There is no doubt that we are living through unprecedented times where COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. The impact of the novel coronavirus and its disease, COVID-19, has reverberated worldwide – taking lives, destroying livelihoods and changing everything about how we live and interact with each other, how we work and communicate, how we move around and travel. The disease has not only revealed the vulnerabilities of worldwide public health systems but also left a trail of economic losses globally.
Researchers, policymakers and journalists are wondering how the virus managed to inflict such extensive damage in such a short time, given that we live in an era of unprecedented technology. While the continent of Africa has not recorded the level of COVID-19 deaths and infections seen on other continents, African nations are, however, beginning to feel the socio-economic impact of this pandemic.
A World Bank report claims that COVID-19 could push as many as 60 million people into extreme poverty globally. Though Africa has to date not yet felt the full brunt of the pandemic from a health perspective, the report said that 23 million of the people pushed into poverty are projected to be in Africa. Also, the World Bank forecasts that African nations could collectively lose between $37 billion and $79 billion in output in 2020 due to COVID-19. McKinsey, meanwhile, projects that more than 100 million jobs could be lost in Africa’s formal and informal sectors, due to the pandemic.
One of the biggest challenges for Africa during the pandemic is the low levels of investment in the digital connectivity infrastructure that can facilitate economic activities beyond the big metropolises. Nonetheless, the pandemic has intensified the urgency for African governments to deliver public goods to their people. Therefore, decisions made by African governments nowadays and in the coming months will be some of the most important made in generations. They will affect African people for years to come.
African governments and people are well aware that China is the world’s largest developing nation, which has moved steadily up the value chain to become a key player in the global economy, and has consolidated and expanded its ties with other regions – notably Africa – in the process. They are also well aware of China’s growing role in Africa. In building up its ties with African nations, China has sought to integrate the interests of Chinese people with those of the people of Africa, offering support within the broader framework of South-South Cooperation.
Therefore, it is no coincidence that African nations are actively leveraging their economic cooperation with China to reduce the severity of the pandemic on its people. It is worth noting that China is one of Africa’s strongest partners, being the leading trade partner for 10 consecutive years, financing dozens of billion-dollar projects. These projects help close a massive infrastructure gap estimated at $170 billion per year, according to the African Development Bank. While still dominating the infrastructure space, China's commercial involvement with the continent of Africa has developed significantly over the past decade, deepening and broadening in scope. The investment from China, particularly in technology and small and medium-sized enterprise upgrading, has been increasing. In addition, the projects aid construction by investing in railways, highways and ports, making Africa the fastest urbanizing region in the world and the final frontier of the fourth industrial revolution.
With that said, although the pandemic has presented Africa-China cooperation with new challenges and responsibilities, which are significant, it is worth noting that these challenges can be overcome by strengthening existing patterns of cooperation. Also, COVID-19 has offered African people and Chinese people a vital chance to know each other better, even under tough conditions. As such, in order to attain mutual gain in Africa-China cooperation, African nations and China should act in good faith and mutuality while upholding closer people-to-people ties. It is worth noting that the pandemic has opened up unpleasant wounds of ethnocentrism. Several accusations of racism have been widespread both in Africa and China. African and Chinese people should know that Africa-China cooperation should transcend a transnational basis into one where both Chinese and African people’s hearts and minds are in accord. So, let us make the Africa-China brand a tree of life and uphold the bonds that frame our common shared destiny.
As such, the million-dollar question is, how can China-Africa ties be manifested during and beyond COVID-19, to the benefit of both African nations and China? With China coming out from the pandemic earlier than other nations, it has actively shared its pandemic control experience with the continent by collaborating with African medical professionals online and has exchanged vital hard-earned lessons about sustainable development as well as in the treatment and prevention of the pandemic.
Employing the nation’s industrial leverage and diplomatic reach, China has also been the main source of protective equipment, medicines, testing kits and respirators; most of which have come in as assistance to all African nations. Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to make any coronavirus vaccine universally available once developed. This, therefore, makes sense that Africans maintain close contact with China, not only in its battle against COVID-19 but also in responding to other economic and health challenges that may arise in the future as well.
Having said that, as nations try to restart their economies and turn inward for sustainable solutions to the pandemic losses, bilateral lending may decline. Therefore, as the major financial and trade partner for the continent of Africa, it will make more economic sense for China to support more investments in Africa’s main sectors including energy, construction, manufacturing, agriculture and health.
With the $1 billion Belt and Road Africa infrastructure development fund and the whopping $60 billion African aid package, it is expected for Africa to continue looking east as economic cooperation with China becomes more frequent and robust. As such, African nations can take advantage of this financing opportunity to modernize consequential infrastructure and improve the continent’s health system capacity, health information systems, and local health governance structures that will help detect and respond to all public health threats and emerging epidemic burdens.
One of the major issues raised in strengthening Africa-China relations rotates around debt sustainability. Based on data from China Africa Research Initiative at John Hopkins University, 49 African nations owe China $512 billion; with yearly reimbursement of $8 billion. Notably, although China has already made it clear that it is open to discussing with African nations how best to support them to find solutions to their debt problem, China should also think through debt relief or arranging frameworks that can permit African nations to repay their debt without compromising economic stability. The cooperation between Africa and China is a significant metric of how the debt issue will be solved, as well as how the development prospects I talked about initially will be actualized.
We have to realize that while China is preparing itself to take up the mantle and provide global public goods, it is necessary for African and Chinese people to know that the pandemic is an unprecedented shock to the world and has imposed challenges to Africa-China cooperation. It, therefore, makes sense to build Africa-China ties on the benefits that have already been consolidated, because through unity and solidarity we can save both lives and livelihoods and ensure that other health services, such as for neglected diseases, child vaccination, HIV, TB and malaria, continue to function and improve.
The author is executive director of the Center for Nigerian Studies, Institute of African Studies, Zhejiang Normal University