Is European aid for Covid-19 response what Africa really needs?

Locals in South Africa keep social distance as they queue during the distribution of food parcels to vulnerable residents by the local government during a 21-day lockdown. The country has recorded the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Africa, April 7,2020.
Locals in South Africa keep social distance as they queue during the distribution of food parcels to vulnerable residents by the local government during a 21-day lockdown. The country has recorded the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Africa, April 7,2020. REUTERS - SIPHIWE SIBEKO

The European Union has pledged 15 billion euros to help vulnerable countries fight Covid-19, particularly in Africa. While hailed as a much-needed stimulus for the continent, some critics argue Africa should not keep begging for help.


"Things are likely to get worse before they get better," EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a stark warning Tuesday via a Twitter video message.

Governments and health systems in wealthy nations are already feeling the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, but poorer countries could be hit far harder.

“Africa could experience the same problems that we are facing in Europe in a matter of weeks," von der Leyen said.

To slow done the virus' spread, the EU has pledged more than 15 billion euros to vulnerable countries, notably on the African continent.

"It is in our interest to ensure the fight is successful worldwide," von der Leyen insisted.

The announcement was welcomed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Wednesday after UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that Covid-19 could kill millions of Africans.

Time for solidarity

"The European Union funding is much needed," commented Noura Hamladji, Deputy Regional Director for Africa at the UNDP.

"It's time for solidarity, and everyone needs to play their part," she told RFI.

The coronavirus carries risks not just for Africa's weak health systems but also its economic growth, which Hamladji reckons could be slashed by more than a half from 3.8 percent down to 1.8.

The threat from Covid-19 is unprecedented, she said. "This is the worst crisis since the Second World War and no doubt, the solidarity and support will need to match that."

So far it is not, reckon some of Africa's leaders, who are demanding bigger aid packages. Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia's prime minister has asked the G20 for an emergency stimulus worth $150 billion.

On Tuesday, Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chair of the African Union Commission matched that call, urging the international community to "go beyond good intentions" in an interview with France 24.

No more begging

For other observers, it is time Africa stood on its own two feet.

"Africans can't keep running to Europe or the Americans begging for help," says François Ndengwe, Chairman of the African Advisory Board, a consultancy firm in Paris, on the phone from Washington.

"Why would the Europeans or Americans prioritise Africa right now when they have their own issues to deal with?" he told RFI.

EU leaders on Wednesday failed to agree on a deal to help states hard hit by the pandemic, such as Italy, casting doubt on their ability to find a consensus for African countries further afield.

Even if they do come up with the money, "15 billion dollars cannot be enough for a continent the size of 1.3 billion people," reckons Ndengwe.

But that's not the only problem: "We've been taking aid for six decades and look at the result. The money hasn't gone where it's needed."

Wake-up call

While Africa has had more time to prepare for the coronavirus outbreak, which first emerged in China in December 2019, Ndengwe says the virus has exposed the gaps in the continent's healthcare and financial system.

"This should be a wake-up call to African governments to put in place the financial machinery to withstand such shocks," he argues.

"Africa should have the pharmaceutical structure and manufacturing plants in place to make its own masks and medicine. It would be a nightmare for them to look outside."

The nightmare though, is already within. Ventilators are scarce and Sub-Saharan Africa has about one doctor for every 5,000 people. With the virus already at Africa's doorstep the continent needs rapid support and not controversy argues the UNDP's Hamladji.

Playing catch-up

"It is not time for controversy. It is time to act quickly and with solidarity in a multilateral manner," she reckons.

"Yes, the health system is no doubt the Achilles heel of many African countries. There is a need now to really step up and scale up quickly."

Although playing catch up, Africa so far has managed to contain the coronavirus outbreak through advance warnings, managed by the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC).

In early February, only South Africa and Senegal could test for Covid-19. Today, more than 40 countries can.

Some analysts want any injection of cash to be geared towards the CDC to continue to boost testing capacity on the continent.

Hamladji meanwhile would like to see EU funding go towards vulnerable groups.

Weak protection

"We have 10 million people displaced in Africa and 6 million refugees. Then we have only 17 percent of people who have some kind of social protection system. So, it is very important to finance them quickly," she said.

Ndengwe agrees. With African economies largely dependent on the informal sector, the economist says governments need to offer their citizens protection.

"You can’t ask these people to stay at home without giving them an alternative."

No country is able to match the sums being spent in the West, where the United States last week rolled out $2 trillion bailout package to shore up businesses.

Still, Ndengwe hopes that Africa's single trading market and unique currency will enable it to leverage some of the West's financial clout to forego bailout money.

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