Salutary lessons of COVID-19 for the African Union

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It is considered as a self-evident fact that every crisis carries within it the twin components of both danger and opportunity. The spread of the coronavirus could be an instructive watershed that the African Union can use to demonstrate its mettle not on African but global affairs, too. With 1.5 million cases of COVID-19 globally, any suggestion that there could be a silver lining to this calamity might seem morbid. I continue to argue that, ultimately, stemming the tide of COVID-19 will require, at the basic level, personal discipline and, at the institutional level, inspiring leadership.

The World Health Organization (WHO) through its Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been commended by the African Union (AU) for its “various initiatives and measures that are continuously undertaken by the organisation to mitigate the spread of the pandemic such as mobilising resources, sharing the real-time information and providing the technical and material support.” 

The AU’s commendation comes almost at the same time when US President Donald Trump has truculently criticized the WHO, accusing it of being China-centric. Trump went on to threaten that the US would cut its funding to the WHO. Republican senator Lindsay Graham, one of Trump’s dogged votaries, has also accused the WHO of being China’s apologists. In the same vein as Trump, Graham warned: “I’m in charge of the appropriations subcommittee. I’m not going to support funding the WHO under its current leadership.” Marco Rubio is another Republican senator who has also criticised the WHO, accusing it of helping China to mislead the world.

Republican umbrage at the WHO is mostly reinforced by the fact that the WHO has spoken positively about China’s control of COVID-19. It is galling to Trump that the US has more than 400,000 cases of COVID-19, and is also lumbered with complaints about inadequate or unused testing equipment, while China has just ended the 11-week lockdown that it had imposed on Wuhan, the initial hotbed for COVID-19 infections. 

This is also an election year and Trump should be expected to chafe at any attitude that presents China in a positive light, in effect exposing US shortcomings. He will increasingly want to portray himself as a hardliner towards China. This is a potent gambit for anyone seeking American political office in an era where American lustre is being eroded partly because of China’s rising star on global affairs. It is much the same way that Cold War-era politicians sought to gain votes by posturing themselves as tough on the Soviet Union. 

It is indeed heartening that the African Union and individual African leaders have sought to tread an independent path when appraising the efforts of the WHO, China and the United States. Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairman of the African Union Commission, wrote that he was surprised to learn of a campaign by the US government against WHO and professed that the AU fully supports the WHO and Dr Tedros. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame concurred with Mahamat, saying the focus should rather be on fighting the pandemic. This stance dovetails with the UN position and the WHO’s response to Trump’s threat. The conduct of the AU and individual African countries has so far been exemplary. It will need the cooperation of African citizens for it to be effective in combatting COVID-19. The conduct of Trump, and China’s alleged mendacity on the gravity of COVID-19, which the aforementioned Republicans say the WHO has ignored, are instructive for the AU in that the continental body should be independent in reading the currents of global politics and, regarding African affairs, should play a leading role. 

It would be beneficial to Africa if the AU retained its current proactive attitude after COVID-19 has subsided. Even before the disruption of the disease, the AU had a daunting objective of silencing the guns, by ending all wars, civil conflicts, gender-based violence, violent conflicts and preventing genocide in the continent by 2020. With Boko Haram wreaking havoc in West Africa, this will be a seemingly Sisyphean task. In addition to this, the AU will have to tend to trouble spots such as Guinea where a constitution referendum has incited violence and in northern Mozambique where an Islamic insurgency has been fomenting acts of terrorism. 

Emmanuel Matambo is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS), University of Johannesburg 

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