The new coronavirus officially spread into Africa on Valentine’s day. The cradle of this loveless spreading into the continent was Egypt. Barely two weeks later the first confirmed case in sub-Saharan Africa was recorded in Nigeria. On 13 May, the Kingdom of Lesotho recorded its first confirmed case. With this, every single African country was in the grip of the pandemic, which had become truly global.
There had been widespread fears that the pandemic would wreak havoc once it arrived on the continent. Melinda Gates said that dead bodies would litter the streets. Such views were based on the continent’s dismal state of public health systems, large numbers of poor people – many of whom live in slums with poor sanitation and lack of clean water – and the African governments’ institutional weaknesses in putting up regulations.
It does appear now that the worry, well-meaning or otherwise, was unfounded. By the end of May, there had been about 150,000 confirmed cases with barely 4,000 associated deaths recorded. This was against global figures of 6.2 million recorded cases which had left almost 400,000 people dead.
But beyond these figures, COVID-19 has had a significant adverse impact on maternal and child deaths and other health indices. And, as well as a public health emergency, the pandemic has been the trigger of a general crisis of the capitalist system. The economy has taken a battering which is throwing the continent into the maelstrom of recession.
A public health emergency
Why COVID-19 has been relatively benign in Africa is presently a mystery. There have been attempts to explain this good luck: a young median age, warmer climate, institutional lessons (and possible immunological defence) from the fight against earlier epidemics like Ebola, a relatively low level of interconnectedness of the continent with international travel. But at the moment they are just possibilities.
At the biomedical level, there are still a lot of unknowns. There are still debates for example over the dominant view that it is not airborne, but only spread by respiratory droplets. There is also a mounting body of evidence of the virus’ mutation. This should be cause for caution around the possibility of a reversal of our “luck”, particularly in the expected second wave of the pandemic.
There are however pressing public health concerns which relate to the disease and efforts to arrest it, particularly the “great lockdown”. Maternal health services, including ante-natal services, have all but shut down. Women in sub-Saharan Africa, a region which already held the unenviable record of two thirds of all maternal deaths globally, have borne a particularly heavy price. This has consequences for maternal and child mortality and morbidity. There are reports of mothers’ deaths during labour in Uganda and Zimbabwe. Teenage pregnancies are also expected to be on the rise.
Mass routine immunisation programmes have been put on hold in several countries, including Chad, Niger, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. This has left more than 20 million children unprotected from measles. And Niger experienced a new outbreak of polio in April. There could also be half a million more deaths from HIV in Africa, due to COVID-19-related service disruptions, according to the United Nations. And deaths from malaria could double in the region, rising to over 750,000 if measures are not put in place to safeguard malaria prevention work.
COVID-19 is in itself a public health emergency. It has however worsened a public health landscape that was fragile to start with.
The Left debate on lockdowns
This is the context for activists’ debates on what the position of the working-class and left should be on the lockdown. Some rhetorically describe hunger as a virus as rabid as SARS-CoV-2. Workers need to get back to earning a living – about 80% of the working class is in the informal economy. These have been issues raised to support calls for lifting the lockdown.
Dozens of people have been killed and thousands arrested and detained for defying lockdown and curfew regulations. This state repression also seems to justify this position. So does the fact that African cities have more than their fair share of the slums that now dot the planet. Tens of millions of people live in cramped and appalling accommodation, with several families sharing toilet facilities, and some having to resort to open defecation
Most demands for lifting the lockdowns tend to present a false binary – public health or the economy. But the arguments need to have a context.
It could be argued that more people could die, or are in fact already dying, from the lockdown. A rather simplistic statistic to support this view is the projection in Nigeria that 500 people will die weekly from COVID-19 compared with 750 maternal deaths. But this loses sight of how a more serious COVID-19 emergency would crowd out maternal health services amongst others, as the public health system, already in tatters, battles surges that it is grossly unprepared for.
At the heart of a stance against hurried lifting of lockdowns is timing. One thing is clear: relatively quick lockdown imposition helped to slow down transmission at an early stage – which is very important. Similarly, lifting lockdowns should involve strategic timing. To lift them too early could be disastrous. Ghana presents a good, if negative, example of this. On lifting its lockdown mid-April, after three weeks, it had to hurriedly put a ban on public gatherings in place till end of May. This was as a result of a worker infecting 533 colleagues in a fish processing firm.
The WHO noted this, but at the same time it expressed worries about how the lockdown is deepening food insecurity and malnutrition in Africa: “it is important to remember that easing a lockdown should be thought of not as an event, but as a dynamic, data-driven process.”
For states and the ruling class which they represent, their eagerness to lift the lockdowns is also “data-driven”. But the data in question is less those of the lives and livelihoods of working-class people. It is economic data unveiling the bloody face of a looming recession and all that comes with it.
The lit fuse of economic crisis
The continent’s economy as a whole is on the verge of its first recession in a quarter of a century. GDP growth is projected to fall from 2.4% in 2019 to between -2.1% and -5.1% this year. This will be the sharpest contraction of the continent’s economy on record, according to the IMF, which describes what is emerging as “an unprecedented health and economic crisis”.
Output losses alone will cost the African economy between $37 billion and $79 billion. This is because demand for the largely primary commodities African countries export will drastically fall. China, which has been a major importer of goods from the continent, is likely to cutback drastically. Most hard hit would be the least developed countries which rely almost wholly on it, such as Zambia, South Sudan and Mauritania. Demand from Europe (which accounts for more than 50% of exports from West Africa) and North America will likewise take a nosedive.
Oil producing countries will not be spared. In fact, they have already started bearing the burden of a global collapse of oil prices. These fell by 50-70% between January and April. And whilst they slightly rose again in May, they are very likely to fall further in the coming months.
Intra-regional trade will also drastically slowdown. This will lead to further severe consequences for both the organised private sector and the informal economy. Remittances constitute the largest source of external financial flows to Africa ($82.8bn as against $55.1bn in overseas development aid in 2018). With economic decline in the rich countries, these will decline.
The continent imports two thirds of its food. Coupled with the waves of locust invasion that have swept through East Africa for several months (including during the planting season in March), food insecurity will be a very palpable problem for millions of people.
There are three key lessons that emerge for activists from this ticking timebomb before us.
First, the idea of “hunger virus” vs “coronavirus” (which is often an accompaniment of many a pro-lockdown-lifting perspective) is a dangerous myth. Outside our homes as much as inside them, working-class people are screwed, if, as traditional economists put it, all other things stay equal. And it is not a “future tense” matter. With the gradual easing of lockdown, hundreds of thousands of workers in the formal sector are finding there is no work for them to go back to. Indeed, the African Union has warned that no less than 20 million jobs would be lost.
The informal economy, which accounts for 86% of all employment, is already feeling the pinch in several ways. Operators are finding it almost impossible to get resources to buy their supplies, or to find working-class people with money to buy what they have to sell.
Second, a lot has been said about how the global economic emergency shows how interconnected the world is. The point of our departure has to be global, to understand and change the reality of Africa. Capitalism is an international system. It can and will be defeated only with international socialist revolution.
Third, we must make sure the world and Africa do not return to the “normal” of neoliberalism which brought us to this precipice. The need to fight for a new global economic and political order has never been more pertinent. The economic crisis, if we fail to act, is not due to lack of resources. It is because a handful of billionaires and their corporations have the wealth that our labour creates and that they pillage from the earth. It is because profit has been put before people and their wealth before our health. We must not forget that the secret of their wealth lies in our poverty.
We are in uncharted waters. There are no maps, but we have the compass of history. We must mobilise around radical demands, which are concrete, addressing the public health emergency, the economic crisis, and the climate catastrophe. We have to fight and defend any concession we can win. But we should be clear that the full realisation of the body of our demands requires system change, and fight for this.
COVID-19 might just be an inkling of an age of pandemics. Preparedness for health crises requires that we build strong public health systems. Almost twenty years after the Abuja Declaration for countries to commit not less than 15% of their annual budget to healthcare, barely four countries have done so. We must demand full implementation of this provision. Free education, including for medical and health students, is important to ensure enough health professionals are trained. Employment and working conditions have to be improved and health facilities upgraded. Public officers who have the luxury of top-notch private hospitals (and schools for their children) must be barred from these.
Ultimately, a COVID-19 vaccine is of pivotal importance for defeating the disease. We must rally around the call for a #PeoplesVaccine – free to all. Otherwise even if it is “universally accessible”, it would be unaffordable for the poor, particularly in “developing” countries.
Rapid changes have been made by capitalists in the past few months. Taxes have been suspended (Algeria) and rents too (Britain), hospitals nationalised (Spain), factories requisitioned and converted to produce for health needs (Italy), countries have refused to bail out companies with accounts in tax havens (Poland), pensions have been increased by up to 14% (Egypt) and the list goes on.
Attempts will be made to reverse these gains as the economic crisis goes full steam. They will say “there is no money tree!” But there is a $36tn tree flourishing in tax havens. And “our” politicians, even in the poorest African country, feed off the fat, while workers try to eke out a living with a pittance. This must be stopped. A mere debt delay (for six months) has been granted to about 20 African countries. We must demand total write off of these debts!
Our trade unions, communities, social movements, and radical and revolutionary organisations have to mobilise around demands such as these, and for the fullest of democracy. We cannot trust the bosses in power. They cannot pursue the demands of the times to their logical conclusion, as they benefit from a system in crisis. Our aim must be their overthrow, and with that the revolutionary overthrow of the system they represent.
Many might say, can we do this? The question can be answered only with our practice. How far we go depends to a great extent on how ready we are to fight. If we fight merely for reforms of the “normal”, or some (Green) New Deal, we will not even get them. We will be made to bear the backbreaking cost of capitalism’s recovery, if it does not bring about the sixth extinction on its pathway of destruction. If we rise for revolutionary change, even if we fail, they will be constrained to build the post-corona world on the basis of a reformist “deal”. The New Deal and the welfare state were concessions to revolutionary fervour and not reformist genuflection.
Another world is possible, but it has to be won through struggle.
by Baba AYE
First published in Amandla! Issue No. 70 pp: 34-36