What will happen to Africa after the coronavirus?

Caledonian stadium in Arcadia where homelessness people are being accommodated during this 21-day lockdown. Picture: Bongani Shilubane/African News Agency (ANA)
Caledonian stadium in Arcadia where homelessness people are being accommodated during this 21-day lockdown. Picture: Bongani Shilubane/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Mar 29, 2020

Already, tonnes of writings have surfaced on the geopolitical implications of the coronavirus. Most analysts rightly concur that the world changed in those hard to pinpoint moments when the outbreak went globally viral. 

It is now virtually cliché to refer to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that causes the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) or simply coronavirus as a global phenomenon. The World Health Organization (WHO) designated it a pandemic on March 11 – meaning a contagious disease that spreads around the world – after the fact. In other words, the novel coronavirus was global before it was declared pandemic.

What are the implications for Africa? It would help if the whole kit and caboodle of African governments, academics, businesses and civil society comprehended the fact that the world will not be same after the dust settles on the pandemic.    

The words of Italian communist leader and scholar Antonio Gramsci uttered in 1929 ring true today: “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born”. 

With lockdowns, curfews, conspiracies and moral panics, the whole world has not only dramatically changed but continues to do so before our eyes. 

The suddenness and fluidity of the pandemic means that political, economic and financial projection and risk assessments for 2020 and the 2020s decade have to be re-analysed given the upended global optics. It is for this reason that rating agency Moody’s downgrading of the South African on March 27 is not only preposterous but also based on a world quite different from the one we knew just the other day. 

Economic downturns in places like South Africa caused in part by poor governance and in places like Nigeria due partly to oil price wars between Russia and Saudi Arabia will have to be revised afresh. 

Parallels have been drawn between the current crisis and past crises of all kinds. Because the pandemic is both a health and economic problem, the global financial meltdown of 2007/08 has particularly shown an unnerving similarity. 

How the big powers in the global balance of power manage the crisis on their shores and abroad will be a major barometer for the new world that we are uncertainly entering. 

During the 2007/08 crisis, talk of the decline of the West and the rise of what would be referred to as emerging economies was rife. It is perhaps time enough to revisit the works of analysts such as Dambisa Moyo (Dead Aid, 2010, How the West Lost 2011) and Fareed Zakaria (The Post-American World, 2008) to mention but two authors. 

More importantly, the global power play revolving around the coronavirus-enforced dynamics will signal the geopolitical shifts that African countries would need to consider. One point among others is that the period immediately after the global financial meltdown over a decade, saw relations between African nations and emerging powers surging with China as the de facto leader. What happens now that both China and the West have been hammered by the virus?

The new normal post-Covid-19 might mean that African nations reliant on aid from the global north and some emerging economies find themselves on their own as hitherto wealthy nations – badly hit Spain, Italy and China come to mind – struggle to reconstruct their battered economies.    

Six years ago when the Ebola virus ravaged Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone; the US, China and the EU stepped into the breach. Today African countries are virtually on their own as these countries battle the pandemic at home with limited wiggle room to extend a helping hand abroad. 

The little we have seen in assistance is the $500 000 support by the USAID to South Africa, the African nation with the highest number of infections on the continent. China, where the virus is commonly believed to have started has been more agile in donating testing kits across the continent. At this point however, the assistance falls short of traditional American and Chinese responses to disasters of the Covid-19 magnitude on the continent.

The foregoing indicates that African countries that entertain the optimism of the world bouncing back to the pre-pandemic times would better get used to the fact the world is already moving in an entirely new direction. 

Even though the WHO has been censured for slow action when the virus first surfaced in central China, it would appear that this UN entity is the one that has done the most in providing testing equipment and providing public health information the continent. Should African leaders therefore lobby for a bigger role for this cash-starved entity – and indeed the UN system in general – in the post-pandemic period?

The pandemic is a live demonstration and consequence of globalization while at the same time revealing and accelerating its fault lines. 

Save for selected pockets such as South Africa’s fledgling tech industry, Kenya’s nascent innovation hubs and Nigeria’s tech-savvy Nollywood industry, many of the leaps in globalization eluded the African continent. For instance, appreciable use of the internet – globalization’s enabler – started gaining traction only in the mid-2000s long after it had become a way of life elsewhere. 

Ironically, Africa’s late insertion into the heart of the globalization may have been a blessing in disguise, shielding the region from would be up early uptick in coronavirus cases. 

As a demonstration and consequence of globalization, coronavirus has smashed the records in terms of reaching all the corners of the world at supersonic speed. The dense worldwide web of aerial, marine and terrestrial transport systems played a definitive role in the jumping of the virus from China to the rest of the world. These infrastructures that facilitate globalization ensured that the virus could be in one location in one hour and materialise in another location in a couple of hours. 

An observation to make from the transportation dimensions of globalization is that Africa’s weak insertion into the networks meant that the first cases across the board came much later compared to the rest of the world. And, interestingly, the so-called imported cases emanated from Europe, not China! 

As a threat to the essence of globalization, it is now evident that coronavirus will accelerate the dynamics in the global political economy that were already in play. Although primarily a health crisis, its magnitude is such that markets have quickly followed suit into pandemic mode. 

Turbulence has been primarily seen in the slamming of the breaks on international travel and the closure of borders. In some form of reverse anti-globalism, African countries have been the ones to close their airports to arrivals from the developed world, foregoing the benefits of tourism in the process. It is there a possibility that these actions that have been subject of jokes on social media might lead into new migration and border management regimes between African countries and the rest of the world? 

The upshot is that professionals paid to observe the geopolitical terrain will be busy at home in the coming days. 

*Dr Wekesa is a partnership, research and communications coordinator at the African Centre for the Study of the US, Wits University.