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Africa/Global: Thinking Post-Covid-19

AfricaFocus Bulletin
June 8, 2020 (2020-06-08)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

“Calls for debt relief—or more timid debt service moratorium—are drops in the ocean. Something much more ambitious and radical should be envisaged. This crisis allows us to think big. … [F]or these exceptional times, we need exceptional solutions. This virus does offer Africa an opportunity to exercise agency and embark on a more robust structural transformation process. Building on the gains of the last few years and the resilience of its population, there will probably be no better time to fast-track change.” - Carlos Lopes, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa

For Africa, as for the United States and the world, the end of the Covid-19 pandemic is not in sight. Although most African countries have so far managed the pandemic better than many others elsewhere in the world, the worst may be yet to come. But it is also imperative to think not only about the immediate response, but about long-term strategies to address the weaknesses that have been revealed.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the commentary quoted above by Carlos Lopes, one of the leading practitioners and analysts of African economic policy, as well as a statement by more than 140 world leading calling for a “people's vaccine,” that is, “guarantees that COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, tests and treatments will be provided free of charge to everyone, everywhere.”

The call for the guarantee was initiated by UNAIDS and by Oxfam, and headlined with a 4-minute video from Winnie Byanyima, director of UNAIDS and former executive director of Oxfam from 2013 until 2019.

For more background on the status of Covid-19 vaccine development, see and

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on health, visit


In January this year, Imani Countess and I began an essay series entitled “Beyond Eurocentrism and U.S. Exceptionalism: Starting Points for a Paradigm Shift from Foreign Policy to Global Policy.” We knew that this year would be a critical opportunity given the critical presidential election. But, like other, we had no clue that the urgency and the opportunity for rethinking would be heightened so powerfully by the Covid-19 pandemic and then by the wave of anti-racist organizing following the death of George Floyd.

Our latest short commentary below, as well as in a stand-alone Bulletin at, reflects on the convergence of racism and coronavirus and the potential for new thinking about fundamental changes in the United States and their inescapable global connections.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Racial Pandemic and Viral Pandemic: USA Is an Epicenter, but Both Pandemics Are Global

by Imani Countess and William Minter*

* William Minter is the editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin. Imani Countess is an Open Society Fellow focusing on economic inequality. This essay is part of a multipart series that began in January 2020. Thanks to Catherine Sunshine for editing the essays in this series.

The twin pandemics of racism and coronavirus are colliding, in reality and in metaphor. Anti-racism scholar Ibram X. Kendi writes in the Atlantic of “the racial pandemic within the viral pandemic.” And the meme of “America's two deadly viruses” has gone viral on Twitter. But while one is a literal (and new) virus and the other an endemic condition that has persisted over centuries, the scope of each spans the range from local communities to the entire planet.

The footprint of these intersecting pandemics differs by geography and by the distribution of vulnerability along many lines of inequality. Actions of resistance also vary from place to place and over time. But there are, nonetheless, common threads in the global response, eloquently summed up in an online monologue by Trevor Noah, the South African comedian who has become one of the most incisive media commentators on American society. His comments were entitled “George Floyd and the Dominos of Racial Injustice.”

“You know what's really interesting about what's happening in America rights now is that a lot of people don't seem to realize how dominoes connect, how one piece knocks another piece that knocks another piece, and in the end creates a giant wave.”

Each story seems completely unrelated and yet at the same time I feel that everything that happens in the world connects to something else in some way, shape, or form.

While everyone is facing the battle against coronavirus, Black people in America are still facing racism and coronavirus.”

In June 2020, the United States is an epicenter of both pandemics. The outcomes here will have deep effects not only on this country but around the world. Demonstrators in many countries are mobilizing in solidarity with the US-based Black Lives Matter movement. On June 2, 105 African writers expressed this global solidarity in an open letter:

“As African writers without borders who are connected beyond geography with those who live in the United States of America and other parts of the African diaspora, we state that we condemn the acts of violence on Black people in the United States of America.”

The letter went on to cite the names of those killed most recently, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, followed by a long list of others; it also acknowledged the many unnamed. The writers added:

“We note in dismay that what Malcolm X said in Ghana in 1964 that 'for the twenty million of us in America who are of African descent, it's not an American dream; it's an American nightmare' remains true for 37 million in 2020.”

This global response is not only a matter of empathy, spurred by the explicit video of George Floyd's murder, which was viewed worldwide. It is also a recognition that anti-Black racism is global, not confined to any one country. This racism shows itself in the treatment of Africans and Afro-descendants in a wide range of countries, even those without large Black populations, such as China. It is reflected in the position of the African continent in the global hierarchy, and in the racial hierarchy within the global institutions that make up the postwar order.

Around the world, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic within each country intersects with that country's specific structural inequalities. In countries that are relatively homogeneous in racial terms, such as most African countries and many Asian countries, the most salient division may not be race. But in every country, sickness and death from the virus, as well as income losses and medical costs, have inflicted disproportionate suffering on the most vulnerable. Each society’s response in turn reveals the weaknesses or strengths of its governmental institutions.

A few countries across the political spectrum have managed the viral threat with relative success: Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand, Cuba, Norway, and Senegal, among others. Among those that have failed most spectacularly are the United States and Brazil, two countries with vast racial and other social inequalities linked to a history of conquest and slavery. In the United States, the Trump administration has refused to respond constructively to the pandemic even as it undermines global institutions, such as the World Health Organization, that are attempting to do so.

But all countries face or soon will face the cumulative impact of global recession as well as the continued threat of a virus that is not going away any time soon. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for effective action to curb the coming apocalypse of climate change.

All of us—in local communities, popular organizations and movements, national governments, and multilateral institutions—must think deeply and imaginatively about the destructive institutions inherited from previous generations. Institutions at all levels must decide whether to fund state violence or public health and, more broadly, whether or not to curb private greed for public good. Corporations and governments must choose whether to destroy the planet with fossil fuels or speed a transition to renewable energy. Returning to the previous status quo is not an option. We can increase the damage by resisting structural change, or we can move decisively toward new inclusive and sustainable societies.


World leaders unite in call for a people’s vaccine against COVID-19

UNAIDS / Oxfam

Press Release, May 14, 2020

More than 140 world leaders, experts and elders have made an unprecedented call for guarantees that COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, tests and treatments will be provided free of charge to everyone, everywhere.

Geneva, 14 May 2020—More than 140 world leaders and experts, including the President of South Africa and Chair of the African Union, Cyril Ramaphosa, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, the President of the Republic of Senegal, Macky Sall and the President of the Republic of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo have signed an open letter calling on all governments to unite behind a people’s vaccine against COVID-19. The call was made just days before health ministers meet virtually for the World Health Assembly on 18 May.

The letter, which marks the most ambitious position yet set out by world leaders on a COVID-19 vaccine, demands that all vaccines, treatments and tests be patent-free, mass produced, distributed fairly and made available to all people, in all countries, free of charge.

Other signatories include the former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown, the former President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, the former United Nations Development Programme Administrator and former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark.

They join notable economists, health advocates and others, from the Chair of the Elders and the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, Nobel Laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, to Moussa Faki, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr John Nkengasong, Director of African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dainius Puras, the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

“Billions of people today await a vaccine that is our best hope of ending this pandemic,” said Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa. “As the countries of Africa, we are resolute that the COVID-19 vaccine must be patent-free, rapidly made and distributed, and free for all. All the science must be shared between governments. Nobody should be pushed to the back of the vaccine queue because of where they live or what they earn.”

“We must work together to beat this virus. We must pool all the knowledge, experience and resources at our disposal for the good of all humanity,” said Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan. “No leader can rest easy until every individual in every nation is able to rapidly access a vaccine free of charge.”

The letter, coordinated by UNAIDS and Oxfam, warns that the world cannot afford monopolies and competition to stand in the way of the universal need to save lives.

“This is an unprecedented crisis and it requires an unprecedented response,” said former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. “Learning the lessons from the fight against Ebola, governments must remove all the barriers to the development and rapid roll out of vaccines and treatments. No interest is more important than the universal need to save lives"

The leaders recognize that progress is being made and that many countries and international organizations are cooperating multilaterally on research and development, funding and access, including the welcome US$ 8 billion pledged on 4 May at the European Union’s international pledging marathon.

However, as many countries and companies are proceeding with unprecedented speed to develop an effective vaccine, the leaders are calling for concrete commitments to ensure that it is made affordable and available to all in the quickest possible time. These include:

  • A mandatory worldwide pooling of patents and sharing of all COVID-19-related knowledge, data and technologies in order to ensure that any nation can produce or buy affordable doses of vaccines, treatments and tests.
  • The rapid establishment of an equitable global manufacturing and distribution plan for all vaccines, treatments and tests that is fully funded by rich nations and which guarantees transparent “at true cost prices” and supplies in accordance with need rather than the ability to pay.
  • This would include urgent action to massively increase manufacturing capacity to produce the vaccines in sufficient quantities and train and recruit millions of health workers to distribute them.
  • A guarantee that COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests are provided free of charge to everyone, everywhere, with priority given to frontline workers, vulnerable people and poor countries with the least capacity to save lives.

“Faced with this crisis, we cannot carry on business as usual. The health of each of us depends on the health of all of us,” said Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand. “The COVID-19 vaccine must not belong to anyone and must be free for everyone. Diplomatic platitudes are not enough—we need legal guarantees, and we need them now.”

“Market solutions are not optimal to fight a pandemic,” said Nelson Barbosa, former Finance Minister of Brazil. “A public health care system, including free vaccination and treatment when that becomes available, is essential to deal with the problem, as shown by the Brazilian experience with compulsory licensing of antiretroviral drugs in the case of HIV.”

Uniting behind a people’s vaccine against COVID-19—open letter and full list of signatories

Watch this 4-minute video from UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima


Can a Virus Accelerate Change in Africa?

by Carlos Lopes

Carlos Lopes is an Honorary Professor at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town, and a Visiting Professor at Sciences Po, Paris. He has served as Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.>

African intellectuals are calling for a different discussion. Isn’t this the right time to propel changes that have often been postponed?

Confinements, lockdowns, social distancing, masks, and protective equipment have all become part of the new vocabulary used in Africa. This may be no different from other parts of the world. But the implications of COVID-19 can be far-reaching for the continent with some of the lowest human development indicators in the globe. African countries have been fast in adopting stringent measures to contain the potential COVID-19 infection surge. They adhered in their great majority to the principle of flattening the infection curve, in order to allow the sanitary authorities’ response to be able to cope with the pressure on existing capabilities. Although the total infection rate and lethality in Africa are far lower than the ones experienced so far in China, Europe or the US, the case can be made that the capabilities of African countries, both in medical personnel and equipment, are extremely limited, suggesting a possibly greater devastating impact of the pandemic outbreak in the continent if a surge happens.

Africa has been exposed to deadly Ebola outbreaks with a very high death rate, with 25% to 100% loss of life of those infected, against about 1% of mortality for COVID-19 infected individuals. From what we know so far COVID-19 morbidity concerns principally older people or those with other diseases such as diabetes, vascular pathologies, or respiratory failures, less prevalent in Africa. Stormy experiences with HIV-AIDS and high mortality resulting from malaria have created the feeling that Africa is more resilient and its herd immunity probably different from other regions. This can be misleading for three reasons.

First, statistical capacity in Africa is on average low and most of the very recent knowledge about this pandemic’s behavior is based on sophisticated modelling that will be challenged by 60% of the population not even having civil registration. Africa’s reality is one of projections, or to say it more bluntly, guessing. Comprehensive testing seems to be the most used indicator of accuracy for modelling, next to the demographic profile of a country. Here again (with a few remarkable exceptions, such as Mauritius or South Africa) limited sampling and the dearth of testing data will not help good policy responses.

Second, it has become obvious that this virus loves to travel, as all viruses do. The connectivity levels that have allowed COVID-19 to spread so fast are not a surprise for scientists and health intelligence outfits. They have been warning this would, not could, happen; and will happen again and again, probably more frequently than we care to admit. But the trajectory of each virus obeys natural rules we don’t completely master. It is a fact that the epicenter of the current tragedy travels too. It is therefore highly likely that Africa’s turn to be the epicenter may come later.

Third, regardless of the better or worse sanitary impact scenarios being touted by an array of politicians, analysts and pundits, the most devastating impact in Africa is going to be socio-economic. The global dimensions of the crisis affect Africa deeply without the continent being able to do much about it. A combination of climate phenomena (locust invasion of the Horn of Africa, extended drought in Southern Africa, floods in East Africa and conflicts induced by environmental stress in the Sahel) and the absence of a conducive global economic climate will penalize Africa considerably.

The debate in Africa could, therefore, easily echo the catastrophism usually associated with such situations. We should remember during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa the World Bank predicted a $33 billion economic impact even though the three most affected countries—Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea—had at the time a combined GDP of $6 billion. The final count was a $2.8 billion total loss. This time we have already heard similar fright. It may well ring true but the rush to single out Africa this time seems equally premature and biased.

African intellectuals are calling for a different discussion. Isn’t this the right time to propel changes that have often been postponed? African leaders fall easily into response mode, not to the crises they face but to the advice they receive. Perhaps COVID-19 can herald structural transformation in the continent. Admitting this is too good a crisis to be allowed to go to waste, here are five reasons to use it to shift gears.

First, the China-US trade war that introduced turbulence in the world markets, followed by the Saudi Arabia-Russia oil prices war have foreshown that the 2011 end of the commodity super cycle could get much worse than predicted. With historical lows for Brent prices and US oil futures plunging below zero for the first time in history in April, there is little doubt left about the volatility of a commodity that represents 40% of African exports. Since 2007, the volume of Africa’s crude petroleum exports to the world has decreased sharply. China’s imports are shrinking, following decreases in exports to the US and others. With 7.5% of world oil reserves and 7.1% of gas reserves Africa will never be a big player capable of determining prices or occupy a premium place in this market. COVID-19 has driven this message home.

The prices of renewable energy production, on the other hand, are becoming more competitive by the day, often surpassing the fossil fuels matrices. This makes it the right time to shift towards a cleaner, low-carbon production, and consumption base. Africa has the luxury of being able to accelerate its industrialization with greener solutions both in terms of energy and sustainable infrastructure. Extremely low prices for oil and coal (associated with depressed demand in some countries) translate into a unique chance to get rid of heavily subsidized fossil fuel consumption and the option to dismantle the byzantine tax systems plugged into the fuel in the pump.

Second, although not as dramatic as the fall of the oil and gas prices, the other commodities composing the bulk of African exports, be it metals and extractives or agricultural-related and fisheries, usually exposed to high levels of volatility, have all been driven south by COVID-19. Africa has 35 out its 54 countries in the highly export-commodity-dependent category (referring to countries with 80% or higher dependency). This colonial characteristic is responsible today for rent-seeking behavior and lazy domestic taxation efforts. COVID-19 has demonstrated the fragility of the African growth trajectory when a combination of low demand, low prices and limited fiscal space meet any economic storm, even more so with a perfect storm. COVID-19 sends a powerful message to African leaders: they need to adjust to a new normal.

With regard to food security, Africa is home to over 874 million hectares of land suitable for agricultural production. With less than 10% per cent of arable land currently being used for food production, there are windows of opportunities to expand this to increase local production of crops. Only 6% of the arable land in Africa is irrigated, yet the continent has the potential to irrigate nearly 40 Million ha (10%), doubling agricultural productivity.

Looking at the potential offered by the establishment of the African Continental Free-Trade Area, the largest such endeavor by number of countries and population covered, there is an option to use smart protectionism to boost intra-African value-added tradable products. This is an opportunity to transform, starting with the immediate need for alternative food supplies provoked by the COVID-19 disruption of the existing value and supply chains. Time for love thy neighbor.

Third, the restrictions recently introduced by the US and European countries for exports of vital medicines, reagents, respiratory or personal protective equipment affect African countries heavily. It is a wake-up call to think about how the continent should deal with pharmaceutical regulation, health-related procurement and manufacture of medicines and products in areas that are critical for disease control and protect well-being.

Africa carries 25% of the world’s disease burden but accounts for less than 1% of global health expenditure. It manufactures less than 2% of the medicines it consumes. Over two-thirds of the world’s HIV/AIDS cases and 93% of the deaths due to malaria currently occur in Africa. In addition, the continent bears 40% of the global deaths of under-five children, mainly due to neonatal causes as well as pneumonia, diarrhea, measles, HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. The tragedy is that these diseases are treatable: most related deaths could be prevented with timely access to appropriate and affordable medicines.

Africa’s capacity for pharmaceutical research and development (R&D) and local drug production is amongst the lowest in the world. Overall, 37 African countries have some pharmaceutical production, although only South Africa produces some active pharmaceutical ingredients. Where there is local production in Africa, normally there is a reliance on imported active ingredients. As a result, the supply of African pharmaceuticals remains highly dependent on foreign funding and imports. The production of health equipment and consumables follows a similar pattern.

COVID-19 has demonstrated a hidden capacity to produce masks, tests, and other essentials throughout Africa. This capacity should be nurtured. This is the beginning of a shift towards greater reliance on African-produced health products, coupled with investments in R&D.

Fourth, Africa must get readier for the impact of new technologies in the world of work and production systems. After being praised for their leadership in mobile banking transactions, Africans should embrace more ambitious goals. Instead of perceiving technological advancements as threats, Africans can emulate the mobile banking experience to leapfrog infrastructure shortcomings as well as surpass outmoded bureaucratic processes that are hampering entrepreneurship and formalization of the economy. Without more modern forms of economic transaction, it will not be possible to significantly increase fiscal pressure in the continent—currently averaging 17% of GDP, against a world average of 35%. Such low pressure reduces fiscal space and exacerbates various forms of external dependency.

Fortunately, some of the best reformers in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index are African. The same impetus is needed for innovation. Africa’s industrialization and services transformation depends greatly on the capacity to tap into its position as the largest reservoir of digital natives. With the youngest population in the world it is in Africa that new technologies have the highest potential to adapt, provided they are not limited to being passive consumers of content and systems but rather participants as well. COVID-19 has contributed to the discovery of this potential. With 53 out of 54 countries closing their school system, countries struggled to not let an entire school year go bust. There is a realization digital platform usage can be accelerated for educational purposes. The same is true for services. Remote forms of work have now become increasingly popular and socially accepted. This is a chance to accelerate transformation and leapfrog.

Fifth, macroeconomic stability rules continue to be challenged across the globe. With the recession or depression distress signals becoming louder the monetarist orthodoxy of Milton Friedman is evaporating fast. The State is back, to salvage the market’s biggest disruption since the Great Depression. However, the small margin of manoeuver resulting from the instability prevailing since the 2008-09 subprime crisis does not allow recourse to the usual recipes. Enormous stimulus packages, shooting debt to GDP ratios way above 100%, deeply negative interest rates or monetized fiscal deficits have become acceptable policy. Economic neo-classical theory is turning on its head.

With stagflation or deflation replacing inflation worries, access to the printing machine is the new normal for those who can afford. With the current way debt is classified and its sustainability framework applied African countries will never be able to get out of COVID-19’s long-lasting impact. Most of the reforms made in the last two decades in the continent, producing exceptional growth performance for about half of the countries, are seriously compromised. Calls for debt relief—or more timid debt service moratorium—are drops in the ocean. Something much more ambitious and radical should be envisaged. This crisis allows us to think big.

To conclude using the language of the IMF, for these exceptional times, we need exceptional solutions. This virus does offer Africa an opportunity to exercise agency and embark on a more robust structural transformation process. Building on the gains of the last few years and the resilience of its population, there will probably be no better time to fast-track change.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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