African Union’s response to fight COVID-19 commendable

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At the turn of the new decade just months ago, the world was ecstatic that with it came some good tidings. To the utter shock of many, the first chapter of this decade has come with panic and grief brought about by COVID-19. Since the first case was reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, the number of COVID-19 cases has risen globally to 2.7 million with 738,032 recoveries and 190,549 deaths – according to data from the Centre for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. These figures are from 213 countries with 52 from Africa – only Comoros and Lesotho have not reported a case. Africa has recorded 25,940 cases, 6,968 recoveries and 1,240 deaths.

Alarmed by the potential of the global economy grinding to a halt, African leaders caucusing in Addis Ababa for the African Union’s (AU) 33rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government in February recommended that Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) activates its Emergency Operations Center and Incident Management System to improve surveillance, emergency response and prevention of the disease. This came on the backdrop of the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Egypt while the second (the first in sub-Saharan Africa) was in Nigeria. The AU was concerned that the pandemic may be difficult to nip in the bud if proper preventive measures are not adopted in time. A two-pronged approach was taken; immediate rapid response and the post-COVID-19 measures. Initially, AU’s focus was on enhancing surveillance for Severe Acute Respiratory Infections (SARI) 8 (which has a genetic correlation to COVID-19 virus), notifying authorities on persons who meet the case definition for SARI and those with travel history record from COVID-19 hotspots.

With confirmed cases escalating, AU called for urgent restriction of movement or lockdown to and from affected areas to contain the spread of the coronavirus. To create a war chest for the pandemic, AU urged member states to consider reviewing their budgets to reflect prioritization of spending in healthcare systems more so on the infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, laboratory tests, personal protection equipment (PPEs) and social protection for the vulnerable population. Additionally, member states have also adopted fiscal and monetary policy measures aimed at increasing liquidity to support affected SMEs – drivers of production, job creation, contribution to exports and facilitating equitable distribution of income. Some member states have gone ahead to commit special COVID-19 funds to fight the pandemic.

The AU has also directed the African Union Commission (AUC) to lead debt relief negotiations of African external debt amounting to Kshs23.6 trillion for a swift response by individual member states and within the Regional Economic Communities (RECs). The AU chairperson Mr. Ramaphosa has appointed Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigerian economist), Dr. Donald Kaberuka (Rwandan economist), Tidjane Thiam (Ivorian banker) and Trevor Manuel (South Africa’s former finance minister) as AU’s COVID-19 Special Envoys to mobilize international support for a comprehensive stimulus package, deferred debt and interest payments.

Member states have been encouraged to partner with the private sector to raise funds for fighting the pandemic. The AU in partnership with Africa CDC launched a public private partnership initiative – Africa COVID-19 Response Fund, to raise an initial Kshs15 billion to prevent transmission and circa Kshs40 billion for the procurement of medical supplies and social protection. The founder of Alibaba,  Jack Ma has donated medical equipment towards this cause.

For post-pandemic, the AU has urged member states to strengthen the productive capacity of the private sector to process raw materials locally. This is meant to improve domestic resource mobilization and minimize supply chain disruptions caused by the continent’s dependence on external financial flows estimated to be 11.6% of Africa’s GDP compared to 6.6% of developing economies’ GDP. Due to the overstretched health systems, the AU has recommended the need for African countries to complete the signing and ratification of the African Medicine Agency (AMA) – a specialized agency of the AU for regulating medical products. This is part of the AU’s efforts for establishing regional public private partnerships to produce medical, pharmaceutical products and PPEs to not only combat the COVID-19 pandemic but to also reduce Africa’s imports and ensure high quality control of production.

In addition, there is need to harness digital revolution for economic transformation to achieve AU’s Agenda 2063 particularly on youth unemployment and teleporting for white collar workers. The AUC has also been tasked with the responsibility of leading negotiations for increased funding from multilateral donors to develop the healthcare systems in Africa.

The AU also emphasizes the need to promote transparent sharing of information to citizens to minimize the spread of false information “fake news” to avoid a situation where the continent will be fighting both the pandemic and “infodemic” (false information about coronavirus).

The above mitigation measures coupled with collective and individual responsibilities like washing of hands with soap, use of sanitizers and masks, self-quarantine and social distancing will go a long way to reduce the magnitude of the impact that the pandemic could have on the African economy. Let us stay home, stay safe and flatten the curve.

By Bernard Ayieko

The writer is an economist and a regional commentator on trade and investment. Twitter: @BenShawAyieko Email: ben.ayieko@yahoo.com

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