Jean-Jacques Cornish

My input to Johannesburg Business School Webinar on COVID 19 impact on Africa

Taking about  Africa at the time of COVID 19  is rather like reading the opening lines of a Tale Of Two Cities. The perfect conundrum to deal with the perfect storm.

Come to think of it, what would that epic English populist writer have made of the pandemic. 

The Dickensian World might have been anured  to some rough times. But none were like this 21 Century nightmare that has surpassed even the Biblical plagues in circling the globe killing hundreds of thousands and sickening millions, taking rich and poor – mostly rich so far – by the scruff of the neck and closing down or at least shoving into the distant bottom shelves of the deep freeze their economies. 

It is the defining crisis of  generations beyond the Second World War and the Cold War. 

Queen Elizabeth was right: how we weather it will historically be the measure of us 

COVID 19 has given the lie to the belief that years of peace, prosperity and a technological revolution has placed us above or beyond such horror. 

The isolation enforced on us by the pandemic is markedly different from that during the Spanish flu that killed 100 million people after the First World War.

But the ailment is nonetheless  terrifying and mystifying.

It forces all of us to ask: what will we do when it hits us? China, the United States and Europe had only weeks to answer. According to the World Health Organisation they wasted far too much of that time . Lethally! We in Africa have had a little more of that all-too- exhaustible treasure that is time.

In South Africa, at least, the courage and foresight of our leadership has led us to stay ahead of the dreaded curve and we have taken drastic, even draconian measures to at least slow what we cannot prevent.

In truth we cannot possibly answer the question of what will happen because we cannot possibly know.

The World Health Organisation warned as the epidemic grew into a pandemic that Africa would be hardest hit mainly because of its poor, over-stretched health services.

Donald Trump re-writing history with an eye to his Presidential future is now withholding US funding for the WHO for delivering the warning he failed to heed. Perhaps we should leave that until question time.

It singled out South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and Algeria as the countries likely to be the worst affected because of the volume of traffic through them.

The benefit of being gateways to the continent of 1,2 billion would become the curse.

There is so much more militating against Africa than being lamentably under resourced. 

South Sudan, for example, which became one of the last of the 55 African countries to acknowledge COVID 19 infections has four ventilators for its 11 million people.

The Democratic Republic of Congo was hoping last Sunday to announce the official all-clear to the second worst EBOLA outbreak the world has seen. It killed more than 2 200 people in the East of the country.

Not that seeing any end to the outbreak of the deadly hemorrhagic disease would have allowed the brave medics in Congo to keep an eye on the COVID 19 ball. They are currently  dealing with the worst outbreak of measles on the planet.

I say brave medics because in addition to dealing with the hazards of infection, they have to contend with armed attacks by rebels fighting government forces all over the epicentre of their activity and naked public hostility.

A stark example of why Africa could be the perfect storm. It has more than any other region of the world to deal with the three deadly Cs. Conflict, Climate Change and COVID 19.

Listening to the parliamentary debate ahead of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decision to lock us down it was clear from opposition politicians with years of frustrating experience dealing with South Africa’s over-stretched and decaying healthcare system that we are in no position to deal with an emergency. The patriotism that ANC members enjoined them to show would help this a jot.

As the number of infections leveled in China, Beijing offered to share the lessons it had learned dealing with COVID 19.

It trumpeted the virtues of identifying the victims, isolating them and then treating them.

If not actually an impossibility, isolation is to the majority of Africans an unattainable luxury.

More than half of the Africans living in urban areas – that amounts to more than 200 million – reside in informal settlements.

In countries like South Sudan, Central African Republic and Chad, nine out of ten people live in informal settlements.

In these places it is impossible to avoid living cheek by jowl. No matter how hard one tries, it becomes quite impossible when one has to congregate to share the limited supplies of clean water or use the paltry sanitary facilities.

I think of Kibera in Nairobi, Manshiyat Nasser in Cairo and or own Khayiletsha.

What can one say other than it will take innovative thinking to find a solution to enable any social distancing in such places?

We believe that COVID 19 entered the continent in February via a visitor to Egypt.

We actually cannot be sure  about this because of the dismal rate of testing.

Ethiopia and Nigeria are following the South Africa lead on screening and testing as many people as possible 

But testing is not adequate in Europe. Small wonder we are behind.

Kudos to Senegal developing, with a British partner, quick and cheap tests.

The need for inexpensive tests in Africa  is axiomatic. Speed of testing, as Dr Anthony Fauci explains, is so important to prevent infected persons passing the virus on while waiting for confirmation of their affliction.

Why has there been this lag in the number of infections in Africa – even in South Africa which has the dubious distinction of leading the continent on this score?

There cannot be a genetic explanation. In the United States and Europe the question being asked is why minority groups have had a higher rate of infection.

The early nonsense propagated in Africa that COVID 19 is a white man’s disease has hopefully been successfully sunk.

Still strongly doing the rounds is the suggestion that the BSG anti TB vaccination obligatory in the first few months of life in most African countries has some effect against COVID 19.

There have been articles pro and con this. While some specialists are up all hours fighting the virus there is a group testing the feasibility of things like BSG and chloroquine.

What harm can it do? asked President Donald Trump in endorsing the latter. After you Mr President.

Where should these tests be carried out?

The frankly asinine – not to say racist – suggestion by two French doctors that poor Africans without access to protective measures would be good guinea pigs in the same way as unprotected prostitutes make good subjects for testing HIV/AIDS vaccines has been rejected with the anger and contempt it deserves.

Nevertheless there must be tests.And if they are to be comprehensive, they will have to include Africa.

Whatever COVID19 does to us if and when it arrives, it has already devastated out economy. 

The World Bank says the virus and the lockdown implemented to fight it will bring the first recession to Africa in a quarter of a century.

Yesterday even grimmer predictions from the bank. A three percent shrinkage i  the world economy. Nthinglikehas been seen since the green depression pre World War 2

Doubtless it will wreak even greater havoc on Nigeria, Angola and South Africa, the three largest economies on the continent that don’t match the rest of its growth..

This will have a dystopic effect on countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania that have enjoyed record-breaking growth.

Normally one would have looked to development partners – the euphemism for donors – to help us out of it.

But they are currently firmly on the anvil and directly under the hammer.

The European Union by far the largest provider of development aid to Africa took a week to agree on how to assist the hardest hit southern members of their own grouping .

Their wrangling took place while development ministers were pondering over an aid package to Africa.

In the event they came up with a well thought out set of priorities for Africa that markedly contained no new money.

The IMF is giving $500 million in debt relief to the poorest 25 countries on the planet. 19 of them are African.

But what if the lockdown persist beyond six months. The IMF can only say it hopes they don’t

If Germany and Holland could not agree on providing unconditional aid to Italy, Greece and Spain, how could they open their purses to Africa.

The compelling argument that bolstering African countries’ health facilities reduces the risk of the continent being a springboard for a second round of COVID 19 somehow becomes less compelling.

If establishing human priorities proves problematic then how much nearer impossible it is to fit wildlife into the frame.

Decades of conservation work have been destroyed by the closure of national parks and reserves. 

Countries dependent on the tourism these bring are simply having to go without. 

Maintaining these national treasures is quite beyond the capability of countries that don’t earn the tourism revenue to pay for it

Rangers and other conservation staff have been furloughed or laid off. So it’s open season for poachers.

The top contributors to conservation cannot be tapped to rectify this. They are looking after themselves and their immediate neighbours.

It would be political suicide to send money to save the rhino when your own people suffer unemployment eclipsing that of the great depression.

Here again is a call for imagination.

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Jean-Jacques Cornish is a journalist and broadcaster who has been involved in the media all his adult life.

Starting as a reporter on his hometown newspaper, he moved briefly to then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa to become a parliamentary correspondent with the South African Press Association. He was sent to London as Sapa’s London editor and also served as special correspondent to the United Nations. He joined the then Argus group in London as political correspondent.

Returning to South Africa after 12 years abroad, he was assistant editor on the Pretoria News for a decade before becoming editor of the Star and SA Times for five years.

Since 1999 he’s been an independent journalist writing and broadcasting – mainly about Africa – for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape
Talk, Radio France International, PressTV, Radio Live New Zealand, Business Day, Mail & Guardian, the BBC, Agence France Press,
Business in Africa, Leadership, India Today, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies.

He has hosted current affairs talk shows on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He appears as an African affairs pundit on SABC Africa and CNBC Africa.
He lectured in contemporary studies to journalism students at the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria.

He speaks on African affairs to corporate and other audiences.
He has been officially invited as a journalist to more than 30 countries. He was the winner of the 2007 SADC award for radio journalism.

He’s been a member of the EISA team observing elections in Somaliland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Tunsiai.

In October 2009 he headed a group of 39 African journalists to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

In January 2010 he joined a rescue and paramedical team to earthquake struck Haiti.

He is immediate past president of the Alliance Francaise of Pretoria.

Jean-Jacques is a director of Giant Media. The company was given access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years until 2009.
He is co-producer of the hour-long documentary Mandela at 90 that was broadcast on BBC in January 2009.