Covid-19 arrives in Africa. The continent’s fears and the role of the European Union

Camilla Palla

Since the end of November 2019, Covid-19, which appeared for the first time in China, has now spread on a global scale, posing a multi-sectoral and, above all, intercontinental challenge. Africa, in particular, is the continent that seemed to have been temporarily excluded from the emergency. However, since the beginning of March, the number of cases in the area has increased significantly and become a cause for concern, both locally and internationally.

And if the impact of the virus on economies and health systems in Europe is severely testing the resilience of Member States, in Africa it could have even more disastrous effects.

Until mid-February, the coronavirus was perceived by governments and the media as a European issue. However, in the following weeks there was a significant increase in the number of infections and, by mid-March, there were already 25 African countries reporting cases within their territories. As of March 31, the total number of cases in Africa reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) bulletin rose to 5,142, involving as many as 48 countries.

Many countries have adopted measures similar to those already taken in Europe and the rest of the world. For instance, South Africa, Rwanda and Kenya have opted for border closures, gathering bans, social distancing measures and travel restrictions. The biggest challenge, however, concerns those countries that suffer extreme internal situations, where health systems are absent or have been put to the test by years of conflict, food crises and famine or, in many cases, by the presence of endemic diseases, most commonly typhoid, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.

And even where such levels of criticality are not experienced, large cities are the centres of greatest concern, if also considering the slums and informal settlements that surround them. The population living below $2 a day is over 40% in Sub-Saharan Africa. In situations such as these, where access to clean water or private sanitation is rare and often completely absent, containing a highly contagious virus could be an unprecedented challenge.

Apart from the health problems, the economic perspective should also be taken into account. As in the rest of the world, the first effects of the virus outbreak are beginning to affect the African economy. Since mid-February, the decline in demand for oil, gas and raw materials on a global scale (and in particular by China, the main trading partner for a large part of African economies), has led to a drastic drop in prices, slowing down the economies of several countries. UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) estimated that the pandemic will have a negative impact on the gross domestic product of the region, slowing its growth from 3.2% to 1.8% in 2020.

Moreover, the combination of the growing economic difficulties and the slow and uneven response from the different situations in the continent is contributing to the spread of political crises, which are worsening an already extremely complex and vulnerable picture, putting the safety and protection of the population at risk.

With a view to trying to contain the spread of the virus, the WHO has identified a package of emergency management guidelines that include, among others, measures such as social distancing and quarantine, repatriation of citizens and awareness-raising campaigns aimed at various groups, such as governments, health workers or companies and employees. A plan is currently being considered to organise coordination on a regional basis, to try to ensure access to medical care and, above all, to limit the spread of the virus. This support and monitoring activity is being carried out in full collaboration with the African Union, which, at the same time, has launched a continental strategy for emergency management on an inter-regional scale, which provides for the creation of an Africa Coronavirus Task Force (Aftcor), with the aim of coordinating the political and economic initiatives of the Member States.

And what is the role of the European Union? Currently, the EU plans to allocate EUR 15 million in Africa to support governments’ efforts to implement crucial measures such as rapid diagnosis and epidemiological surveillance. Thanks to joint efforts with the WHO, 47 African countries now have the test kit for Covid-19 available.

There is no doubt that a more structured intervention will not be long in the coming.  European cooperation with Africa is in line with the strategy launched by the Commission on 9 March, an action plan which provides for the intensification of cooperation between the two continents in a number of strategic areas. On 27 February 2020, the EU Commission and the African Union Commission met in Addis Ababa to discuss future cooperation between the two continents. The Communication of early March identifies five main areas for action. Specifically, green transition, digital transformation, sustainable growth and jobs, peace and governance and, finally, migration and mobility.

These targets, which fully reflect European agenda priorities, must be pursued through a series of targeted initiatives. From an economic point of view, the starting point must be a substantial increase in investment with a view to sustainability and full economic integration, through the introduction of policies that impact on the business sector through innovation, transparency and competitiveness. But the Strategy does not stop at a purely economic side. In line with the Commission’s Skills Agenda, the EU-Africa Strategy also includes a focus on increasing skills and knowledge, particularly with respect to women and young people, in terms of increasing social rights. This can be done in a context where democracy, the rule of law, gender equality and human rights are guaranteed, supporting governments in the political restructuring process necessary for this transition.

Yet how will these initiatives be supported? According to the European Commission’s proposals, in the current negotiations on the future long-term budget, 60% of the new financing tool for EU external action for the period 2021-2027 will be dedicated to building the different tools needed to implement the priorities identified by the EU-Africa Strategy.

The new common strategy should be formally approved at the EU-African Union summit in October 2020, which will be the last step in a series of meetings later this year. The next meeting will be the AU-EU ministerial meeting in May, which will be attended by foreign ministers from both continents, according to developments dictated by the current emergency. Given the current crisis situation and the new challenges that this situation imposes, a communication from the Commission is expected to identify possible new priorities and measures to take forward cooperation and support the African continent in the fight against the coronavirus.

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