How to help Africa weather the coronavirus storm
Failure to help struggling countries will increase risk of re-infection in the West.
Mark Harper, a former U.K. government chief whip and minister of state for immigration, is the MP for the Forest of Dean.
LONDON — As many of Europe’s hardest-hit countries plan their exits from strict lockdowns, we urgently need to turn our attention beyond our own borders to the rest of the world — where the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are likely to be even more devastating.
Economically developing regions — including Africa, South Asia and the Middle East — have much larger populations than Europe and a far less developed health care system. The potential for disaster if the coronavirus goes unchecked in these regions is huge.
The pandemic has made it painfully clear that we are all interconnected. If we do not assist struggling regions by diverting our aid money to countries in need, we will suffer the consequences — including higher risks of re-infection, fewer opportunities for global trade, and the kind of trouble a resurgent Islamic State could bring to our shores.
In Africa, which has seen some 30,000 cases so far and recorded 1,400 deaths, the situation risks becoming dire. With the United Kingdom and the United States struggling to supply enough protective equipment to their own doctors, the response in countries with fewer resources, like the Central African Republic, is likely to be far less effective. The country currently has only three ventilators for a population of almost 5 million.
The potential disintegration of Africa’s social system would also have catastrophic consequences for the West.
Beyond the immediate threat to people’s health, the virus also risks setting Africa back in its fight to contain other diseases such as malaria, as well as its efforts to deal with an Islamist rebirth in the Sahel. A new health crisis could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The potential disintegration of Africa’s social system would also have catastrophic consequences for the West, which would likely see another wave of mass migration and thereby risk re-infection.
Many Western investors and companies working in Africa would also be hard-hit. American and European importers of raw African goods, investors in new technologies in some of Africa’s poorest regions, as well as tour guides, academic researchers and international development charities, could find themselves isolated from a world that wants nothing to do with a virus-riddled no-go zone.
Some lobby groups have tried to exploit this crisis by pushing for debt relief, notably the waiving of all existing third world debt. This fiscally irresponsible approach would lift the pressure on less responsible governments to run their countries prudently and legally, and reduce the incentive for investors to continue lending to Africa and Asia.
It also needlessly puts more pressure on countries like the U.K. and risks a scenario in which Western taxpayers indirectly bail out Beijing, a major lender to countries in the developing world.
Take for example, Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, which has a sustainable debt-to-GDP ratio of 28 percent. As the IMF notes, this is a long way from the kind of crisis levels that might justify writing off its debts — even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem is not debt levels but the fact that, as the IMF says, “persistent structural and policy challenges continue to constrain growth.”
As the global COVID-19 crisis hits the economically developing world hard, it is of utmost importance that aid money — from the U.K. and other donor countries — is used efficiently. In 2019, the U.K. provided £15.2 billion of overseas aid, equivalent to 0.7 percent of the U.K.’s Gross National Income. This represents a 4.3 percent increase since 2018, and has to be justified wisely, especially following National Audit Office concern that only 58 percent of earmarked funds are going to the countries most in need.
Africa’s best hope may lie in Western money and resources being used to create a viable and cost-effective vaccine, as well as treatment drugs as they become available. The methods adopted in South Korea — of testing, tracing and isolating — are near impossible in a more decentralized region like sub-Saharan Africa. Intensive care equipment and ventilators are also difficult to offer at a time when even European countries suffer from a shortage.
But as our scientists and politicians work to find this crucial vaccine, it is imperative to ensure that we devise and deliver an effective aid budget for Africa and other struggling regions around the world. Personal protective equipment for frontline African medics is a must, for example, to avoid a repeat of the 192 Liberian health care worker casualties during the Ebola outbreak — particularly given the increased rarity of trained doctors and nurses.
Indifference at this hour of crisis is not an option, both with regard to the foreign humanitarian crisis, or to the domestic headache it may well become for us. It would be naive to think that what happens in Africa, stays in Africa.