To celebrate the end of lockdown in Morocco, my friend and I decided to meet at a terrace cafe located in the heart of Marrakech named Kabana. The space had a beautiful ambiance, artsy design and a magnificent view of the Koutoubia mosque. What stood out to me the most was the fact that the waiters and waitresses were from different African countries and were all dressed in African print. A waiter explained to me how the owner has travelled across the continent, fell in love with its rich diversity and wanted to create a space that reflects his love and celebration of African cultures. I was genuinely excited by the fact that more people and spaces were demonstrating openness towards the rest of the continent and investing more in taking pride in the African identity of Morocco.
Sitting on that rooftop in the age of Corona, I was enjoying the fresh summer breeze of Marrakesh, a previously taken for granted pleasure that turned into a privilege during these strange and stressful Corona times. The pandemic dramatically changed our lives and laid bare deep-seated problems and inadequacies in our economic, healthcare, and welfare systems. However, it also left almost no corner of the world safe from infections and sent waves of shock around the globe as it claimed a terrifying number of victims. It made us realize that no corner of the world is safe unless everyone is safe. In other words, the only way to emerge from the pandemic is to work together. As my eyes fell on the beautiful Turquoise and Pink African print worn by the waiter gracefully placing my order on the table, I wondered whether the Pan-African energy I felt in this café could be what we need in order for us to overcome the crisis. I could not help but think; maybe this deadly virus can be an opportunity to push for openness and togetherness between different African states.
The fear and scepticism of the ability of some states to deal with the pandemic with its aftermath were initially and mainly directed towards African countries. Most, if not all, African countries have fragile healthcare systems with limited capacities in terms of equipment and expertise. There are less than 2000 ventilators across 41 African countries, whereas ten others do not even own one. The continent is known for its high urban density, which has the potential to be fertile ground for the virus to spread like wildfire. As a consequence, many African governments rushed to apply aggressive prevention measures from strict lockdowns to curfews and social distancing.
The preventive strategies African countries adopted appear to have helped contain the virus, but it carries a severe threat to their economic survival. African economies are heavily dependent on the informal sector, with a contribution to the economy up to 41% in the Sub-Saharan region. The informal sector accounts for 60% of the economy in countries like Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Nigeria. Most people earn their living through activities that require face-to-face contact and outdoor interactions. Lockdowns and social distancing are detrimental to the economy as a whole, but especially to people’s ability to provide basic needs for their families. Such circumstances made it critical for African governments to present solutions tailored to their realities, preventing the spread of the fear of Africans dying of Corona to dying of hunger. One way some African governments dealt with the pressure in the informal sector was through assistance programs. 22 Sub-Saharan- African countries opted for cash transfer programs, whereas 13 are using in-kind transfer.
These unprecedented times pressured governments and private sectors in many countries to bring forth innovative ways to source supplies and create solutions to the life-threatening virus. The textile industry in Morocco turned its focus exclusively to producing face masks and allocating generous funds devoted to initiatives dealing with the pandemic. Senegal took the lead in producing highly efficient 1$ test kits, intending to make mass testing more accessible by producing 2 to 4 million destined to be exported to other African countries. In contrast, Tunisia sought to use Tunisian-built robots, to enforce lockdown procedures in its capital by stopping people in the streets, asking for their IDs, and examining them remotely by police.
The time of Corona did not only shed light on the continent’s capacity for developing its solutions, but it also joined efforts between different African states to tackle the crisis. King Mohamed VI of Morocco and President Uhuru of Kenya were amongst the first African leaders to call for a joint continental effort to share information and technology in order to contain the virus. The communication and collaboration between the different countries are said to be facilitated by the various local task forces each country set up to combat Covid-19.
This call for solidarity was demonstrated through the Moroccan king’s order to deliver locally produced medical aid to 15 African countries to support them in their fight against Covid-19. Similarly, Honoris United Universities, a pan-African network of private higher education institutions brought together researchers, doctors and engineers from different parts of the continent to address the lack of ventilators in African hospitals. They produced a prototype for a non-invasive respirator, a device designed to fit the African market, that is affordable and easy to use both in hospitals and homes. Due to its availability in Open Source software, anyone can download the prototype and instruction manual for free.
African artists were also quick to join the Pan-African wave to inspire and encourage people to stand together in the face of the deadly virus and the hardships it caused. The new COVID-19 African anthem “Stand together” featured ten major African countries like Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia, South Africa and Morocco.
These invaluable displays of African solidarity come in contrast to some Western countries' responses to the crisis. For instance, the United States of America rushed to secure nearly the entire world stock of key antiviral drug Remdisivir. This selfish move hardly left any supply of the medication for the rest of the world for at least three months, reflecting Trump’s America first attitude towards the pandemic. Similarly, the EU failed to respond to European countries who were in dire need of assistance like Italy and Spain, who instead received medical aid from China. Most EU member states imposed border restrictions which meant that medical equipment and goods could not be imported from EU countries. The EU's ineffective leadership during the pandemic was criticised by the Serbian president who said: “There is no such thing as European solidarity. All this is just a fairy tale on paper”.
The joint African response to the global pandemic’s first wave and the lockdown has proved to be effective, which makes the case that the continent should collaborate once again when dealing with the aftermaths of this virus. Achieving economic recovery and growth from the pandemic requires sustainable ways of African collaboration. The continent is in need, now more than ever for its Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) deal, which many African leaders are pushing to move forward with and create the right health measures to face the risk of a second wave of Coronavirus. The agreement holds the promise to boost the economies within the continent making Africa, the world’s largest single market, with a population of 1.2 billion people and a combined GDP over $2.5 trillion. The potential benefits of the CFTA include improving economic growth, infrastructure, welfare and production efficiency, all which were profoundly affected by the lockdowns. The African Union has a towering responsibility to facilitate, implement and monitor the CFTA deal and ensure its success, and thus create the groundwork for a new era of Pan-Africanism.
The battle against Covid-19 demonstrates that the continent is pregnant with immense potential and capability to create homegrown solutions and tackle problems head-on. Capitalizing on this potential through sharing and cooperation between the different African states could be the answer in the fight against this epidemic, and a stepping stone towards a more collective and pan-African approach to problem-solving on the continent. In a world becoming more divided by the day, Corona times suggest that our ability to collaborate on a large scale will not only help us overcome infectious diseases but innovate our way out of other problems and build a better and more united future for Africa.
Corona times might have uncovered some scary facts, but they also exposed us to promising opportunities for collaboration and togetherness as Africans. From cafes, art collaborations, research projects and medical aids, Covid-19 can be a stepping stone to finally making authentic engagement with Pan-Africanism a reality.