By Vera Songwe
Not since our species first emerged out of Africa have we been so linked as one human family, sharing so many common opportunities and threats. So, when world leaders meet virtually as the G20 today to plan humanity’s global COVID-19 fightback, it is in the interest of us all that Africa sits centrally within that strategy – central to the global health response, as well as the economic and jobs response. Otherwise, humanity’s collective effort will fall short.
A month ago, Bill gates warned of a potential ten million deaths in Africa due to this outbreak. The impact of the virus on Africa threatens to surpass any we have seen owing to the weak health systems, hospital beds per population remain one of the lowest in the world; congested urban dwellings and our strongest asset, our strong social networks are now deadly. While the technology revolution has taken hold in many places, tech start-ups are flourishing and while access has increased, we are still the most unconnected continent with the highest average costs and smallest bandwidth. These are tremendous handicaps for Africa in the face of this virus.
Acting together and decisively on the continent and globally, we can avoid the worst fate. Since the first reported case five weeks ago in Africa, the numbers have escalated, mirroring those of other continents. In Senegal, the government launched a stimulus package but is struggling to manage the repercussions of mass gathering at religious sites. So are many others. In Kenya, the government has made use of its expansive mobile system and connectivity to launch measures such as cost-free remittances. South Africa, one of the countries with the best health systems, has gone from a measured reaction to martial law. Morocco’s famed Jemaa el-Fna square stands eerily empty, with no tourists as the country is in lockdown. On Mother’s Day Sunday last weekend many in the west sent African-sourced cut flowers in lieu of visits. But out of Nairobi and Kampala, the cut flowers are no longer being exported by air freight, threatening thousands of jobs in global supply chains that have been dramatically cut. Africa must act in a coordinated way, as part of the global coordinated response, in order not to exacerbate the impacts on its populations.
A strong equipped Africa is key to our collective insurance. Equipping Africa requires rapidly addressing the real details within the three-pronged coordinated package outlined by the continents’ finance ministers when they met virtually last week.
First: support for immediate health and humanitarian response. G20 leaders should support open trade corridors, especially for preventive health supplies, pharmaceuticals, food and the immediate upgrade of health infrastructure and data systems to track incidence. Countries can focus on information and prevention as they reinforce and build curative facilities. The WHO and CDC Africa can facilitate this task with funds channelled and or sourced from and through the Global Fund, GAVI and elsewhere.
Second; deliver an immediate emergency economic stimulus. The US is looking at US$2 trillion, and the UK about $320 billion stimulus. G20 leaders should commit a US$100 billion through the traditional partners the World Bank Group, the IMF, the AfDB and the EU to fund the immediate health response, protect the most vulnerable, and to protect jobs in addition to the US$50billion of already committed funds. To ensure immediate fiscal space and liquidity, this package should include a waiver of all interest payments, estimated at US$44 billion for 2020. G20 leaders should also support a waiver on principal and interest for African fragile States such as the Sahel, Central African Republic and others who are already struggling with conflict spending and have limited fiscal space. China will have an important role to play as the second trading partner and has a chance to lead, but many western private banks must join this package. Civil society stakeholders should track effective use.
Finally, we must protect the private sector and over 30 million jobs immediately at risk across the continent, particularly in the tourism and airline sectors. To this end, G20 leaders should take measures to support agricultural imports and exports, the pharmaceutical sector and the banking sector. An extended credit facility, refinancing schemes and guarantee facilities should be used to waive, restructure and provide additional liquidity in 2020. G20 leaders should support a liquidity line available to the private sector operating in Africa to ensure essential purchases can continue and all SMEs dependent on trade can continue to function.
As African Finance ministers work towards a coordinated approach to the emergency a strong and coordinated response from the G-20 will give Africa a leg up in planning and preparing to flatten the curves before the full brunt of its impact hits Africa.
Vera Songwe is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa.