On 9 April, the World Bank forecast the coronavirus pandemic would push sub-Saharan Africa into its first recession in 25 years. The virus, it said, could cost the continent up to $79 billion in output losses this year. The following week, the UN said a second wave of locusts stalking East Africa presented “an extremely alarming and unprecedented threat” to food security in the region. It estimates that the plague could be 20 times worse than it was the first-time round. The coronavirus will only compound it.
Covid-19 presents a serious threat to life, not least in some of the continent’s poorest countries. As the global north battled with the virus, various institutions, development banks and experts made morose predictions. Michel Yao, head of emergency operations for WHO Africa, said 10 million could be infected within three months. Dr Jerry Brown, who helped Liberia battle its Ebola outbreak, said the figure could be closer to 250 million. And while those making such predictions are often at pains to make clear these are worst case outcomes, that probably does not provide many with much reassurance.
For the rest of the world, who are, by and large starting to get hold of the outbreaks in their countries, the ever-present fear of a second wave has prompted self-serving philanthropic drives to provide aid to the developing world. Governments are eager to be seen to be shipping more masks, ventilators and personal protective equipment than their geopolitical rivals. For the cynic, this apparent selflessness has descended into old fashioned brinkmanship like the arms races of old, only guns have been replaced by gowns.
The optimist would perhaps suggest that intentions are irrelevant. After all, many countries are getting much-needed life-saving equipment. So what if the Chinese government are using Jack Ma, the wealthiest, and perhaps most acceptable face of the regime, as a PR stunt to bolster their international image? At the end of the day, his donations mean 1.1 million more Africans will get tested for Covid-19.
But intentions do matter. China does not care so much for the health of Africa, but for its wealth. It is currying favour, hoping that beyond the pandemic, it can leverage its generosity to expand the Belt and Road Initiative, which has already led to its accumulation of 17% of the continent’s debt.
In mid-April the G20, a collection of the world’s richest countries, suspended debt payments for 77 of the poorest nations, many of which are in Africa. China agreed to this, but has since resisted calls to go further. Stephen Karingi, director of the trade division at the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa, said the international community’s support should be “weighed against the damage Covid-19 will cause”. But China is not in favour of a blanket relief rollout, and prefers to work bilaterally, according to two diplomats in Addis Ababa well versed in the on-going negotiations.
While the government maintains it is open to the idea of restructuring its debt, others fear it will use this opportunity to capitalise. The situation in Guangzhou has further complicated matters, where a recent controversy highlighting Chinese racism towards black people, in a city home to the largest African diaspora in Asia, has fanned nationalistic sentiment. People see Africans as “ungrateful”, and any massive debt relief risks domestic criticism.
Africa has proved more resilient than many originally thought. It may still be early, but quick and decisive action in countries like Rwanda and South Africa have allowed lockdowns to be partially lifted before much wealthier nations, like the UK. That being said, the biggest threat will not be the virus itself, but those that stem from it. The economic consequences of the pandemic could spark a humanitarian crisis far greater. China needs to start valuing human life over geopolitical power. Whether it will do remains to be seen.