The COVID-19 pandemic, now nearly four months old in Africa, has ushered in an unprecedented interconnected health, social and economic crisis across Africa as it has in most of the world. It has struck every country with varied impacts on different aspects of life.
By mid-June more than 260,000 cases and over 7000 deaths had been recorded on the continent mainly starting in urban areas, while steadily spreading through rural communities as witnessed in Kenya for example.
The vulnerability of African health systems has made COVID-19 particularly tough to confront, largely due to a set of austerity policies that have left public health systems underfunded. These policies have also favoured privatization of healthcare, while diminishing the role of the state in public health provision. The result, as indicated by the Global Health Security Index, a global ranking of national health provision, is that some 33 African countries are ranked as highly vulnerable, many of them having as few as five intensive care beds per million people compared 4000 beds per million in Europe.
Role of Africa’s international partners
African Finance Ministers have called for an immediate emergency stimulus from richer countries of US$100 billion to provide fiscal space and liquidity to the continent’s governments in their efforts to respond to the disease. After all, no one is safe until everybody is safe from the virus.
Undoubtedly, this crisis calls for unparalleled global coordination and mutual support. Which is why it is particularly disappointing to see the UK Prime Minister folding the Department for International Development into the Foreign Affairs Department, one suspects, in a bid to align development spending with its post-Brexit trade and security interests.
Since African countries’ limited national resources are being diverted to address COVID-19, additional international support must be availed to help them integrate the Sustainable Development Goals and decarbonisation plans into their response and recovery measures. Otherwise Africa may fend off the pandemic but still lose years of development progress.
Along with the US$100 billion bailout for Africa, the next thing rich countries must do is to cancel developing world debt. Some 40% of low-income countries, many of them in Africa, are in debt distress or at high risk of falling into distress. Debt repayments reduce governments’ capacity to implement the health and social protection measures needed.
As Tony Elumelu, Chairman of the United Bank for Africa recently noted when he called for a ‘Marshall Plan for Africa’, “the pandemic presents an opportunity to reset the continent, create employment and eliminate poverty”. If well designed, recovery packages could strengthen the manufacturing sector, boost Africa’s promising start-up landscape and increase access to electricity.
The COVID-19 response presents an opportunity to leapfrog to a greener sustainable energy system that allows Africa’s zero-carbon development, while enhancing economic and energy security. Across the continent, there is a massive dependence on imported fossil fuels as well as exports of domestic crude oil and gas in some countries. Nigeria, Angola and the Maghreb nations’ economies in particular continue to rely on oil, with limited plans for reducing this dependency. These fuels also dominate the production of electricity accounting for over 80% of total power supply.
At the same time, access to energy represents one of Africa’s greatest challenges to social and economic development. Current estimates project that the number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa without access to electricity could rise to 654 million by 2030 unless urgent actions are taken to reach them, particularly in rural areas.
As African nations pursue their economic recovery plans, there is a major risk that the continent’s emissions will shoot upif based on the fossil fuel industry. A sustainable development approach needs to be enacted to help Africa deliver sustainable energy access to its energy-poor people, by tapping the abundant renewable energy resources in the continent.
Some countries have been providing a subsistence wage that can cover food and essentials in return for tree planting work. Tree planting schemes such as the Great Green Wall of Africa and recent mass tree planting exercise in Ethiopia should be rolled out in other African countries. Including this as part of an ‘African Green New Deal’ could be a way to provide a basic income through jobs that even unskilled labourers could do, while creating greenery that could help absorb climate-destroying C02 and also deliver adaptation benefits like flood protection and improving soil health.
COVID-19 has been a severe health and economic blow. But if our response takes us down the fossil fuel path we are in danger sowing seeds which will result in a bitter harvest for Africans already bearing the brunt of climate breakdown. Let us take the other path, one of sustainable development, built on the clean renewable energy of the future that would result in a safer, more prosperous Africa.
The writer is the founding director of Powershift Africa, a Nairobi based Energy Think Tank