Africa And COVID-19
First Recession in 25 Years: The Covid-19 pandemic and the commodity and tourism crash it has triggered will push Africa into a recession for the first time in 25 years, said the World Bank. Africa may be the worst-affected continent by the present crisis.
The World Bank calculates sub-Saharan Africa will see growth fall from 2.4% in 2019 to between -2 to -5% this year. The Bank’s vice-president for Africa, Hafez Ghanem, said, “African countries are likely to be hit particularly hard.” Output losses will be between $ 37 and $ 79 billion. The three largest economies – Nigeria, Angola and South Africa – will be affected by the drop in oil and commodity prices. The fastest-growing regions, the West African Economic and Monetary Union and the East African Community, will see numbers drop off sharply.
The IMF, World Bank and other multilateral financial institutions have already announced $ 57 billion in concessional loans and grants. The World Bank had earlier warned that African governments had increased their foreign debt to dangerous levels, $ 583 billion dollars in 2018. Much of this debt is commodity-linked and owed to China. Trade between Africa and China fell 14% in the first quarter and most forecasts say the figures will only get worse as the pandemic continues.
Air Mauritius has gone into voluntary administration as the pandemic caused havoc in Africa’s aviation sector. Even Ethiopian Airlines, the continent’s largest carrier, has admitted to concerns about its survival. Air Namibia announced cashflow problems while South African Airways has asked its government for a multi-million dollar bailout. Kenyan Airlines has converted many of its passenger planes into cargo.
Oil Bloodbath: When futures trades for the US benchmark oil, West Texas Intermediate, slipped into negative African references like Nigerian Brass River and Angolan Cabinda were trading between $10 and $30 a barrel. These are the lowest prices in 20 years and far below what African oil-producing nations had factored into their budget calculations.
Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer, had assumed a price of $57 a barrel for 2020. The Atlantic Council predicts Nigeria will see an income drop of $15.4 billion, nearly 4% of GDP, with the naira struggling to avoid devaluation. Ghana has borrowed heavily on future income from its oil and gas reserves and will now face major debt issues as its oil revenues halve this year.
Angola, Senegal and Cameroon will be among the other oil-exporters worst affected by the new oil price situation. Angola, which had ambitious plans to privatise its oil sector and reduce its public debt, declared a state of emergency. It will see overall production fall by 1.36 million barrels per day. Senegal’s $4.2 billion offshore Sangomar project will now struggle to raise finance.
Harassment in China: Pandemic-related harassment of Africans in the Chinese city of Guangzhou and accompanying videos on social media have soured China’s image across sub-Saharan Africa. China has ordered compulsory quarantine and testing for all foreigners who arrive in their country and argue Africans are simply facing the same restrictions as everyone else, as Beijing tries to prevent a second wave of imported Covid-19 infections.
African expats say what they are facing has little to do with Covid-19 but is part of a broader xenophobic campaign against Africans “driven by misinformation and fear.” Said Herman Assa, a Cameroonian living in Guangzhou, "They have been told that Africans now have the highest epidemic rate and are importing the disease back into China." Several Africans reported being forcibly evicted from their apartments by their landlords and refused accommodation in hotels. Others are seemingly being denied entry into shops and buildings.
African residents say local hostility to their presence is nothing new. But when coronavirus cases emerged in the African community existing tensions were amplified. The initial trigger was a April 4 report alleging a Nigerian national with Covid-19 had attacked a Chinese nurse, this was shared on social media and local Africans say a racist backlash followed. A few days later, after five Nigerians tested positive, Guangzhou authorities upgraded the risk level of Yuexiu and Baiyun, home to two African enclaves.
The US Consulate in Guangzhou warned African-Americans to avoid travel to the city because of the problems blacks were facing in the city. “As part of this [anti-Covid-19] campaign, police ordered bars and restaurants not to serve clients who appear to be of African origin,” it said. The Guangzhou authorities say they have began a sensitization programme with police and locals to end the stigmatization of Africans as Covid-19 carriers.
Damage Control: Beijing has worked around the clock to counter the damage to its standing in Africa. Chinese have been detained or forcibly put in quarantine in a number of African countries including the Congo and Sierra Leone. A sprinkling of African politicians and intellectuals have called for China to pay reparations for being the source of Covid-19. Much of this has been driven by a fear of viral contamination some of this has been in retaliation for what the African diaspora is facing.
Beijing’s most useful soft power instrument has been the medical equipment and teams of medical workers it has sent to help African governments tackle the pandemic. This has been supplemented by free shipments of gowns, masks and gloves by Chinese firms like Huawei and billionaire Jack Ma.
The racism cases have been damaging but not enough to matter at the political level with a number of African foreign ministers publicly defending Beijing. "I do not believe that these incidents will damage the political relations between the two continents," says Stephen Chan of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, "there are very few ructions at the official level."
In contrast to their aggressive demeanour to the West, Chinese diplomats have gone out of their way to placate African officials. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, in a videoconference with some 50 African foreign ministers on 10 March, waxed poetic, “Once the snow and ice melt, it will be spring. After we triumph over the epidemic, the community of common destiny linking China and Africa will be stronger than before.” The Chinese embassy in Zambia, in an oped in the local press, wrote “there is no such a thing as the so-called ‘discrimination against Africans in Guangdong Province’. The relevant reports were hyping up and exaggerating what actually happened. The video clips, some of which are many years old, and more like sensational gimmicks to attract public attention.” It is probably true most Africans still consider China to be the “helping country” because of its economic ties.
Covid-19’s fallout threatens the African diaspora that exists across southern China, especially the established West African population in Guangzhou city. While racial friction between Africans and local Chinese has flared occasionally, this has not affected the community’s overall presence in Guangzhou. One problem has been that for foreign policy reasons Beijing has been generous with entry permits for African nationals while local and provincial authorities are often less hospitable. Africans overstaying their visas has been a regular problem. Xinhua reported that in 2017 over 300,000 Africans visited Guangzhou but the number of legal residents recorded by the city in 2014 was only 16,000.
The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has resulted in Beijing taking a harder line on aliens and greater leeway for local authorities to do as they see fit. Last week, as Africans faced home evictions and other forms of discrimination, there were only 4,500 legal African residents. This indicates a sharp drop in the African diaspora in China overall. The surveillance system Chinese authorities have developed to tackle the pandemic, including drones and smartphone tracking, will make it harder for the illegal African migrant population to maintain its half-tolerated existence in places like Guangzhou.
Tales of Lockouts: The president of Malawi, Peter Mutharika, announced a 21-day lockdown on April 14. The announcement was met with widespread protests and strikes. A human rights group sued the government, arguing it had not prepared an adequate safety net for the poor. The high court in Lilongwe ruled against the president and has set aside the lockdown.
South Africa announced plans to begin a phased reopening of the economy from May 1. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the need to save lives and ensure the medical system is not overwhelmed remained paramount.
The strategic enclave of Djibouti has the highest Covid-19 prevalence in the continent with nearly a hundred cases per 100,000 people. This is attributed to the local populations disregard for the lockdown announced by the government but also its relatively high level of testing.
Madagascar’s army is providing sachets of a local herbal tea as a remedy for Covid-19. The tonic, named Covid-Organics, is made from artemisia, a local plant with anti-malarial properties, is endorsed by President Andry Rajoelina and was developed by a local research institute. However, no tests have been carried out on its efficacy but it is being used as an argument for lifting the present lockdown.
Other Covid-19 News: Nigerian leader and president of the Economic Community of West African States, Muhammadu Buhari, has been chosen by ECOWAS to champion their Covid-19 response. This was decided at an extraordinary summit held by teleconference. Buhari urged members to look out for opportunities in this present time of crisis.
Nigeria has an acute shortage of testing kits, by mid-April it had only carried out about 8000 tests, compared to 70,000 carried out by Ghana, a country with one-seventh the population. This has resulted in a black market for Covid-19 test kits in which demand is “off the scale.”
One of the most famous songs of legendary South African singer, Miriam Makeba, “Pata Pata” has been re-released with new lyrics to help spread proper social habits during the pandemic. The original 1960s song title meant “touch, touch” in Xhosa. The new version, sung by Benin’s Angelique Kidjo, has lyrics that say “don’t touch your face, keep distance please and no-pata, pata.” It was released on radio stations across Africa.
(The views expressed are personal)