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Covid-19 Surge Aggravates Climate Crisis in Africa

By Eugene Nforngwa
“Earth closed for repairs”.  Few jokes capture the existential crisis facing the planet right now, as the world shuts down city by city. Since it was first reported in China last December, Covid-19 has spread untamed and has quickly morphed into a global pandemic. This week, the number of infected people in all corners of the world was set to surpass half a million.  At least 21,000 have already died.

The numbers have been less dramatic but rising in Africa. Infection cases are around 600, with dozens of deaths. African governments expect the statistics to change rapidly, doubling and even tripling in a few weeks or days. And, they omit potentially thousands of infected people who have mingled in the public undetected. Past a certain threshold, public health experts expect the outbreak to spiral out of control and wreck an already perilous public health system.  “Governments must draw on all of their resources and capabilities and strengthen their response,” the World Health Organisation’s regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti has cautioned.

In many ways, Covid-19 is one of the darkest moments in global public health. The outbreak is the forewarnings of a new world order; and a test for the collective grit of mankind to deal with an emergency of global scale.  For those of us in the climate justice community, it is a premonition of what a climate meltdown might look like. For decades, scientists and advocates have warned that climate change was fomenting an existential crisis likely to disrupt global politics and economies in unrecognisable ways. That future appears more imminent today than at any other time. Last year, the UN Environment warned that “we are on the brink of missing the opportunity to limit global warming to 1.5°C.” Unless the world changes course, a climate meltdown is inevitable, and Africa will suffer the hardest blow. Pathogens and diseases have been projected to emerge as the globe warms.

Covid-19 is making that more likely. The outbreak is serving as a climate change threat multiplier, exacerbating the drivers of vulnerability on the continent, particularly persistent poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, poor resource management, conflicts, and weak infrastructure to deep mistrust between states and citizens. The outbreak will wipe out at least 30 million jobs on the continent and push down growth in many countries by an average of 2-3%, as estimated by the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), which has also indicated that US$29 Billion has been wiped off Africa’s GDP for the past three weeks. On 23 March 2020, African ministers of finance warned that Covid-19 has placed additional strain on already underfunded efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the continent’s Agenda 2063 targets.

Africa is unprepared for the scale of investment that is needed to curb Covid-19 and cushion its consequences. Many governments around the continent are counting on trickling foreign aid. African finance ministers estimate that the continent needs a $100-billion economic stimulus to sustain its Covid-19 response, including the costs of lockdown measures. This is a far cry from the United States’ stimulus package of $2 trillion, an amount that has been described as the “largest fiscal stimulus package in modern American history.” Michele Barry, the Director of the Centre for Innovation in Global Health at Stanford University, refers to Africa’s case as a ‘time bomb’.

The continent is in bad shape for many reasons. Globally, priorities have shifted, resources have been diverted and climate action has come to a standstill. When it is all over, Africa will be left far more incapable of recovering than the rest of the world, and even less capable than it currently is, to cope with the impacts of climate change or contribute its bit to mitigate global warming.

Decades of bad governance, marked by deep-seated corruption in many countries, capital flight and illegal resource-extraction, have also left the continent ad-libbed for the twin crises of Covid-19 and climate change. In 2019, the African Forum for Combating Corruption established that the African continent loses up to $50 billion “through corruption and illegal financial flows” every year. This is money that could have served in addressing the multiple drivers of vulnerability in Africa. African citizens have also showed extra-ordinary levels of recklessness.

Clearly Africa lacks the capacity to tackle a crisis of a Covid-19 magnitude because of its level of poverty, poor infrastructure, and inadequate social infrastructure like health facilities should the numbers rise beyond control of any country. Governments can attempt mitigating the situation by guaranteeing loans or asking lenders to loosen restrictions for borrowers as they absorb the Covid-19 shock. Tax reliefs would be another way to add money to citizens’ pockets while other taxes could be waived temporarily for investors. But the continent will need help, a lot of help, to do so.

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