On July 24, the Africa Security Initiative at Brookings hosted a panel of experts on conflict, political violence, and international law to discuss how the pandemic has affected Africa, which responses have been most effective, and key takeaways. Brookings Senior Fellow and Director of Research for Foreign Policy Michael O’Hanlon moderated the panel, which included Zoe Marks, lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School; Alexandra (“Xander”) Meise, senior fellow at the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania; Youssef Travaly, senior fellow of the Friends of Europe’s Africa-Europe Alliance; and Desiree Cormier Smith, senior policy advisor at the Open Society Foundations.
The panelists agreed that the economic impacts of COVID-19 will largely outlast the health impacts; however, they flagged the limitations of generalizing across 54 diverse African countries. Given previous experience with pandemics and timely government responses, the African continent, with South Africa being the most prominent exception, has avoided high rates of infection.
However, unlike the Ebola outbreak, which was mainly confined to rural villages, coronavirus wreaks havoc on regional hubs that are crucial for transportation and global supply chains. For this reason, the experts highlighted, many African countries are forced to choose between shuttering hard-won trade and connectivity and protecting their citizens from COVID-19. Consequently, both governments and families are going into debt to make it through the crisis. Likewise, while initial emergency funds have been made available, Official Development Assistance commitments are likely to decline significantly as Western nations direct resources inward. In light of these challenges, the panelists each gave recommendations to support economic recovery in Africa while keeping infection rates low.
Marks underscored the importance of access to information, explaining that disaggregated, real-time data is necessary to tailor responses effectively. She highlighted the proliferation of digital innovation by African startups and tech initiatives as a bright spot in the crisis, noting that these initiatives are culturally resonant and accessible for people on the ground.
Warning against a “copy and paste approach” to the pandemic, Cormier Smith pointed out that the containment measures that were the hallmark of the coronavirus response in the West, such as regular handwashing and social distancing, raise “real practical and equity concerns in Africa.” Furthermore, because the majority of the labor force is employed in the informal sector without the ability to telework and dependent on daily markets, the harmful effects of a mandatory quarantine are magnified. Thus, Cormier Smith stressed the need for innovative, localized responses that tap into the knowledge of entrepreneurs, the youth, and other stakeholders in society.
Meise suggested that Western countries consider alternatives to foreign aid that would provide support to resource-strapped governments without requiring large outward expenditures at the very time that traditional “donor” countries are being pressured to increase their inward expenditures. For instance, the European Union, the United States, and China should consider restructuring or even forgiving debt at the macro level to relieve the financial burden on African countries during the crisis.
Finally, Travaly laid out a four-fold approach that included improving digital infrastructure, accurately synchronizing testing capacities across the continent, fostering manufacturing capacity that can be harnessed during future crises, and improving alignment between government and the medical community. Above all, Travaly called for African countries to take this crisis as an opportunity to improve resilience and reduce dependence on foreign aid.
The general consensus was that the most relevant solutions are coming from within the continent itself. Between African start-ups, courts, civil society, and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, there are a host of players responding constructively to the crisis.
PanelistMichael E. O’Hanlon Director of Research - Foreign Policy, Director - Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Co-Director - Africa Security Initiative, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy