Africa & the COVID-19 Pandemic

Liz Payne-Ahmadi, Chair of the Communist Party

The COVID-19 pandemic is being exacerbated by the deep-rooted poverty, underdevelopment, and instability which affect the 55 countries and 1.3 billion people of the African continent – a legacy of colonial domination, post-colonial exploitation of people and resources and imperialist economic, political and military interventions today.

The relentless quest to secure, control of Africa’s gems, minerals and oil has over decades fuelled western support for dictatorships and right-wing regimes with no interest in building provision for the health and wellbeing of the masses of people. Together with ethnic tensions resulting from postcolonial settlements, this drive continues to produce devastating conflicts across the continent – in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Mali, Sudan’s Darfur region, Somalia, South Sudan and Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. These war zones are even less able to withstand the impact of the pandemic, as ongoing military operations and devastated infrastructures significantly hamper or prevent medical and aid workers accessing those affected by COVID-19.

These conflicts and crippling poverty also produce millions of refugees – 18 million in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, 26% of the world’s refugee population. Crowded into camps without basic amenities or moving north towards Europe, these people have virtually no protection in the face of a generalised COVID19 outbreak.

The pandemic, which took hold in Africa several weeks later than Europe, is now having a major impact. By 28 April, 33,273 cases of COVID-19 had been reported (up by almost 10,000 from the previous week), with 1,467 dead and 10,091 patients recovered after the infection, according to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), an agency of the African Union. The CDC notes that there is sometimes a time-lag between tests being carried out and reports submitted. It goes without saying that many cases go unreported and unrecorded.

Johnnie Hunter, YCL General Secretary & Challenge Editor

Morocco, Egypt and South Africa are worst affected so far, with in excess of 4,000 cases each. Algeria is a close fourth. The highest recorded death tolls are in Algeria and Egypt. However, when population figures are factored in, Djibouti, Mauritius, Seychelles, Tunisia and Morocco head the list of cases per 100,000 people.  At the time of writing, only Lesotho and Comoros had yet to report instances of the disease.

The World Health Organisation fears the virus will spread rapidly. The UN Economics Commission for Africa has asserted that without intervention more than a billion people could catch the virus, with a death toll above three million and that even with measures in place to contain the virus, over 120 million could be infected.

Poverty and years of underinvestment in public health will be major factors in this. Seventy per cent of the world’s most destitute live in Africa, their plight contrasting sharply with the life of rich and corrupt elites who hold the reins of power in many countries. In Swaziland, “Mswati (the king), true to his policy of enriching and protecting the royal elite and the rest of the Swazi ruling class, has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic as if the majority of our people do not exist” says a spokesperson for the country’s communist party.

The economy of the Africa was facing a major recession about to impact on millions of the most vulnerable before the advent of the virus. This will be compounded with the consequences of the pandemic and measures taken to slow its progress, with businesses failing, unemployment soaring and millions more thrown into poverty. As the prime minister of Ethiopia warned in late March, African economies are fragile at the best of times but now they are “staring at an abyss.”  The health systems of the majority of African countries are fragile and dangerously underequipped, without having to grapple with a global pandemic. Some teeter on the edge of collapse as a result of years of chronic underinvestment. The density of doctors and health workers is in many cases extremely low. Many hospitals lack even basic resources. At the time coronavirus hit, there were said to be only three ventilators in the whole of Mali! 

Many workers and their families are in poor health as a result of poverty and undernourishment, more prone to falling victim to the virus and less able to recover from it. According to the UN, of all continents, Africa has the highest prevalence of certain underlying conditions like tuberculosis and HIV/Aids and diseases such as malaria.

The virus and lockdown cause disruption for almost everyone. But for poor families, the shutdown is often a matter of life and death. The president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, articulated the dilemma clearly when he said that measures to slow down the spread of the pandemic were essential, but that people also had to eat and earn a living. The South Africa Alliance has raised major concerns that under lockdown, domestic violence will soar and many will have difficulties accessing basic food and clean water. Problems are also being stored for the future. Raindependent agriculture is tied to weather cycles and any disruption to planting and harvesting may undermine supply and the future food security of millions.  

Lack of access to clean water and basic sanitation in many parts of the continent and overcrowding in the sprawling shantytowns of cities such as Cairo (20.4 million), Kinshasa (13.3 million) and Lagos (21 million), make it impossible for many to observe minimal hygiene or exercise physical distancing. 

Many now ask why the level of preparedness was so low. The 2014-15 Ebola epidemic raised the alarm. It demonstrated the devastating effects of an “invisible killer.” In the aftermath, everyone knew it was not a question of if this would happen again but when.  Why therefore so little investment in health and other public services? Why was there so little planning for future similar events?

We need look no further than the relationship between the interests of imperialist powers and the local corrupt elites who serve their interests. Writing in 2016, War on Want director, John Hilary, exposed Britain’s part in the continuing “plunder” of Africa’s gold, platinum, diamonds, copper, oil, gas and coal, its “scramble for Africa.” Over a hundred companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, operate in 37 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, “actively aided and abetted by the UK government.”  Collectively they control some $1.5 trillion of resources and over 370,000 square kilometres of land. The revenue of Glencore alone is ten times greater than the GDP of Zambia!    

Little wealth remains on the African continent to benefit the masses. Instead it fills the coffers of multinational corporations and lines the pockets of the corrupt big bourgeoisie in every state.  The fate of millions is of no concern if it gets between the bosses and their banks. The syphoning of wealth has led to a spiral of underdevelopment, underpinned by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). IMF loans are conditional on implementing “structural adjustment programmes.” These force countries to lower living standards for their own people; cut wages, social spending, public healthcare and education; and open their fledgling economies to predatory transnational corporations, all to expedite the repayment of toxic debt.

Small wonder then that little was done since Ebola. The governments of many countries had neither the inclination nor, in some cases, the option to invest in meeting people’s needs when only the interest of foreign capital held sway. Even where there was a will to improve, the cost and scale of what was needed was too great. The prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed put it starkly: “Nothing has prepared us for the threats of COVID-19.”

Going forward, the international movement has a duty support the working class and people of Africa and their organisations in building the post-COVID continent in their interests not those of the multinationals. We must stand in solidarity with peoples and movements in Africa working to free themselves from occupation, as in Western Sahara; from the stranglehold of dictatorships, as in Swaziland; from the machinations of reactionary forces that attempt to thwart all progress, as in Sudan; and from all those who would undermine the sovereignty of states, such as South Africa whose people bravely stood against apartheid.

In Britain, we must campaign vigorously against the aggressive and exploitative foreign policy of our government and its allies. African leaders are calling for a moratorium on debt repayments. We must support them. Sources of support based on true internationalism, such as from Cuba, whose doctors have worked in Africa since 1963 and whose medical teams are now at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19, must not be barred. Britain’s arms trade with Africa and all British military interventions, overt or covert, must cease. But above all, we should demand an end to the plundering and despoiling of Africa. Our solidarity will thus help the people of Africa build a peaceful, safe and healthy future.

Liz Payne
Communist Party

Johnnie Hunter
General Secretary
Young Communist League

This article first featured in the Communist Party’s May 2020 International Bulletin.

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