By Patrick Kadima
In 2014, Africa was faced with the Ebola epidemic, which affected mainly West African countries, causing fatalities and disrupting the economic sectors.During that, certain African leaders made a call to the world, especially to developed countries, to mobilise resources to help the continent fight off the deadly virus.Indeed the world responded to this call and intergovernmental organisations such as the UN and the World Health Organisation mobilised resources. Countries such as Sweden donated large sums to fight the virus.
This was the type of solidarity and resilience the world showed at that time to prevent a pandemic. Six years later and the continent finds itself in a difficult position yet again.In truth, no country was prepared for the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, even the most developed of nations. It is clear that each country, especially the developed, will first look after itself before helping anyone else, which is true even on an individual level. We do not have to look far to see the truth in this – Italy is a prime example. As Covid-19 ravaged Europe, Italy became the most affected country in that region. Rome pleaded with its neighbours for help as the pandemic stretched its health system to breaking point. Neighbours replied by closing off borders and lending no help to distressed Italians. This brought back memories of how Italy was again left to fend for itself during the Eurozone crisis, as well as during the migration crisis of 2015/16. These events have surely left the Italians with many questions, one of them being: “Where is European solidarity when we are in trouble?”
Africa is just weeks behind Europe in terms of Covid-19. But Europe and Africa differ on many scales, the first being that Africa does not have the financial muscle that Europe possesses. Many African countries, if not all, do not have quality public healthcare systems and this will be felt as the numbers continue to increase. According to the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Mali has only 20 ventilators in total, which translates to one ventilator per 1 million people in a country with an estimated 19 million inhabitants.
The situation in Mali points to the dire straits which most African public health systems find themselves in. Our continent is at a critical juncture. A majority of our population suffers from malnutrition and this, in turn, means that a majority of people have weak immune systems. One lesson, so far, is that people can fend off the virus better if their immune systems are strong. Owing to rampant malnutrition in large parts of the continent, Africa is least prepared to fight the pandemic. Therefore the continent should look at solidarity as one of the answers to fighting against Covid-19. As a continent, we are not poor in knowledge. We have produced quality medical doctors, nurses and scientists. It is vital that we pool or intellectual resources, consult various personnel to share knowledge and push scientific innovation, and come up with a solution. The solidarity of the region should also be seen to be active post the pandemic in various ways.
One of the ways this could happen is for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement secretariat office, albeit having just formed, to start mapping out how the continent will start rebuilding its economic strength, which will take a knock during the pandemic. This way, African countries will be able to look for help among themselves first. Solidarity is not only on a nation-to-nation scale, it also dictates that the private sector play its part. It will only be morally right if mines, consultancy firms, petroleum companies and other industry players donate money and medical equipment to African governments. Solidarity would go a long way in enabling medical professionals to do their jobs without hiccups. Perhaps this is a lesson to us as a continent to build capable public health systems so that we can properly deal with a health emergency should one arise in the future.
The greatest lesson for the African Union is that it should build a crisis fund into which African countries can tap should their finances fail them. The truth is that Africa might not see the magnitude of help it experienced during the Ebola crisis this time around. We have to look to ourselves for solidarity and resilience to make sure that the pandemic does not bring the public health system, as well as the economy, to its knees.
Kadima holds a BA degree from Stellenbosch University, and an LLB from Wits University. He is currently pursuing an interdisciplinary master’s degree in social science, law and economics at Wits, with the Public Affairs Research Institute. Kadima served as a student leader at both institutions. He is also a graduate trainee at a consultancy firm