Africa against Coronavirus: Interaction of shocks, Western Responsibilities

Covid19-Infographic vector created by upklyak on freepick
African countries are facing the COVID 19 crisis head-on. External, both epidemiological and economic, shocks - which reinforce each other - are undermining the health and the economy of these countries. The economic shock could have a more significant impact on mortality than the epidemic itself. By containing the epidemic with a lockdown, Northern countries have exported their potential excess mortality to the South. It is fair to help African countries because of and according to their structural vulnerability, for which their governments are not responsible.

The respective role and interaction of the two shocks faced by Africa

The first shock is epidemiological, corresponding to the importation of the virus with an unequal spreading between countries at this time. The question is to know if the epidemic spread will be similar to that one observed in Europe. A wide diversity of opinions is expressed. Will the epidemic be dramatically sharper because of the obvious difficulty in implementing preventive policies, in particular a general lockdown, because of the poor quality of health infrastructures, the limited access to imported treatments, and the lack of confidence of the population in state instructions? Or will it be mitigated for reasons related to immunological resistance, a widespread use of anti-malaria drugs, the youthful age structure, or a less resistance of the virus to heat?
The second shock, which is likely to be more severe, is the economic shock. We know that it will be brutal, particularly in oil or commodities exporting countries whose prices have been negatively affected by the global recession. It will be the same in countries benefiting from significant migrant remittances whose incomes are themselves affected by the recession in emigration countries, and of course, in countries highly dependent on tourism. The importance of the informal sector does not seem to mitigate the impact of the economic shock. With consequences on food and sanitary situations, the economic shock will have considerable effects on the health of populations and mortality. In low-income African countries, the effects of the economic shock on mortality, particularly among young children, can outweigh the direct effects of the epidemic.
The two types of shocks reinforce each other. The recession will increase the difficulties in combating the epidemic. At the same time, it will contribute to lower the economic activity, not only in the short term but also in the long term due to the now well known consequences of poor health in low-income countries. Finally, the interaction of the two shocks creates fertile soil for internal conflicts with a high risk for the fragile African States. Countries experience shows that conflicts are a factor in the diseases spread.

Responsibility for shocks

One question that African governments inevitably will ask will be the responsibility of the shocks overwhelming their countries. Africa faces two shocks, clearly exogenous, for which it is not responsible: The epidemic shock and the economic shock due to the global recession. The origin and responsibility of the epidemic shock will have a profound impact on public opinion and may lend to varied interpretations, including fantasy, and to political manipulation. As for the economic shock, it has its origin in the global crisis due to lockdown, a price that Western countries are ready to pay to contain the epidemic, in a legitimate way regarding the information and means at their disposal. However, African countries are bearing the brunt of this crisis, amplified by their vulnerability to the global economic situation.
Are African countries responsible for their vulnerability? As FERDI has been studying for years, it is essential in the analysis of vulnerability to distinguish structural vulnerability -independent of the countries' will and resulting from the magnitude of the shock and exposure to it- from the vulnerability depending on the policies currently implemented, which is the voluntary part of the country resilience.
If it is right that West and China, let us say the G20 countries, provide massive assistance to Africa to overcome the transmitted shock, this must be done in a way that is itself fair and effective at the same time. Relaxing or giving up the conditions that traditionally accompany transfers is essential to ensure their speed, as well as their effectiveness.
In response to the economic and financial crisis, modalities opting for direct access to households and small and medium-sized enterprises should be favored. The tools exist: as research has shown for many years, unconditional cash transfers can be effective in fighting poverty, in particular by time of emergency. African countries would remember this, while Western countries, which are wondering about the virtues of the helicopter currency, could be inspired by it.
Regarding the response to the pandemic, African countries, by suffering the shock later, may perhaps benefit from the intensive research carried out today in Western countries on the most effective strategies for the use of masks, tests and medicines, knowing that confinement is likely to prove much more difficult to implement in Africa than in Europe and ultimately more costly in all aspects, including in terms of mortality. If the virus spreads rapidly and in the absence of vaccines, the real political problem could then be the administration of tests and medicines, on what the entire authority of the State would have to be committed, possibly for its survival. One can imagine how dangerous intrusive external conditionalities could be in these circumstances. On the other hand, a rapid and unconditional supply of medicines and tests, depending on the choice of countries, can be a major help.

Health recognized as a global public good

The risk of extreme migratory pressure resulting from Africa's impoverishment is a fear-based justification often used for massive Western support for Africa. Let us forget this ambiguous argument of uncertain ground. There is another argument more clearly related to the common interest. The health of African populations is part of a global public good. Its deterioration can affect the health of populations throughout the world. And the health of the populations of African countries depends fundamentally on their economic development. The Western treatment of the pandemic through lockdown and recession has somehow transferred the coronavirus mortality impact to Africa. The sharing of this impact between countries is a matter of global health.