The World Health Organisation (WHO) last week warned that the coronavirus cases could multiply from thousands to at least 10 million in three to six months as per provisional modelling even though it could be a tentative projection.
By Amb Anil Trigunayat
COVID 19 virus has pervaded the globe and, in the bargain, has hit the developed countries the most. While the struggle against it is on the war footing with experimenting leadership all around, another populous and important continent is faced with yet another challenge posed by Corona. The World Health Organisation (WHO) last week warned that the coronavirus cases could multiply from thousands to at least 10 million in three to six months as per provisional modelling even though it could be a tentative projection. Another Imperial College, London study estimated that Africa could have an eventual death toll of over 300,000 given the lack of medical facilities and capacity to effectively counter the pandemic’s incisive expanse. For this, it would be important to have effective public health measures and timely international assistance in place. Another very gloomy prediction by the UN Commission for Africa stated that in the worst-case scenario when medical and prescribed social intervention is absent the contagion could infect the whole population of almost 1.2 bn with 3.3. million deaths. Although not alarming at this stage the numbers keep on increasing day after day challenging the resolve of the political leaderships of the 55 countries that span over the underdeveloped continent. Since the health care systems leave a lot to be desired even in normal times currently the inefficacy of governance, weaker healthcare infrastructure and delivery mechanisms and provision of timely medical supplies and non-reversal of contagion might lead to socio-political disturbances further destabilising the fractured mandates in many countries.
WHO has come under severe criticism for its handling of the virus and naively promoting the Chinese narrative that has led to the pandemic spiralling out of control when the crucial lead time was lost in Chinese cover-up. Consequently, President Trump has decided to suspend funding to the UN Health body. The US was the largest donor comprising of over $ 400 million or 15% of its budget. It is estimated that WHO alone needs over $ 300 mn for helping the continent to fight the pandemic. The world has witnessed the helplessness and ill-prepared global health care sector with under-investment all around. The inability to effectively control, the spread of the virus especially in the developed world, which has seen the largest contagion and deaths, gives little hope that unless helped by providence the developing and underdeveloped countries especially in Africa may have much greater challenges to cope up with this. Africa had suffered heavily from the Ebola outbreak a few years ago. Even if an effective vaccine comes out it will require the world to look at this pandemic in Africa as a unique challenge where the international community must come forward to pool in resources and help now and not only when they perceive the “gold rush’ in the continent.
Even though the tally of infections and deaths in Africa is not that acute at this stage the rate of infection is moving fast. As per WHO, during the week ending April 15(epidemiological week 16) Africa had a cumulative total of 10759 COVID confirmed cases and 520 deaths. But over the previous week it was a rise of over 51% across 45 countries. Indeed a huge challenge awaits them.
As for the economic impact after COVID -19, we are going to witness a disruption in growth models, all-pervasive recession and stagnant economic growth across the global economic architecture. Already as a result of the pandemic and consequent shutdowns and lockdowns of all economic activity across continents global downturn will be worrisome for years to come. It is a fact that several African economies were some of the fastest-growing until recently . The new African continent-wide Free Trade Agreement and the African Compact and Agenda 2063 were to provide an unique and unprecedented opportunity to address the core issues of continental integration for a concerted growth and development but have been halted as the May conference called by South African President Ramaphosa has been deferred. Likewise, the Agenda 2030 was estimated to need US$11trillion which would be a challenge under the current circumstances However, the COVID has derailed the project at least in the medium term and will hit the already fragile economies rather bad.
The continued low oil prices will hurt the economies of oil-producing and exporting countries and likewise, the ones that are dependent on minerals and commodities will find it difficult to address the Corona impact due to inelasticity of demand and supply cycle in these times. Those dependent on tourism will have an uphill task. UN Economic Commission for Africa estimates that the continental growth is likely to go down to 1.8% from 3.2%. Several economies will be in the red. The ODI estimated that the costs of the pandemic in Africa could range over $ 100bn or nearly 5% of the GDP. The demand contraction in markets for African products and its over-reliance on the slowing down China will add to their woes significantly. However, China, after being severely criticised for its role in suppression of information spread of the virus , the supply of faulty kits and equipment may revert with vigorous diplomatic vengeance towards the continent with its aid and trade assistance and possibly some debt relief measures even though many of the African students in China have complained of discrimination, attacks and destitution and want to go back to their countries. Over a million Chinese live and work in Africa in connection with its vast outreach. China has over 10000 firms in Africa and is its largest trade partner with the widest footprint even though some of its approaches especially debt diplomacy have become questionable.
Need for untied global assistance and support for the Africans in this hour of crisis is a given. In fact, G 20 nations at their last month’s virtual Summit had already had called upon the members to immediately suspend the debt repayments by poor countries. IMF and World Bank have been working on specific debt relief measures.IMF has committed to provide US$ 11 bn to 32 sub-Saharan countries that have requested for help. G 20 had further committed to strengthen capacity building and to provide technical assistance to at-risk poor communities and to mobilise development and financial assistance. Real commitments should follow sooner than later. Earlier in the month UNGA adopted a resolution co-sponsored by India and 187 countries calling for intensified global cooperation and solidarity to defeat the deadly disease that is causing serious disruption to societies and economies.
India is well placed to render a shoulder of comfort and viable assistance being the largest capacity building partner of Africa. Under the Pan Africa e- network project and subsequent e-Arogya schemes for telemedicine, India could initiate an online training programme for health workers and professionals apart from providing requisite critical supplies, financial assistance and medical teams. Africans have used the Indian medical and pharmaceutical products for long now. They even consider India as a preferred destination for the treatment of serious diseases. In due course, we must consider providing scholarships and internships to medical students from African countries to enable local expertise. PM Modi has already spoken to some African leaders and offered direct assistance. As such India’s fight against the pandemic has been widely appreciated as the infections and deaths remain rather low due to timely action and an effective strategy. Besides from some parts of India like Bhilwara model, Goa or Kerala some lessons can be adapted in other developing countries. Again, India has been supporting equal access to the cure and Corona vaccines as a global good and introduced a resolution at the UN. At least six Indian labs are working on producing COVID vaccines and might even be in the forefront of it. As such India has emerged as a global vaccine hub in the past few decades and may use its medical edge as a soft power tool. This may be a second opportunity to actualize the local goodwill that India never really deployed to a mutually advantageous and sustainable relationship. India -Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) is supposed to held later this year but COVID 19 is an unfortunate opportunity to kickstart the assistance in health care sector. Africa is trying their best but a helping hand of a friend will surely be welcomed.
(The author is former Ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya & Malta. Presently he is a Distinguished Fellow at VIF. Views expressed are personal.)