Africa’s Lessons from Coronavirus: A politico-economic opinion

Much has been written and said about the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The World Health Organization (WHO) has finally characterized it as a pandemic. The characterization comes after the number of cases rose to more than 118,000, in 114 countries claiming 4,291 lives. This piece focuses on the political and economic consequences and the demands that the spread of COVID-19 foists on the African continent. Its opinion and perspective are modeled on the unlikely figure of Jürgen Klopp, a German soccer manager currently in charge of Liverpool Football Club in England. Asked by a journalist about whether he was worried about the spread of the coronavirus, Klopp candidly expressed displeasure at the fact that a sports manager was expected to give expert opinion about an issue in which he enjoys no competence.

In a highly globalized world, the fast-spreading COVID-19 pandemic was always going to attract widespread attention. Comparatively speaking, Africa, thus far, has not been deeply affected in terms of numbers of cases and casualties. However, this seemingly fleeting insulation tells only one part of the story. Economically, Africa will inevitably be affected. In South Africa, for example, lobster catchers in the Western Cape have been severely affected after China suspended imports of lobster as one of the measures designed to contain the outbreak. To put this in sharper perspective, in 2019 China bought 95 percent of South Africa’s total allowable west coast lobster catch of 1,084 tonnes.

Even at the continental level, COVID-19 will have a damaging impact because of Africa’s marginal intra-African trade. The deleterious effects of global problems, most of them of non-African origin, on Africa have precedent. For example, Africa was adversely affected by the 2008 recession and its aftermath, reflecting the high dependence of the continent on trade with the rest of the world. The limited quantity of trade exports among African countries accounts for this domino effect. In 2017 intra-African exports were 16.6 percent of total exports, compared with 68.1 percent in Europe, 59.4 percent in Asia and 55 percent in America. Africa’s cheerless statistics paint a picture of a continent that is dangerously at the mercy of other continents.

Lessons such as the 2008 crisis and the COVID-19 should inspire Africans to more determinedly establish and entrench deeper economic synergy within the continent. Countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom have the luxury today of shunning regional integration because they are driven, perhaps understandably, by economic hubris and a doomed pushback against immigration. Arica has no allowance for such insular instincts. The continent remains the least developed in the world and individual countries such as Burundi, Malawi, and South Sudan, with their per capita GDP of less than $400, will desperately need the economic heft of more fortunate African partners. In the unfortunate event that COVID-19 spreads even further, a possibility that the WHO deems probable, the least developed African countries are likely not to escape. Needless to say, their weak healthy systems are woefully prepared to cope.

In any crisis, there is always an opportunity for noticing one’s shortcomings and limitations; the 2008 financial crisis and the current COVID-19 pandemic are such instructive crises for Africa. The age-old economic moorings that keep Africa tethered to its non-African partners, at the expense of Africa’s holistic development, have to be loosed. This, to a large degree, will depend on Africa’s fidelity to the ideals of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The AfCFTA is being touted as a possible panacea to Africa’s current malaise with expectations that it could boost intra-African trade by 33 percent. The burdensome bureaucracy and corruption that limit the flow of goods, services, and skills within Africa have been at the heart of occluding intra-African trade and the discovery of opportunities within Africa by Africans. Once these limitations have been overcome, Africa can stave off the negative impact of crises emanating from the rest of the world.


Emmanuel Matambo is a senior researcher at the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS), University of Johannesburg



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