However, if Africa has escaped the worst of the pandemic in health terms, the same cannot be said of Covid-19’s economic impact, where the collateral damage has been huge.
As countries reopen, there is an urgent need to assess the scale of the collateral damage caused by lockdowns, both within Africa and globally, so leaders can make the best choices about how to rebuild their countries’ economies.
As they do that, African leaders must maintain their commitment to containing Covid-19 by continuing to test and isolate. Here, the West should show some humility and acknowledge that while the full set of drivers behind Africa’s lower mortality will not be known for a while yet, its systems, institutions and leaders have, in many cases, made a critical difference.
African governments have built and adjusted contact tracing and isolation policies that fit with their contexts and cultures, applying a key lesson from previous battles with Ebola and other diseases on the importance of ensuring community buy-in and acceptance of measures. While this hasn’t been done perfectly, many African governments have been far more successful at ensuring isolation of high-risk contacts than other governments, including the UK.
Unfortunately, despite lower case numbers and, in many cases, tighter control measures than other countries on European or UK safe fly lists, African countries have paid the price of disconnection from the rest of the world, with the majority of its population being unfairly treated as a single, risky entity.
African economies are highly dependent on global trade and travel — whether for the import of essential goods, the implementation of critical infrastructure and aid projects or for tourism and business travel. As a result, these measures risk exacerbating the economic damage their countries have already sustained.
Although African GDP is not expected to fall as much as that of other advanced economies’, its rapid population growth, large informal employment sector, governments’ inability to boost economic activity by increasing state spending and weak social welfare systems mean its population — especially the poor — will take a larger hit, undoing a decade’s developmental progress.
Reconnecting with the world and recovering economically will require verifiable proof of vaccination or negative tests.
In addition, the current model of supplying Africa with vaccines produced elsewhere has to be reconsidered. African leaders must play a part in the development of new vaccines, have a stake in vaccine manufacturing and be allowed to deploy the right vaccine strategies for their population. The climate and geological characteristics of places like Africa and Asia mean they are most likely to be the source of new viral species. Investing in research and manufacturing of vaccines in these places therefore builds resilience for the entire world, not just those continents.
I have long argued that the West needs to reframe its relationship with Africa from one of aid and extractive trade, where the West largely dictates the terms, to one of partnership. This partnership should be based on developing African nations in areas like trade and investment that add value and create jobs locally and that enhance Africa’s security. This reframing can be one of the positive outcomes of the pandemic.
We should establish such a relationship now, in the struggle against Covid-19, drawing on the experience, resources and energy of African countries as valued partners, not mere beneficiaries, ensuring the continent is not left behind as the world reopens. By doing so, we would not only bring the pandemic to a swifter and more complete conclusion, we would lay the foundations of a safer, more prosperous world.