Staff Writer @nisaislam
WASHINGTON–According to recent figures published by Johns Hopkins University, over 2.7 million cases of Covid-19 have been detected worldwide, with 192,019 deaths and 752,148 people now recovered.
In Africa, Nigeria has logged about 981 cases and 31 deaths; South Africa about 3,953 cases and 75 deaths; Ghana about 1,279 cases and 10 deaths and Kenya about 336 cases and 14 deaths. Those numbers may seem small now but in countries without adequate social distancing and shutdowns of society, the pandemic has a serious impact and will, hopefully, avoid catastrophic conditions related to the impact of Covid-19–and not just the loss of life. Africa is facing a food crisis because of locust infestation in some areas which could be made worse with people and equipment unable to move easily from country to country.
“We will only halt Covid-19 through solidarity,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization director-general. “Countries, health partners, manufacturers, and the private sector must act together and ensure that the fruits of science and research can benefit everybody.”
The Final Call newspaper recently organized an important online discussion of the Covid-19 impact on the Motherland, which included the economic impact, the social impact and pandemic concerns either unique to Africa or unsettled, unique concerns germane to the continent. It was livestreamed April 23 and the program can be viewed at www.finalcall.com.
“I was working with Dr. Ndongo Sylla, an economist from Senegal, on how to control the narrative about Africa and creating a platform to get accurate information out. Then the coronavirus hit and I suggested we pull together African professionals that represented the entire continent. We wanted a wholistic approach,” said Jehron Muhammad, Final Call Africa Watch columnist who organized the forum.
“We also included Dr. Desta Muhammad who was trained in Cuba because they have sent doctors all over the world. Cuba has a track record of dealing with pandemics but America hates Cuba and won’t let them help us. Cuba was instrumental in helping China as well,” he said.
The forum covered topics such as testing, economics, women’s issues, leadership and China’s role in Africa. The scholars, activists and advocates who convened online over a video platform were from Senegal, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Sudan as well as Chicago and Philadelphia.
Final Call Editor-in-Chief Naba’a Muhammad and journalist Khalil Charles, who lives in Istanbul, Turkey, and has lived in Sudan, were co-moderators. Philadelphia-based writer Jehron Muhammad organized and introduced the session. Participants included Dr. Desta Valdez Muhammad, who was trained in Cuba’s medical school and practices in California; Senegalese economist Dr. Sylla; Kenyan activist and African women’s advocate Crystal Simeoni of Femnet, who is also a fellow with the London School of Economics; Leah Eryenyu of Uganda, who is a research, advocacy and movement building manager with Akina Mama Afrika and works on the intersection between gender oppression and economic exploitation; Redge Nkosi of First Source Money and Public Banking in South Africa; Christobel Phiri of Southern African Trust in Johannesburg; Riaz K. Tayob of the Southern and East African Institute in South Africa; and Mekki Elmograbi of MC-Media in Sudan, who sent in a video as part of the discussion.
The online session was called “Africa: The Economic Ramifications of the Coronavirus Pandemic.”
Panelists talked about the challenges of the pandemic, which has closed some borders and put people out of work as social distancing and shutdowns are employed to control spread of the disease.
That may be working given the small number of those infected, who often came from abroad or were visiting abroad and contracted and brought the disease back home, but there are concerns about violence and killings by security forces to keep people in their homes, said panelists.
Most Africans also cannot afford to work from home and must earn a living as social safety nets are frayed and nations are swamped with debt that sucks up money that could be used for services and infrastructure.
“Each (Covid-19) test costs $50. Targeted mass testing must be balanced against the cost of testing,” explained Ms. Simeoni, who works for one of Africa’s largest women’s rights networks.
“Over 70 percent of our labor force is informal (don’t have traditional jobs). We have to find hybrid ways to manage the virus. The city (Nairobi) is on curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. We have contact tracing and mandatory quarantine for anyone testing positive,” she said of Kenya.
She echoed those who call for greater global collaboration on health services and against the pandemic. “This is needed especially when countries are becoming more nationalist in their approaches,” said Ms. Simeoni.
Leah Eryenyu, based in Kampala, Uganda, told the live stream audience, “I think one of the things that needs to happen is that the African Union needs to step in because that is the accountability mechanism for states on the continent, and I would say, put in check errant leaders or leaders that are actually putting their citizens lives in danger. But even closer to home, we have regional economic blocs. In the case of Tanzania, it is the East African Community that comprises six countries including Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Burundi.”
“If I can just give a case of Uganda where you have, you had about 10 million people living in poverty, that means that those are people that make about $1.25 a day. That’s their daily income and they’re saying that the shock of the pandemic is going to catapult about 15 million more people into poverty.
“Just because the economy opens does not mean that everything is going to spring back to life. People are still going to have a lot of debt. People are not going to have any money to actually spend even when the shops open. So, it means that there’s a real big need for relief,” she argued.
Final Call Editor in Chief Naba’a Muhammad, who co-moderated the forum, said, “We are witnessing the global system of White supremacy. Through this, White nations settle their differences among themselves to assert their domination over Black people regardless of whether they are in Africa, the United States or Brazil.”
He asked the panelists about the type of global leadership necessary to confront this pandemic. “Weak leadership is affecting the way the pandemic is playing out,” Christabel Phiri of Southern Africa Trust based in Johanesburg said.
“The pandemic has brought to light the weak health care systems we have,” she added.
Ms. Simeoni responded, “There is apartheid in the global governance of Africa. We don’t sit at the table, but we are expected to implement the policies. Africans have to put money in a Covid Relief fund.”
“The pandemic has created an opportunity for African countries to work together. We don’t even trade among ourselves. This could be the start,” she added.
Dr. Sylla, the Senegalese economist, said, “As with many other African countries there are a lot of people who work in the informal sector who cannot afford the lockdown. They cannot afford to be in a situation and face an economic crisis. The (Senegalese) government has tried to aid these people with the food aid program.”
“For the rest of West Africa, you could say the situation is manageable. We have to take care that the official numbers mostly reveal the weak testing capacity in Africa,” he warned.
Dr. Sylla argued African nations must also begin taking out loans in their own currency based on their own projections, resources and collateral. Taking out loans in the currency of Western nations weakens Africa, increases the costs of the loans and undermines true sovereignty, he argued.
The second half of the three-hour forum was moderated by Khalil Yusuf Charles, deputy news editor for TRT World based in Istanbul, Turkey. “The speakers gave important points and solutions about what should be done. I was struck by Dr. Sylla’s remarks about money and finances. He made a strong case about the pseudo-colonialization going on there,” Mr. Charles told The Final Call.
“Ms. Simeoni from Kenya raised concerns about African leadership. Does Africa have the kind of leadership necessary to handle this crisis? The verdict is still out on that. Our goal for this forum was to give everyone a platform to talk about local production, vaccines, social distancing, infrastructure issues, the brutality of the situation, domestic violence issues for women and border trade,” he continued.
“In South Africa, we are looking at this as a Great Lockdown. Just like we had the Great Depression and the Great Recession,” said Redge Nkosi of First Source Money and Public Banking based in Pretoria.
“Testing has increased across the continent. In South Africa we’ve tested 143,570, the largest amount of testing on the continent, 3,953 tested positive, 1,473 recovered and deaths 375,” he said.
“The largest lockdown period was extended for two weeks. We expect to lift the lockdown at the end of the month. Surprisingly the most infections are in the richest areas of the country. Not the slums where we would expect the slums to be highly impacted,” he said.
While social distancing has been recommended for everyone all over the world this may be difficult to enforce in Africa. Many people without the comfort of bank savings or credit cards may see the cure as worse than the disease and risk breaking the law to work just to feed their families. There are also social norms to overcome.
“Social distancing in Sudan is a very big challenge for this community. The situation has forced people to have social distances like three meters or five meters. People now still shake hands. They sit together very closely. It doesn’t matter if they need to do that or not. A lot of people, they didn’t close their mosques. They pray together and now we are heading to taraweeh prayers in Ramadan,” said Mekki Elmograbi, a writer based in Khartoum via a recorded statement.
“Even if they didn’t pray in the mosque, they’ll pray at home or in small mosques. This is not because they are challenging the government, but it is tough and hard for the Sudanese community to have this social distance. Although there is an awareness with this challenge, but they can’t change their habits in just a few days,” he said.
Much of the discussion centered on governance and economics and what takes priority. “We must put people first not the economy,” argued Riaz K. Tayob of the Southern and East African Institute, who works in South Africa.
“Africans lack a national development plan. That’s why China has gotten away with what it has. Africa needs to set its own benchmarks. That way it doesn’t matter who the developer is, Africa is focused on their benchmarks. This pandemic is a cardiac arrest for the entire global economy,” he said.
Panelists called for a more united African approach to the pandemic and for progress on the continent. What’s needed is true Pan Africanism, which seeks common benefit, not continent-wide “African liberalism,” which imitates Western economic thought and is obsessed with growth and profit versus the welfare of people, they said.
The IMF and other international lending and financial institutions have pushed programs that decimated social goods, like national health care in favor of public-private partnerships with fees and many cannot afford for services. Too often the focus has been on tackling specific diseases like malaria versus building hospitals and health capacity and focusing on prevention and things like clean water. Too often these institutions have forced austerity programs on African nations in exchange for loans but these programs decimate the social and other needed services, said panelists.
There is a lack of U.S. leadership, which includes pulling funding from the World Health Organization, and Europe but there is not a unified African Union voice calling for debt relief, which would free up money for services and development, panelists argued.
There is fear that if Covid-19 numbers rise in Africa, the health systems will be overrun and in Uganda, for example, there is fear of people who recovered from coronavirus and a stigma for those who come back to their communities after quarantine.
In Senegal, the month of April will be a critical month to see if the pandemic will grow, said Dr. Sylla.
Women who work in marketplaces or who are often food vendors or own small restaurants are specially hit hard by the loss of income, said panelists.
There is also a need for collaboration with Cuba, not just with doctors but with technology sharing and developing Covid-19 tests on the continent, said panelists.
Dr. Desta Muhammad said the Cuban health care model, which focuses on prevention, common good, uses small health centers and regular interaction with local residents can help Africa. In Cuba, the first interaction with health workers is not in hospitals but in regular contact, she said. When an epidemic or illness strikes the health workers already know those who are most vulnerable, she explained.
While Africa faces challenges, panelists said there is room for optimism and the pandemic’s aftermath will leave room for creating something new and different and they want their brothers and sisters in America and the Diaspora to be part of the solution.
(Final Call staff contributed to this report.)