By Dr. Muhidin Shangwe
It was hosted by the two chairpersons of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the Chinese President H.E. Xi Jinping and H.E. President Macky Sall of Senegal. Also hosting was H.E. Cyrill Ramaphosa, President of the Republic of South Africa and the current chairperson of the African Union (AU). Invited guests included Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) and Tedros Adhanom, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). A total of 13 African heads of state or heads of government attended.
The summit took place at the time when the number of COVID-19 cases in Africa is rising, albeit at a lower rate than predicted by experts. At the summit, President Ramaphosa revealed that the continent has more than 250,000 cases and over 6,700 deaths so far. Meanwhile, the WHO database shows that the global number of COVID-19 confirmed cases stood at 8,242, 999, whereas 445,535 people have succumbed to the disease as of 19 June 2020. Those numbers will keep rising at least in a foreseeable future unless humanity joins hands and come up with sustainable coping mechanisms, or better, cure for the disease.
The slower pace of infection may have momentarily provided some kind of relief for African governments and their people especially given initial fears that the continent would be the next epicenter of the pandemic. Yet, Africa and indeed the world cannot afford complacency by lowering their guard. It is important that humanity remains collectively vigilant.
Moreover, the relatively low infection rate warrants scientific investigation on the African conditions leading up to the current state of affairs. It means the continent has its own contribution in our understanding of the disease in particular and in the global health conversation in general. We are in this together, as equals. Such was the spirit of the summit as expressed in the language of respect, equality and mutuality.
The main theme of the summit was solidarity when the coronavirus has exposed the global political, social and economic fault lines. Instead of addressing this weakness, it is unfortunate that others have opted for a blame game to the point of sabotaging the very institutions designed for dealing with crises of this nature. For instance, both China and the WHO have been on the receiving end of, in my opinion, unfair criticism especially by the Donald Trump administration. However, as the virus spread outside China, the world soon realized that many countries were caught unprepared despite the window of opportunity that China offered as it battled with the virus in the early stages of the outbreak. Those pointing an accusing finger were soon to find themselves being criticized for their own mishandling of the pandemic.
Certainly the coronavirus has humbled us all, regardless of borders, ethnicity or economic status.
From the perspective of Afro-Chinese relations, the China-Africa COVID-19 Summit underscored the notion of all-weather friendship between Africa and China. It has to be noted that China has already offered assistance to Africa by dispatching its own medical teams and equipment to many countries in Africa. Conversely, Africa has not been a passive recipient of Chinese medical aid. Early this year, for instance, the government of Equatorial Guinea donated $2m to China to help fight the coronavirus. Additionally while China reiterated its hands-off Africa policy at the summit, the African side reciprocated by expressing support for Beijing’s position on Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the summit is that it brought the continent’s own COVID-19 agenda to the global limelight. The agenda essentially calls for a multilateral approach in the fight against the coronavirus. This is strategically imperative as Africa’s health infrastructure cannot stand the true test of the pandemic. Indeed, even the rich countries themselves have not fared very well in this fight if our recent memories of overwhelmed hospitals in Europe and North America are anything to go by.
It’s a fact that some African countries have taken commendable measures to contain the disease in the context of their limited resources. But much of the work needed to be done depends on the cooperation between the continent and other global actors such as international financial institutions, the WHO and individual actors such as China. At the summit, President Ramaphosa announced that the AU has launched the Africa Medical Supply Platform, an online space that will enable governments to access and purchase critical medical supplies. He asked China to support this initiative. He reiterated Africa’s call for debt relief to allow African governments to use limited resources at their disposal in combating the coronavirus. In response, China has indicated willingness to come up with debt relief arrangements and use its influence to urge the global community to do the same. This is a positive gesture and it explains why cooperation is needed.
The COVID-19 is a transnational health crisis, therefore the solution to it must stem from multilateralism as opposed to unilateralism. We cannot afford divisions in the face of unprecedented health crisis. Solidarity forever!
Dr. Muhidin Shangwe is Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Dar es Salaam.