New Economic Order Required to Combat COVID-19 in Africa
March 30, 2020
As of March 30, 2020, the Africa CDC reports the total number of COVID-19 cases-4,760, deaths-146, and recoveries-355. The totals for individual nations vary from higher levels: Algeria 511 cases and 31 deaths; Egypt 609 and 40; Morocco 479 and 26, South Africa 1280 and 1; Nigeria 111 and 1 (cases and deaths respectively); to dozens of nations reporting 10 or less cases and 0 deaths. Africa CDC COVID-19
While these figures for Africa are significantly lower than nations in Europe, Asia, and North America, in some cases orders of magnitude lower, there is reason for great concern for the spread of the Coronavirus throughout the African continent. Many African nations are unable to adequately test their citizens, and one should assume the number of cases is vastly unreported. Also, there unique features of African society that present an impediment to isolation of those infected with COVID-19, and social distancing. African society are centered around crowded mass markets, and culturally Africans are prone to show their friendliness towards others by holding hands.
Factoring in a weak healthcare system, poor nutrition, inadequate housing, lack of electricity and clean water, and already prevalent existing diseases (HIV AIDS, Malaria, TB) in the population, COVID-19 could propagate very rapidly, overwhelming an insufficient number of beds, hospitals and doctors. For Africans, the consequences of the proliferation of COVID-19 could be catastrophic, resulting in higher levels of mortality and morbidity than we have presently experienced.
Debt Restructuring Necessary for Africa’s Health
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time in many years, African leaders are demanding a restructuring of the onerous debt, whose payment has diverted nations’ revenues away from investing in vital categories of infrastructure, including healthcare. Payment of debt, mere loans, cannot be, to quote from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, “the pound of flesh” used to kill people. Tragically, since African nations liberated themselves from European colonialism, debt has been used as a weapon to repress the development of emerging nations.
On March 24, the office of the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed, released an incisive three point proposal to the G20 nations outlining necessary actions to be taken to safeguard African nations during this pandemic. He began by dramatically stating the truth, “COVID-19 poses an existential threat to the economies of African countries. Our economies, fragile and vulnerable even in the best of times will face serious shocks.” He than discussed a crucial underlying constraint imposed on African nations, “the heavy debt burden, the servicing of which alone costs many of them [nations] significantly more than their annual health budgets.”
Prime Minister Abiy requested from the G20:
- $150 billion “Africa Global COVID-19 Emergency Financing Package”
- “Global Africa Health Emergency Package”
- “Debt resolution and Restructuring Package.”
Elaborating on debt restructuring, Prime Minister Abiy wrote, “Ethiopia proposes all interest payments to government loans should be written off. We suggest the remaining debt be converted into long term low interest loans with 10 years grace period before payments. All debt payments will be limited to 10% of the value of exports.”
The theme of restructuring Africa’s debt to deal with the present crisis, was also discussed in a virtual conference of African finance ministers on March 19, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). To battle COVID-19, the ministers said, “Africa needs an immediate emergency economic stimulus to the tune of $100 billion” The UNCEA reports that they are asking that $44 billion, almost fifty percent of the funds requested, would come from halting payments of debt service, and in the most fragile nations to the loan principal as well. African Finance Ministers Discuss Debt
In an insightful column, published in the March 25th edition of the Financial Times, Prime Minister Abiy again raises the necessity of debt alleviation: “Building on what has been announced by international financial institutions, the G20 must launch a global fund to prevent the collapse of health systems in Africa. The institutions need to establish a facility to provide budgetary support to African countries. The issue of resolving Africa’s debt burden also needs to be put back on the table as a matter of urgency.” (emphasis added) PM Abiy “If Covid-19 is not beaten in Africa it will return to haunt us all”
Emergency Actions Taken
Nigeria—March 18, with 8 confirmed cases, imposed a travel ban on 13 high-risk COVID-19 infested countries; mandated a ban open worship and other public gatherings; mandated compulsory laboratory tests on all staff and members of the national assembly; mandated that public institutions should be equipped with temperature gauge. All airports in Nigeria are closed to international commercial flights until 23 April.
Rwanda—March 21, with 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19, suspended all arriving and departing commercial flights for 30 days; shutdown of schools, universities, and places of worship for two weeks; the office of the Prime Minister released a list of nine preventive measures.
Ethiopia—March 23, with 11 confirmed COVID-19 cases, enforced a 14 day mandatory quarantine for all travelers entering the country; closed all schools, and banned all gatherings and sports events for 15 days. March 25, Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde ordered that more than 4,000 prisoners be pardoned.
Senegal–March 23, declared a state of emergency.
Ivory Coast–March 23, declared a state of emergency, imposed a curfew from 9:00 pm to 5:00 am, and shut the country’s borders
South Africa—March 26, with over 900 confirmed cases, began a three-week nationwide lockdown; the lockdown is considered one of the strictest, banning alcohol sales, dog-walking, and jogging in public.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, China has sent to the African Union, 2,000 test kits to be dispersed across the continent, and is expected to send another 10,000, along with medical supplies. China has also launched a new Health Silk Road. On Sunday, March 22, African Union received 1.1 million test kits, 6 million masks, 60,000 medical protective suits and face shields, donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.
Lessons We Must Learn
We can and should learn the following lessons from this contagious and lethal virus. Decisions made by nations for securing their future can now be informed from the very painful consequences of the global spread of COVID-19. If society, had learned the principles of the science of physical economy, instead of being seduced by the “smell of money,” we might very well have been able to avoid the worst of the tragic effects of COVID-19, which continue to plague our planet. An unprepared and underfunded national economy gives society little chance to deal with any serious crisis, much less a pandemic.
*Globalization has always been a trojan horse, an Achilles heel for the security of any nation. The idea that a nation should gamble its security on the premise of buying necessary commodities from anywhere in the world at the cheapest price was always insane. Witness today’s disruption of multi-thousand mile long supply chains as proof.
For example, properly understood, feeding one’s population is a matter of national security. African nations have undermined their security and sovereignty by failing to be food self-sufficient. Procuring food from other continents or at great distances across Africa is not only foolish, but totally unnecessary given the fecundity of African soil. By conservative estimates, African nations spend $35 billion on imported food. A colossal and senseless waste of foreign exchange, which contributes to a nation’s poverty. And a poor-hungry population is fertile ground for orchestrated destabilizations. Nations are ordered by institutions like the World Trade Organization to buy their food at the cheapest price regardless of domestic consequences.
The alternative to globalization is obvious; each nation has the sovereign obligation to foster productive agriculture and manufacturing sectors. The current pandemic of the coronavirus has brought to the fore the perilous effects of nations dependent upon importing lifesaving products from other nations.
Africa’s huge infrastructure deficit has always been a killer for Africa; literally! Many of my friends and critics alike have objected to my insistence that the most critical prerequisite for Africa’s development is infrastructure. The most essential human right, is the right to live, and to live as a dignified human being. That is impossible with pathetically low, in some cases, non-existent levels of infrastructure.
*Healthcare infrastructure is a necessity to sustain longevity of life—the essence of a human right. It embodies all components of infrastructure, manufacturing, and agricultural industries.
Examine what is necessary to maintain a hospital. Abundant electricity for lights and machines, access to clean water, roads and rail lines to transport patients, advanced medical equipment, a manufacturing sector to produce all the products consumed by hospital staff, food production to feed patients and staff, colleges, medical schools to train nurses and physicians, clothing for patients and staff, protective gear, and the list goes on. Now ask oneself, how many hospitals are there per 100,000 population in Africa? How many basic hospital beds exist? How advanced intensive care units? If you look at the chart in the link below, which admittedly is several years old, you can see the huge discrepancy in hospital beds per 1,000 people in Africa compared other parts of the world. Hospital Bed per 1,000 in Africa
In the years 2012-2013, the US had 2.9 beds per 1,000 people, Italy 3.9 and Spain 3. All these nations are now experiencing a shortage of beds and all are considered hot spots in this COVID-19 pandemic. Shockingly, in that same time frame, over 25 African nations were recorded to have 1 bed or less per 1,000.
In 1975 the U.S. had 1.5 million hospital beds, and today has 925,000-over half a million fewer. Today the US has an average of 2.5 beds per 1,000 people, and California, Oregon, and Washington have 2 beds or less per 1,000. By contrast, before the outbreak of COVID-19, Wuhan, China had 4.3 beds per 1000, and they have added 10,000 hospital beds since the outbreak began by building several new hospitals.
Think for a moment would kind of investment in infrastructure, production, and labor that would be required for African nations to even reach the insufficient US level of hospitals and beds. How many hundreds of thousands of megawatts of electricity would have to be generated to supply these new hospitals? How many million gallons of water would be required? Africa has never built up a minimum healthcare infrastructure and is woefully unprepared should the pandemic surge on the continent in the weeks and months ahead.
As we are witnessing today, the West is suffering greatly from the deliberate slashing its own healthcare infrastructure over recent decades. This has been accomplished through austerity, shortsightedness, and an indecent obeisance to a desire to make fast-money by gambling on Wall Street.
*State government intervention has risen to the fore during this scourge of COVID-19, despite decades maligning the role of the state. It is now clear that contrary to the false claims that the state has no role in the world of neo-liberalism, laissez-faire, and unregulated free-trade, government supervision and government credit-debt to sustain people and the economy have proofed invaluable and lifesaving. Putting aside the multi-trillion dollar bailout to the global gambling casino known as the financial system, governments have issued emergency funds necessary to maintain society. Much more government intervention will be required to save lives in the weeks and months ahead.
A New Just Economic Order
Prime Minister Abiy’s column in the Financial Times beseeches the need for a coordinated global response to COVID-19:
“There is a major flaw in the strategy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. 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.
That is why the current strategy of uncoordinated country-specific measures, while understandable, is myopic, unsustainable and potentially counter-productive. A virus that ignores borders cannot be tackled successfully like this.
We can defeat this invisible and vicious adversary — but only with global leadership. Without that, Africa may suffer the worst, yet it will not be the last. We are all in this together, and we must work together to the end.”
His comments implore the urgent necessity for an entirely different global approach to be taken by nations. We must absorb the horrible reality of today’s deadly crisis to motivate our passions to create a better future for civilization.
For humanity to survive, we can no longer tolerate living in a world governed a geo-political doctrine that views other countries crudely as either friend or foe, with winners on top and losers underneath. We can no longer live in a system that values mere money above human life. Look at Sudan, whose people are suffering, while Western institutions led by the International Monetary Fund use Sudan’s $53 billion in (unpayable) debt as weapon to dictate their “reforms.”
Months before COVID-19, the United Nations asked for $135 million to fight the unprecedented Desert Locust threatening the food supply in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. The fund is still $100 million short of that goal. The UN has called the locust swarm in East Africa “extremely alarming.” Tthe current pandemic is affecting the ability for African nations to obtain the minimal equipment and pesticides required.
We must bring into creation a new model for governing. A new paradigm that values human life above all else. One that acknowledges the universal moral resemblance of all human beings.
The call for a New Just World Economic Order was first articulated in the 1970s and has been echoed for decades by world leaders. All foreign, domestic, economic policy should be formulated upon the recognizable principle that all people share a common aim and destiny. We, the human race, are unified by our endowed unique quality; the power of reason-creative imagination. To resolve the multiple crises facing humanity, including a meltdown of the global financial system, it is urgent that an international conference be convened to establish a new template for economic and political relations among sovereign nations. The foremost underlying principle for such deliberations is acknowledging that the aspiration of all nations should be the elevation of human creative life. For all peoples.
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