Africa’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic is a story of defied expectations.
It is now two years since the first COVID-19 case in Africa was reported. Even as the burden of infections remains high – to date Africa has recorded over 11 million cases – dire predictions about Africa’s ability to withstand the health impact of the pandemic have not materialised.
Some have called it Africa’s COVID-19 paradox, that despite widespread poverty, poor living conditions, under-resourced national health systems and scant resources, the pandemic is being effectively managed in a number of African countries.
Several reasons have been suggested for this ‘paradox’. These include the continent’s relatively young population, experience in fighting outbreaks of disease, exposure of the population to previous infections, and limited travel connections in many countries.
Another reason that has been suggested is the rapid response of the African Union to the pandemic, driving a coordinated response and unified strategy. This strategy mobilised resources to fortify national health systems, set up an online platform to secure medical supplies, undertook a continent-wide drive to acquire vaccines, and drove effective public health communications.
At a time when decisive leadership was called for, the leaders of Africa stepped up.
In the course of the past two years, African countries have built remarkable resilience that will be invaluable for future health emergencies of this nature.
Faced with massive global shortages of medical equipment and diagnostics in the early days of the pandemic, African countries turned to local manufacturing of sanitisers, personal protective equipment, COVID-19 test kits and ventilators.
There is another aspect to Africa’s story of defied expectations, namely the realisation that as the global crisis unfolded, our continent could not rely on the generosity of wealthy countries. We had to do things for ourselves.
African countries have had to contend with wealthy nations pledging partnership, solidarity and cooperation, but at the same time acting in a way that holds back the continent’s recovery from the pandemic. An example was the travel ban imposed late last year on South Africa and a number of other countries in the region in response to our scientists’ detection of the Omicron variant.
But nowhere has this been more apparent than in the unacceptable practice of developed countries buying up and hoarding all available COVID-19 vaccine stocks in quantities far exceeding the needs of their populations. This as vast swathes of the so-called developing world struggled to access them for their people.
Our experience of managing COVID-19 has emboldened the nations of Africa. It has shown us that resources and capabilities exist across our own continent to deal with emergencies of this magnitude.
It has reminded us that we have world-class institutions like the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that must be supported and capacitated to fulfill their mandates.
It has shown us how fragile our global partnerships can be, particularly in a global emergency.
Most importantly, it has strengthened our collective resolve to step up pressure on developed economy nations to give us not charity, but our just dues.
Countries of the global north have a responsibility to support Africa’s development in large part due to the role that many of these countries played in plundering, polluting and impoverishing our continent.
Last week, I attended the 6th Summit between the African Union and European Union in Brussels. There, African nations outlined their expectations from the partnership with the bloc as we work to recover from COVID-19 and manage the effects of climate change.
We welcome the help that EU countries continue to provide towards Africa’s sustainable development in a way that develops our capabilities and brings the continent closer to self-reliance.
Last year, South Africa was selected by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the first site for a vaccine technology transfer hub. On the sidelines of last week’s Summit, the WHO announced that six African countries including South Africa will receive the technology needed to produce mRNA vaccines at scale for the continent.
We will continue to make the case for building Africa’s capacity to produce its own vaccines, including through a temporary waiver of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
We welcome the commitment of the AU-EU Summit “to engage constructively towards an agreement on a comprehensive WTO response to the pandemic, which includes trade related, as well as intellectual property related aspects.”
Without being able to manufacture our own vaccines, an equitable recovery will not be possible.
Building a better Africa and a better world is the cornerstone of South Africa’s foreign policy. For Africa to play a full and equal role in global affairs, we must first attend to the developmental challenges of the people of Africa.
We must uplift ourselves by making our own medicines to treat our people and save lives. We must develop our own economies through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), promoting investment and tourism within Africa, accelerating industrialisation, and driving green growth and low-carbon development. We must end all conflict and entrench democracy and good governance.
Thanks to our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cause of African unity has been given a new lease on life. It has given renewed momentum to the project of political and economic integration, which has been strengthened by the advent of the AfCFTA.
Africa has found a new voice. It is bold and unapologetic in its expectations of our partners. At the same time, we are determined that Africa’s challenges must be, are being, and will be, solved by Africans themselves.