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Africa feels the repercussions of the US-China global spat

Any misgivings about China’s handling of COVID-19 will likely be erased by Beijing’s considerable aid in fighting the pandemic.

As if the coronavirus weren’t bad enough, the disease is now being magnified by a nasty outbreak of global political rivalries. United States President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday this week that he was cutting US funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – the international body leading the global response to the pandemic.

Trump said the US would withhold its funding – between US$400 million and US$500m of WHO’s total US$4.8 billion budget – pending a 60- to 90-day review of its pandemic response. He accused it of ‘severely mismanaging and covering up’ the COVID-19 outbreak.

Trump’s decision has been condemned as contradictory and expedient. He has come under constant attack in the US for his own slow response to the pandemic which as a result has hit America harder than it hit China. The New York Times reports that Trump’s national security and health officials had been warning him of an oncoming pandemic from early January.

So it clearly suits him politically – especially in an election year – to deflect that criticism, and both WHO and China are perfect scapegoats for his conservative constituency.

Trump’s basic complaint about WHO is that it has been collaborating with China in underplaying the crisis. He first objected to WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus criticising him in January when he banned flights from China. He’s also accused WHO of helping China cover up the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan late last year.

Trump’s decision could have its greatest impact on Africa’s ability to fight the pandemic

Trump’s insistence on inserting a reference to the pandemic’s origins has blocked efforts to adopt a resolution in the UN Security Council. Such a resolution would outline a greater leadership role for what should be the world’s most powerful multinational institution – or at least demonstrate a badly needed unity of purpose among the world’s most powerful nations.

Yet Trump himself tweeted on 24 January that the US ‘greatly appreciates (China’s) efforts and transparency.’ When Trump launched his verbal attack on Tedros and WHO, the African Union (AU) sprang to their defence, extending its ‘unwavering support’ to both. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, as AU chair, praised the ‘exceptional leadership’ of Tedros from the earliest stages of the crisis.

He said WHO had been ‘an essential technical and scientific partner to the African Union and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention,’ and called on the whole world ‘to join hands to support the efforts of the DG and the entire WHO family as they lead global efforts to fight this pandemic.’

This week the South African government said it was ‘very concerned and alarmed’ at Trump’s decision to cut WHO funding ‘amid a global health crisis that requires a full capacity World Health Organisation to provide support’ in combating COVID-19.

‘It is alarming that this very regrettable decision is announced as this deadly virus strikes Africa and the poorest and most vulnerable states,’ Pretoria added. Trump’s decision could have its greatest impact on Africa’s ability to fight the pandemic since it is probably the region least equipped to fight it on its own.

It’s widely reported that China concealed the emergence of the coronavirus for a few crucial days

On Thursday this week Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which is leading the continent’s response to COVID-19, said a WHO funding cut would ‘absolutely affect the ability of AU member states to receive support from the WHO. The WHO is an important global partner, the body we all look up to for guidance … So the cut in their funding would definitely impact the ability of countries to respond adequately.’

WHO’s African regional director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said the organisation hoped the US would reconsider the cut, as the US government was an important partner, not only financially but strategically. Coincidentally the US Embassy in Pretoria announced it was adding US$1.8 million to SA’s COVID-19 response.

But if Trump must take most of the blame for the likely impact of this spat on global and particularly African efforts to fight the pandemic, China isn’t blameless either. It has been widely reported, including yesterday by The Associated Press, that it deliberately concealed the emergence of the coronavirus for a few crucial days in early January.

So Beijing has some national interest in blocking any reference to the origins of the virus in Security Council resolutions – and even opposing the council taking up the issue at all. South Africa has supported China in opposing the council being given a role in handling the crisis, on the grounds that it should be left to the technical UN agencies – mainly WHO – and that handing it to the Security Council would politicise it.

Trump’s suspension of WHO funding unfortunately plays right into this thesis which might yet prove fatally defeatist if the pandemic escalates to the point where a body like the Security Council is needed to allocate for example scarce medical resources.

The warning to Africa in this sorry tale is that it should maintain its objectivity about China

And even though it’s an overreaction to terminate US funding, there is impartial evidence that WHO itself might have allowed international politics to interfere with its response to the crisis – and possibly indeed because of undue influence from China.

WHO ignored warnings from Taiwan as early as 30 December 2019 that the coronavirus was being transmitted between humans, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told Bloomberg News. Two weeks later, on 14 January, WHO tweeted that, ‘Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus’ – closely echoing Chinese government announcements at that time.

Trump and the Republicans believe WHO ignored Taiwan’s warnings ‘because Taiwan is not currently recognised by the WHO as an independent nation.’ Is that true? Were WHO and Tedros so beholden to China politically that they ignored a serious health warning from a credible country just because Beijing regards it as a ‘renegade province’?

There is an implicit warning to Africa in this sorry tale – to maintain its objectivity about China. That was brought home this week when Chinese authorities in Guangzhou reportedly ill-treated African nationals, including by forceful testing, quarantining for COVID-19, ‘and other inhuman treatment,’ as the South African government put it. AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat summoned the Chinese ambassador in Addis Ababa to provide an explanation, and express the AU’s ‘deep concern’ about this matter.

As with any misgivings African states might have about China’s initial handling of the coronavirus, these resentments about alleged discrimination against Africans will surely be erased by Beijing’s considerable material aid in fighting the pandemic. This includes the large consignment of ventilators, test kits and other medical gear Alibaba founder Jack Ma gave the AU. Africa will need all the help it can get – not least from the US itself – in the war against COVID-19, which is far from over.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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