure, which all African nations lack. This endeavor should be part of a much larger undertaking to place African nations on a path to become developed industrialized economies. I discuss the importance of emerging nations to generate physical economic wealth in my earlier article: World Needs New Economic Platform to Fight COVID-19. Trillions of dollars of new credit must become accessible for African nations to address the dearth of infrastructure in energy, roads, railroads, and healthcare, that is literally killing Africans, every day. Successful transformation of African nations requires an urgent focus on nurturing combined manufacturing-agricultural processing industries. Speaking at a Johns Hopkins webinar on April 22, Gyude Moore, former Liberian Minster of Public Works (2014-2018) emphasized that creating manufacturing jobs is essential to transitioning to a more developed economy.
What has been glaringly brought to the surface by the combined COVID-19 pandemic and the malnourishment of Africa’s population is; that the global economic-political system of the last five decades has failed. A new financial architecture is compulsory to save lives and put civilization on the trajectory of progress. This new financial architecture should encompass the following essential missions in Africa:
Cancellation of debt
New credit generation for physical economic growth
Massive investment in hard infrastructure
Urgent mobilization to establish modern health infrastructure
Significant upgrading of manufacturing and agricultural sectors
It is unacceptable in the twenty-first century for every nation not to be equipped with advanced modern healthcare infrastructure. One of the most egregious defects of globalization is that nations have become dependent on imported food from thousands of miles away because it is somehow construed to be cheaper than producing food at home.
Nations exist to foster the continuation of a human culture moored to the conception that human life is sacred. There is no equivalency between servicing debt and safeguarding human life. Money really has no intrinsic value. Banks are mere servicing bureaus of an economy. Governments legitimately create credit to generate future physical wealth to benefit their citizens. When borrowing or lending arrangements fail to benefit society then they should be restructured or cancelled. Such financial reorganizations have been achieved many times throughout history.
PM Abiy has brought to the attention of the world, a profound underlying principle that should govern all national and international policy: the promotion of human life is supreme, monetary instruments are not.
The World Needs A New Economic Platform to Fight COVID-19
April 5, 2020
Today April 5, the total cases of COVID-19-(coronavirus) in Africa are 8,536, deaths 360, and recoveries 710. On March 30, one week ago, the total cases were 4760, deaths 146, and recoveries 355. The diagram above shows the increased rate of the spread of COVID-19 across the African continent. In my March 30 article, New Economic Order Required to Combat COVID-19 in Africa, I concluded with a call for a NewJust Economic Order, if humankind is going to effectively conquer the current pandemic.
We have come to a moment in the evolution of our civilization that we must acknowledge the failures of the present political-financial system. The Western-advanced sector nations, lacking an in depth and over-supplied health infrastructure have found themselves utterly unprepared to deal with the latest and most deadly zoonotic virus, COVID-19. The G-7 nations with a population of 750 million, and 39% ($34 trillion) of the world’s GDP are grabbling to muster the resources and capacity to defeat the coronavirus, while 90% of the world’s 7.5 billion people live with a frail health infrastructure, or none at all.
We have witnessed an increasing number of new zoonotic viruses (SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, HIV/AIDS) over recent decades. Humanity will only successfully defend itself by launching a global upgrading of healthcare including new scientific research into how human immune systems can become less susceptible to viruses that originate in animals.
Inadequate healthcare and impoverished living conditions in the developing sector cannot continue. It is a crime that has been perpetuated for decades, and the very survival of humanity screams out for a revolution in our thinking and practices. Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, stated eloquently the link between Africa and the advanced sector in this current crisis: “Advanced economies are unveiling unprecedented economic stimulus packages. African countries, by contrast, lack the wherewithal to make similarly meaningful interventions. Yet if the virus is not defeated in Africa, it will only bounce back to the rest of the world.” (emphasis added) PM Abiy “If Covid-19 is not beaten in Africa it will return to haunt us all” .The virus can only be overcome in Africa, and the rest of the developing sector, if we launch a new economic system, one that values human life above servicing debt and avariciousness.
Perilous Conditions in Africa
Dr. John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said that COVID-19 “is an existential threat to our continent.” The Africa CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) do not know the actual number of Africans infected with the virus, due to a lack of ability to test the population. Nor do they have an accurate count of the number of ventilators available in each African nation. Over a month since the appearance of the coronavirus on the continent, experts estimate that Africa is at the early phase of its proliferation.
The United Nations World Food Program warned that “the coronavirus pandemic threatens to cause food shortages for hundreds of millions of people especially in Africa,” according to Naharnet. “For many poor countries, the economic consequences will be more devastating than the disease itself.” Pandemic Threatens Food In Import Reliant States
An article published by Quartz, Africa Has About One Doctor for Every 5000 People cites a report by the (WHO), that Africa in 2013 “had a deficit of estimated 1.8 million healthcare worker that is projected to rise 4.3 million by 2035.” One reason, according to the article is that: “Currently, there are only 170 medical schools serving the 47 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Of those countries, 6 have no medical schools, and 20 have only one medical school.”
Statistics for the number of doctors per 1,000 population for African nations are horrifying. Physicians Per 1,000 People. When Compared to the figures for advanced sector nations that are now “hot spots” for COVID-19 to those of Africa, where the incidence of the virus is weeks behind Europe and the United States, Africa’s potential death rate is frightening.
Examine these estimates: U.S. has 2.3 doctors for 1,000 people, Spain 3.2, Italy 4.2, and South Korea 1.8. The average for sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has an absurdly low 0.21 doctors for 1,000 people. Twenty SSA nations have .08 doctors or less to treat 1,000 of their citizens, with several at levels of 0.03 and 0.02 doctors. Two orders of magnitude less physicians than the nations that today are experiencing the highest mortality rates.
Governor Cuomo of New York, and Mayor de Blasio of New York City beg every day for more healthcare professionals, ventilators and PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) to deal with the overload of coronavirus cases, Imagine what the potential death rate of Africa’s almost 1.5 billion population could be when one factors in extreme levels of poverty, weakened immune systems, and malnourishment, all prevalent on the African continent.
“The consequences of a combined health pandemic and a global recession will be catastrophic for many developing countries and halt their progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.”
UNCTAD’S strategy includes:
$1 trillion of debts owed by developing countries should be cancelled this year
$500 billion needed to fund a Marshall Plan for health recovery and dispersed as grants
Credit for a New Economic Order
Debt cancellation, and a Marshall Plan to build up health infrastructure for the developing sector nations are crucial for the survival of emerging nations. However, to break from the old political-financial system that has failed us, and to create a new economic platform, we must create credit for physical economic growth.
What is missing from UNCTAD’s proposal, and what is absent from all United Nations strategies, is the understanding of the importance of establishing a mechanism for the creation of credit. Following in the footsteps of President George Washington and his brilliant Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, we should establish a National Credit Bank. Nations Must Study Alexander Hamilton’s Principles of Political Economy. Wisely, the US Constitution provides for the federal government, not the states, to issue public credit to promote the general welfare.
Credit for production and infrastructure, unlike mere money, is the sine qua non for any healthy economy. This is not the same as printing trillions of dollars of money to bail out an over extended monetary system with a bubble of over one quadrillion of dollars in debt and derivatives.
Debts of developing sector nations must be cancelled to clear the decks for the issuance of new credit directed to fostering industrialized economies with healthy agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Extended credit with low interest rates must be issued for long term investments in vital construction of infrastructure. This is a life and death matter for the very survival of African nations.
Every government is obliged to create a national bank for the sole purpose of generating physical economic growth critical for the security and future health of that nation. Instead of relying on the present global financial institutions that dictate loan agreements at unnecessarily high interest rates coupled with arduous conditionalities we should create a new global economic system. One founded on the principles that promote the true shared common good for all nations and all peoples. Under this new system sovereignty is inviolate, and trade and credit agreements are premised on improving the material conditions of life for the people of those nations. All political and economic relationships between nations should be to benefit the general welfare of its citizenry.
Human beings are sacred, financial systems are not. We can and should craft new monetary systems to advance progress, not monetary profits. President Franklin Roosevelt created the Bretton Woods System, with the intention of uplifting the planet from the misery of World War II. He had magnificent ideas for promoting economic growth around the world, including greening the deserts of Africa. Sadly, after his death, Bretton Woods was perverted, and became the opposite of what he intended.
While we must fight this deadly virus with all the resources that governments can assemble, we need to also think to the future; the creation of a more advanced economic platform. It is up to us create a new architype of relationships among sovereign nation states to transform the world out of the ashes of its present decayed state. Let us call this new paradigm by its proper name–A New Just World Economic Order
Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in the economic development policy of Africa for 30 years. He is the creator of the blog: lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com