The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a major shock to public health in some countries, but the African continent has resisted quite well.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Africa seemed at last to be well on the path of development. During the first decade, bolstered by globalization and the rise of a middle class, it showed a 5.5% annual growth rate. This enabled it to resist the 2008 crash, for in 2018 Africa’s growth rate was 3.5% and included 6 of the 10 countries in the world with the highest growth rate. However, growth has been held back by the coronavirus epidemic, which is now threatening its upward trend. The fact that Africa has such a young population (only 4% of people are over 65) and that its experience of AIDS and the Ebola virus led to an early lockdown, has resulted in resilience to the Covid-19 virus. At the end of July, official figures had recorded only 900,000 cases and 19,000 deaths out of a population of 1.2 billion. However, three-quarters of contaminations were in five countries (South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria and Sudan), which shows that the peak is far from having been reached. Furthermore, Africa’s healthcare systems are inadequate, with only 5,000 respirators and a handful of beds for intensive care.
Economic turmoil is already present. In 2020, business activity in Africa will fall by 4%, whilst it ought to have increased by 4.1% – and yet the population is increasing by 3% a year. Not only are countries that are tourist destinations at a standstill, but there has also been a sharp drop in the price of oil and raw materials. At the same time, there is an outflow of capital; international aid, direct investment and money transfers from emigrants have been interrupted, and all this is blocking the financing of business activity. Lastly, there is a humanitarian crisis. The African nations do not have the means to reinsure corporate or household income. Furthermore, the alternative sector accounts for over half of business activity in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the absence of any social buffer, 58 million people have fallen into deep poverty, more than 425 million are living on less than two dollars a day and 15 million middle class people (out of a total of 200 million) are in impoverished circumstances.
Apart from the cyclical shock, the long-term elements that have produced Africa’s economic take-off have been brought into question. There is a fear that the interruption to schooling will mean a return to illiteracy. Lower per capita income is weakening the middle class. The reversal of capital flow is aggravating the fact that infrastructures are scarce. The movement towards integration, embodied in the African Continental Free Trade Area – ratified by 28 out of 54 countries and which would create a market comprising 1.2 billion people and worth 2,500 billion dollars – is being undermined by border closures and by the high level of customs revenue, which accounted for half the tax income of those countries. The end of the CFR franc is another illustration of how integration is taking a step back on a regional level.
Furthermore, the economic, social and humanitarian crisis is fostering ethnic, religious and interstate conflicts. Islamism is taking advantage of national decay, American withdrawal and France’s getting bogged down in the Sahel. Tensions between governments are escalating, as in the confrontation that seems to be arising between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over access to the waters of the Blue Nile around the Renaissance Dam.
And yet there are signs of hope that Africa may continue its economic take-off. Firstly, although the economies based on unearned income (attached to authoritarian powers) have been particularly affected, those countries with a diversified economy and good governance – Morocco, Togo, Ghana and Rwanda – should quickly see a return to development. Secondly, the epidemic has strengthened the African Union. From a financial standpoint, an unprecedented initiative for a unified negotiation on debt owed by the continent as a whole has been entered into with the lenders. It should result in an extension of the moratorium on nations’ repayments and the setting up of a fund to purchase discounted private loans. On the healthcare side, a continent-wide platform has been set up to deal with the orders, payments and logistics with regard to protective and medical equipment.
Africa’s situation is a vital issue for Europe, as much in terms of its potential growth and population (there will be 2.5 billion Africans in 2050 as compared to 530 million Europeans, and 4.5 billion Africans in 2100 as compared to 510 million Europeans) as in terms of security – whether it be Jihadism or encirclement by the Chinese, Russian and Turkish démocratures [démocrature = a combination of democracy and dictatorship]. It is therefore up to the EU to use the Covid-19 epidemic in order to implement a strategy giving support to Africa. Its priorities must be the technological revolution (micro-credits or income support in the form of electronic currency via mobile phones could be put into effect to help the poorest people), the financing of infrastructures and the private sector, debt relief for the different countries, and support for the continent’s integration. The coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that, in an era of universal history, our prosperity, security and health depend on interaction and cooperation between individuals, nations and continents. The 21st century will be Africa’s century, for one out of three people will be living there. It is in everyone’s interest to see its economy take off and to make it secure, rather than see it reduced to poverty and violence.
(Article published in Le Point, 6th August)