Seven COVID Risk Profiles
A detailed study of the Covid-19 pandemic in different African countries showed a distinct set of risk profiles as determined by four factors: international exposure, urban population, age and press freedom.
Gateway countries had high levels of international engagement including tourism and trade. This group of countries, which comprise the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Algeria, account for 64% of all reported Covid-19 cases and 69% of all reported Covid deaths on the continent. These countries are among the wealthiest and largest African countries with high levels of urbanisation and slightly older populations. But Gateway countries have among the better healthcare systems – though they represent only 18% of Africa’s population they have conducted 53% of all the Covid tests.
Complex Microcosm countries have large often informal urban populations, varied social and geographical landscapes, and difficult security challenges. Though these countries have low levels of international exposure and are relatively young, they are likely to have poor healthcare infrastructure, active conflicts and large populations of displaced people. This category includes Nigeria, Sudan, Cameroon and Ethiopia.
Stable Hubs are Uganda, Angola, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Madagascar. They are a cluster defined by a lack of an active conflict. They serve as regional economic hubs and have populations between 20 and 50 million people. They are less vulnerable to Covid than the first two categories and have smaller, less dense urban populations. Media enjoy considerable freedom in these countries.
The Clustered Cities/Fragile States category has 12 members, largely in the Sahel and Greater Horn. They have dense urban areas, large displaced populations, weak public health systems but face active conflicts within their borders. These include South Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Central African Republic, Libya and Mali. They are not large, with a median population of 14 million, but most of their people live in a few, very dense urban centres. Their young populations and minimal international exposure are mitigating factors.
The Small/Open and Small/Restricted categories comprise nearly two dozen countries with a median population of 5.5 million, small urban populations and low levels of international exposure. They are generally stable with minimal internal conflict. These categories have only 6% of the continent’s Covid cases despite having 11% of its population. The first category includes Sierra Leone, Botswana, Mauritius, Namibia and Malawi and have greater press freedom. The second category includes Equatorial Guinea, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Liberia and Gabon and are less transparent.
A last category constitutes Tanzania, Burundi and Eritrea who are not actively testing or regularly reporting their Covid cases. Question marks exist over the extent they are infected. Tanzania, for example, has reported only 8 cases per million of population when the average in Africa is 189 cases per million.
Africa is edging towards a million cases of Covid-19 with over 946,000 cases by first week of August, but experts warn worse lies ahead. The Africa Center for Disease Control recorded 20,000 deaths. Dr Mary Stephens, an expert at the World Health Organisation Africa office, said, "We haven't seen the peak yet. All countries in Africa are at risk because our health systems are relatively weak." South Africa alone has recorded 500,000 cases but also has among the better testing and healthcare systems. The IMF approved $ 4.3 billion in emergency funding for South Africa, the largest loan related to Covid-19 assistance to any country in the world.
Survivors of the Ebola virus outbreak in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2014 have begun local campaigns to help people prepare for and survive the present Covid-19 pandemic. Anthony Naileh, head of Liberia’s Ebola survivors network, has been visiting communities with the message “do not deny that the virus is real, maintain the health protocols, and take care of yourself”. Similar networks in other countries have several thousand members. However, the activists complain that their governments have not responded to their offers of help in sensitising the populace and providing mental support.
China Reluctant to Waive Loans
The pandemic has led cash-starved African governments to ask China for loan waivers. Zambian President Edgar Lungu directly asked his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, for some "debt relief and cancellation" to save the economy. There was no commitment from Beijing to consider the request, according to a statement issued by Lungu's office. Some estimates say $ 6.4 billion of the country’s $ 10 billion external debt is owed to Beijing. Zambia has defaulted on payments to Chinese, Russian and European institutions in recent weeks leading to the cessation of work on a number of infrastructure projects.
A former Zambian minister, Dipak Patel, is among a number of African activists questioning the decisions that led many African governments to take on a “deluge of debt” - $ 150 billion by 2018 according to Johns Hopkins University. Patel has gone to court and claimed the Zambian government, which did not disclose the details of its loans, should have asked parliament for consent. Nigerian parliamentarians have begun reviewing Chinese loans arguing their terms were unfavourable. Kenyan activists are demanding their government disclose the terms of a Chinese loan used to build a 470 km railway.
China now faces the prospect of a wave of defaults on its loans to the region. “This has the potential to produce the most profound change in relations since China became a major economic player on the continent,” says Chris Alden, professor at the London School of Economics. Germany’s Kiel Institute for the World Economy says China has lent more to Africa than the IMF, World Bank and the Club of Paris combined. As many loans are kept secret, the actual debt to China is likely to be higher than official figure. Yun Sun, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes Africa's debt situation cannot improve unless China considers forgiveness.
Many African governments turned to China to escape the conditionalities tied to Western finance including austerity programmes or human rights demands. China gave credit quickly and asked few questions. Zambia increased its external debt sevenfold in the past decade. Says Gyude Moore, Liberia’s former minister of public works, “When people complain about Chinese loans, it’s not as if most African countries have a plethora of options.” The debts also never seem to get paid off. Zambia is still paying off a loan for the Mao Zedong-era Tazara railway, a 1,860-kilometer line built in the 1970s to haul copper to the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The line, which was resuscitated briefly with technical assistance by Indian Railways, is barely functional today.
A Malawian court sentenced nine members of the Lin-Zhang gang, four of them Chinese, to a total of 56 years for trafficking the parts of endangered wildlife. The gang - named for Yunhua Lin and his wife Quinhua Zhang - was one of the continent's most notorious wildlife trafficking syndicates and had been operating out of Malawi for 10 years. Yunhua Lin was arrested after a long manhunt in August last year.
Somalia’s parliament removed Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire in a no confidence vote for failing to make progress towards fully democratic elections. A massive 170 out of 178 parliamentarians voted to remove Khaire. The move was endorsed by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo who had appointed Khaire in 2017. Khaire had been mandated to lay out a blueprint for elections by 2021 and had failed to do so. Farmajo rules a small portion of Somalia thanks to Islamicist insurgencies and separatist groups.
Central African Republic’s former president, Francoiz Bozize, said he would run in December’s presidential elections. Bozize was overthrown in 2013 and has been in exile since. The country is emerging from a civil war and the present ruler, President Faustin-Archange Touadera, was elected in 2016 but depends on the support of a large UN peacekeeping force. Much of the country remains in some form of rebellion.
Malawi’s new president, Lazarus Chakwera, has promised to “clear the rubble” of corruption from the government. After winning elections in June, Chakwera has raised the country’s minimum wage and launched investigations into contracts by officials of the previous government. Chakwera defeated incumbent Peter Mutharika with 59% of the vote, the first time an incumbent has been defeated in a court-ordered election rerun in Africa.
Gabon’s President Ali Bongo promoted his defence minister, Rose Christiane Ossouka Raponda, to prime minister, the first time the country has had a female prime minister. Raponda will seek to form a new government in the midst of an economic recession caused by falling oil prices and a rising Covid case count. Bongo, who has dominated his country’s politics since 2009, suffered a heart attack recently and continues to be of uncertain health.
Mali’s embattled president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, was given a lifeline when Muslim cleric Mahmoud Dicko, seen as the de facto leader of the protest movement that has paralysed the Sahel country, said he was open to a compromise that did not require the president to resign. The protests, triggered by suspect local government elections and official incompetence, have rocked the country since June and left 14 people dead. Dicko indicated, however, that the prime minister would have to give up office as part of any settlement.
India Solar Footprint
India’s state-owned power company, NTPC, plans to help develop solar power parks in Gambia and Malawi and is looking at management consultancy contracts in Sudan, Mozambique, Egypt, Uganda, Rwanda and Niger. NTPC recently won contracts to set up solar parks in Mali and Togo with a total capacity of 718 MW.
India is using the International Solar Alliance, a multilateral body it created to support solar power, to promote the NTPC. The ISA has empanelled NTPC to bid for solar contracts among ISA members, many of which are in Africa. An ISA spokesperson said, “NTPC has identified 10 ISA member countries as leaders who may be willing to put up solar parks in the near future and would like to avail the services of NTPC in assisting them as a turnkey consultant.” The ISA is considering empanelling more state-owned Indian firms for future contracts.
In the backdrop of India’s sanctions against Chinese tech companies, group chief executive of Naspers and Prosus, Bob van Dijk, said it was “unfortunate” investment was becoming more political. The South African-based group is among the world’s largest tech investors and its overall investments in India stand at $ 5 billion, including $ 500 million invested last year alone. Among the Indian firms in which it has a stake are Swiggy, Byju’s, PayU and OLX. One of its most successful investments, however, was an early stake in the Chinese firm Tencent. He noted, “We are a global company, neither Chinese nor US, and we have always worked through local entrepreneurs, keeping jobs local, which has served us well.” Van Dijk was appreciative of how the Narendra Modi government had made doing business easier for investors. “If you look at the investments we’ve done in India, it has always been in companies that are great founder-led businesses, which pushed innovation and executed well locally.” Prosus was spun off from Naspers, which focusses on internet and media. Prosus handles internet consumer assets including many of the Indian startups.
Two Indian commentaries, one by Harsh Pant and Abhishek Mishra of the Observer Research Foundation and another by Sujan Chinoy of the Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, noted the opportunity presented by Covid for India to increase its influence in Africa. New Delhi exported large amounts of emergency pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to over 25 African countries. It also held e-ITEC webinars to train African healthcare professionals on Covid management strategies. They contrasted India’s assistance with that of China’s which is partly driven by a desire to divert attention from the pandemic’s origins in Wuhan. They argued India should consider working with African countries on producing drugs and vaccines, sharing the app technology behind Aarogya Setu and expanding the e-VidyaBharti tele-education project.
Kariba Dam Endangered
The New York Times Magazine had a lengthy story about how climate change and physical wear and tear were endangering Zambia’s Kariba Dam. The dam was built in the 1950s when Zambia was still in a union with Zimbabwe, and the two nations were called Northern and Southern Rhodesia. Its site on the Zambezi River was faulty and chosen for political reasons. The dam provides 1,830 megawatts of hydroelectric power to both countries and holds back the world's largest reservoir.
Climate change has made rainfall and river water levels increasingly erratic. The dam struggles between periods of water so low that it can barely generate electricity and torrential rains that threaten to pour over the top of the dam. The water has gouged a huge crater at the dam’s base which threatens to bring the dam down. If that were to happen, the torrent of water that would flow down the river would knock down other dams as well and wipe out much of the electricity of southern Africa.
Mory Kante Dies
Guinean musician Mory Kanté died in late May from untreated health problems at the age of 70. Kante was one of West Africa’s most versatile and commercially successful musicians. His best known song,” Yeke yeke,” became the first African single to sell over a million copies. As an aside, it was also the first dance floor hit to feature the kora, the traditional harp of West Africa. One of his songs, “Tama," was lifted by Bollywood in 1990 and 1991 for two songs, “Tamma tamma loge” and “Jumma chumma de de” – the latter starring Amitabh Bachchan in a memorable dance scene. A singer and composer, Kanté came from a griot family of hereditary musicians and historians. In Guinea he became known as the “electric griot” for his fusion of contemporary styles with traditional influences.
(The views expressed are personal)