Despite its claims, the United States 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 U.S. has opted instead to harass its geo-political 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 are 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 know however 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 world-wide 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 economic stimulus.
International organizations – not China nor the U.S. – have taken the lead. The IMF, World Bank, Paris Club, and G-20 pledged grants, debt relief and/or new loans, though these commitments fall well short of Africa’s needs. As chair of the G-7 the United States 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 health care, not the pandemic’s massive economic impact.
Otherwise, the United States is standing on the sidelines. A G-7 meeting in late March to coordinate the international response to COVID-19 ended in discord when the U.S. alone insisted on labeling the pandemic the “Wuhan virus.” The U.S. did not even attend a meeting of world leaders in early May 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 coronavirus 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 outbreak.
The U.S. 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.
President Trump’s abrupt decision to cut off funding of the World Health Organization 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 combating Chinese influence there.
Africans want no part of this geo-political gamesmanship, or of a re-run 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 U.S. could deliver. Were the U.S. 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.
U.S. 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 capitalize 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 United States is right to question China’s motives and practices in Africa. But the U.S. can’t compete with China, or position itself to capitalize 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.
William Mark Bellamy is senior adviser for Africa at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. A former career diplomat, he was U.S. Ambassador to Kenya 2003-2006.