Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article that appeared in the (August/September) edition of Forbes Africa Magazine.
It was not just the fragility of human life that the coronavirus revealed; it was the precarious position of Africa’s healthcare systems, the inability to handle the rapid urbanisation and population growth and the fundamental disconnect between states. Around the continent, as countries emerge from strict lockdowns, there is an understanding that Africa’s challenges must not fall to the wayside as we combat this invisible enemy. It is easy to lose sight of the end goals in these times. It is essential to identify where Africa will be located in the post-corona world.
What then is the post-corona world? Is this the world we envision after a vaccine or the world where the coronavirus persists? Will we adapt to the new normal? In the words of Arundhati Roy, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
In an address to the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN) in May, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation delivered a powerful speech. She ended with an important message, “Timely and vigorous actions by all our leaders will not only lead to addressing the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic but will also contribute to strengthening the foundation for lasting cooperation and solidarity among African countries, to achieve durable peace, security and development in Africa.”
This, of course, must take into account the expected fallout from the coronavirus. Early estimates from the African Development Bank indicate that Africa could lose between $35 and $100 billion just from the drop in the prices of raw material. Similarly, the World Economic Forum estimates that global losses for the continent will be to the tune of $275 billion. Amidst Africa’s myriad challenges, inequality and disparity will widen. In fact, the UN expects that Africa’s economic growth could contract by 2.6%, which would push about 29 million more people into extreme poverty.
Africa is growing rapidly. The global share of African urban residents is projected at 20.2% by 2050 while the population is expected to increase by roughly 50%, to over 1.8 billion by 2035 – accounting for nearly half of global population growth over the next two decades. Yet, even before the coronavirus, 10 of the world’s 19 most unequal countries were in Sub-Saharan Africa. This population growth, however, has leaned heavily on a survivalist economy. The dependence on this kind of economy makes the continent particularly vulnerable to threats such as the coronavirus or even food security, as two mere examples.
In this context, unity remains more pivotal than ever as the continent looks for avenues for economic development and increased industrialisation. There is scope for greater multilateralism. We have seen a shift towards unity in the ceasefires that have been declared across the continent, yet the ongoing conflict has hampered the continent’s developmental goals. The pandemic, on the other hand, has propelled the AU into action, despite past criticisms for its inability to collectively mobilise. The special envoys appointed in South Africa to mobilise international support to address the economic challenges the continent will face has been indicative of collective strength.
This may be a step in forging closer ties on the continent and could potentially enhance the scope of the African Continental Free Trade Area. The implementation of this has been delayed due to the pandemic, but its importance has not been lost. The objective of the agreement is to accelerate trade within the continent, which will boost the continent’s trading position in the global markets and will cushion the continent against global shocks in the future. Africa, in general, is heavily dependent on imports, but there is an opportunity to rethink our supply chains as we focus on trade within the continent.
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons we will learn from the pandemic is where to invest our money and resources. The coronavirus has revealed deeply entrenched weaknesses in our public institutions, particularly in the healthcare sector. While we have managed to largely avoid overcrowding of our healthcare systems with swift action from governments, this remains a challenge that must be tackled. Research and innovation need to be directed at our public services.
As we begin to rebuild and revitalise our economies, there is scope for increased emphasis on the tourism industry. One of the most crucial steps will be for countries to reimagine domestic tourism, particularly in countries such as South Africa and Kenya, with wildlife. This could be positioned as attractive to foreign tourists, given the affordability of many African countries. Airbnb could see an increase in business but at the expense of the established hospitality industry.
COVID-19 has certainly magnified our challenges, and although we find ourselves wading through unchartered waters with no end in sight, there is hope that this could be our watershed moment.
*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.