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The Trump administration is failing Africa in the battle against Covid-19


William (Mark) Bellamy is senior adviser for Africa at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC. A former career diplomat, he was US Ambassador to Kenya 2003-2006.

Africans want no part of the geopolitical gamesmanship between the US, China and Cuba being played out by the Trump administration, or of a rerun of the Cold War on the continent. They want instead to leverage good relations with both the US and China. For now, what Africa needs most is a co-ordinated and effective multilateral response to this emergency.

Despite its claims, the US is not “leading” the global response to Covid-19. If it were, its approach to the pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, the region most vulnerable to the economic impact of the virus, would be much different.

Rather than lead, or even join, international partners in assisting Africa, the US has opted instead to harass its geopolitical rivals and undercut multilateral efforts to cope with the emergency. Instead of using the crisis to reset and solidify ties to Africa, Washington’s actions are more likely to damage America’s reputation there in the long run.

The data is weak, but it appears Covid-19 has not yet spread with full force in sub-Saharan Africa. We do not know with certainty if or when it will. We do know that Africa as a whole is a highly vulnerable region due in part to pre-existing conditions like high levels of poverty, the prevalence of other infectious diseases like malaria and HIV/Aids and weak medical infrastructure.

African economies are already reeling from the worldwide economic slowdown. The tourism sector has collapsed. Remittances from abroad – a vital source of national income for many poor African states – have dried up. Export earnings have plummeted. Countries setting records for GDP growth just a short while ago are now poised to tip into recession for the first time since the mid-1990s.

The scope of this crisis is well beyond Africa’s capacity to manage on its own. Early estimates from the UN Economic Commission for Africa point to an immediate need of $200-billion in external financing, half to address the medical emergency and half as an economic stimulus.

International organisations – not China or the US – have taken the lead. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, Paris Club, and G20 pledged grants, debt relief and/or new loans, though these commitments fall well short of Africa’s needs. As chair of the G7, the US could have generated a more forceful response from the world’s leading economies, but it chose not to. Africa’s largest creditor, China, has been non-committal, promising vaguely to deal with Africa on a state-by-state basis.

To its credit, the US has unilaterally committed $900-million thus far for Covid-19 relief, largely earmarked for Africa. State Department, USAID and DOD professionals have moved quickly to parcel out this aid. But these funds are almost entirely focused on healthcare, not the pandemic’s massive economic impact.

Otherwise, the US is standing on the sidelines. A G7 meeting in late March 2020 to coordinate the international response to Covid-19 ended in discord when the US alone insisted on labelling the pandemic the “Wuhan virus”. The US did not even attend a meeting of world leaders in early May 2020 to develop strategies and pledge funding for development of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Instead of leading international efforts against Covid-19, the Trump administration has for weeks been singularly focused on excoriating China’s response to the outbreak. The president and secretary of state have both alleged repeatedly, without evidence, that the virus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan and that China is engaged in an ongoing “cover-up.” China has furiously denied these allegations while mocking America’s own late and lax response to the outbreak.

The US has further warned that Cuba’s dispatch of medical teams to Africa to assist in the crisis constitutes a form of human trafficking and should be rejected. There is little chance that will happen. Africans have a long history of welcoming Cuban doctors and medical personnel in their midst.

Trump’s abrupt decision to cut off funding to the World Health Organisation is an even greater concern for Africa. While the WHO, like many governments, committed mistakes in the early stages of the pandemic, it remains the world’s foremost body for providing information and guidance to developing nations during global health emergencies. US moves that undercut the WHO’s capacity to perform this role in the midst of a global pandemic will further degrade American credibility in Africa.

Current US policy toward Africa is tracking closely the 2018 Strategy for Africa presented by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton. That document describes American interests in Africa as largely a matter of combatting Chinese influence there.

Africans want no part of this geopolitical gamesmanship, or of a rerun of the Cold War in their region. They want instead to leverage good relations with both the US and China. For now, what Africa most needs is a coordinated and effective multilateral response to this emergency.

This is something the US could deliver. Were the US drawing on past experience, the president and secretary of state would have already publicly acknowledged conditions in Africa and spoken with African leaders. State, Treasury and the USAID would already have convened discussions with African and international counterparts to identify priorities, establish funding needs and develop action plans for presentation to heads of state.

US leadership isn’t just a matter of putting together a humanitarian response and winning the appreciation of foreign audiences. It is about taking charge in a crisis and shaping a response to it that serves American interests and ultimately protects the American people.  

China has missed the opportunity thus far to capitalise on Washington’s inaction. Though Africa’s biggest creditor, it has failed to muster significant financial relief. Viral social media images of Chinese landlords, retailers and government officials mistreating African migrant workers during the Covid-19 outbreak enraged African audiences and triggered unprecedented African diplomatic protests. Beijing’s lack of transparency about the outbreak in China and its over-hyped offers of token medical assistance to Africa have gone down badly in a number of African countries. China’s brand in Africa is tarnished as a result.

The US is right to question China’s motives and practices in Africa. But the US can’t compete with China, or position itself to capitalise on Africa’s likely resurgence when the pandemic ends, by standing aside and scapegoating. A better course would be to focus instead on fixing its own leadership deficit. DM


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