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Africa’s Covid paradox shows the continent’s resilience

In his weekly letter to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa commented on Africa’s response to and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

It has been dubbed “Africa’s Covid-19 paradox” by some, meaning that despite poverty, poor living conditions, ailing health care facilities and scarce resources, the pandemic was “effectively managed” in many African countries.

Reasons for this include how young the continent’s population is, limited travel connections and exposure to previous infections.

“At a time when decisive leadership was called for, the leaders of Africa acted.”

Africa also showed its independence, Ramaphosa continued.

†[A]As the global crisis unfolded, our continent could not count on the generosity of rich countries. We had to do things for ourselves.”

Read his full letter below.

Dear fellow South African,

Africa’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic is a story of defied expectations.

It has now been two years since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Africa. Even if the infection burden remains high – to date Africa has recorded more than 11 million cases – there are no gloomy predictions about Africa’s ability to withstand the health impacts of the pandemic.

Some have called it Africa’s COVID-19 paradox that despite widespread poverty, poor living conditions, underfunded and scarce resources, the pandemic is being managed effectively in a number of African countries.

Several reasons have been put forward for this ‘paradox’. These include the continent’s relatively young population, experience in fighting disease outbreaks, population exposure to previous infections, and limited travel connections in many countries.

Another reason that has been suggested is the African Union’s rapid response to the pandemic, leading to a coordinated response and unified strategy. This strategy mobilized resources to strengthen national health systems, established an online platform to secure medical supplies, undertook a continental campaign to acquire vaccines, and ensured effective public health communications.

At a time when decisive leadership was needed, the leaders of Africa acted.

Over the past two years, African countries have built a remarkable resilience that will prove invaluable to future health emergencies of this nature.

Facing massive global shortages of medical equipment and diagnostics in the early days of the pandemic, African countries turned to local production of disinfectants, personal protective equipment, COVID-19 test kits and ventilators.

There is another aspect to Africa’s story of proud expectations, which is the realization that as the global crisis unfolded, our continent could not rely on the generosity of rich countries. We had to do things for ourselves.

African countries have faced rich countries that promised partnership, solidarity and cooperation, but at the same time acted in ways that hinder the continent’s recovery from the pandemic. An example was the travel ban imposed on South Africa and a number of other countries in the region late last year following the discovery of the Omicron variant by our scientists.

But nowhere has this been more evident than in the unacceptable practice of developed countries buying up and hoarding all available COVID-19 vaccine stockpiles in quantities far exceeding the needs of their populations. This while large parts of the so-called developing countries struggled to get access to it for their people.

Our experience in managing COVID-19 has encouraged the countries of Africa. It has shown us that there are resources and capabilities on our own continent to deal with emergencies of this magnitude.

It has reminded us that we have world-class institutions, such as the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that must be supported and empowered to fulfill their mandates.

It showed us how vulnerable our global partnerships can be, especially in a global emergency.

Most importantly, it has strengthened our collective determination to increase the pressure on developed economies to give us not charity, but our fair dues.

Countries in the north of the world have a responsibility to support Africa’s development, largely because of the role many of these countries have played in looting, polluting and impoverishing our continent.

Last week I attended the 6th African Union-European Union Summit in Brussels. There, African countries outlined their expectations of partnering with the bloc as we work to recover from COVID-19 and manage the effects of climate change.

We welcome the assistance that EU countries continue to provide for the sustainable development of Africa in a way that develops our capacities and moves the continent closer to self-reliance.

Last year, South Africa was selected by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the first site for a vaccine technology transfer hub. On the sidelines of last week’s Summit, WHO announced that six African countries, including South Africa, will receive the technology needed to produce mRNA vaccines for the continent on a large scale.

We will continue to advocate for building Africa’s capacity to produce its own vaccines, including through a temporary waiver of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

We welcome the AU-EU summit’s commitment “to work constructively together towards an agreement on a comprehensive WTO response to the pandemic, including trade-related and intellectual property-related aspects.”

Without being able to produce our own vaccines, a just recovery is not possible.

Building a better Africa and a better world is the cornerstone of South Africa’s foreign policy. For Africa to play a full and equal role in global affairs, we must first pay attention to the development challenges of the people of Africa.

We must elevate ourselves by making our own medicines to treat our people and save lives. We need to develop our own economies through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), promote investment and tourism in Africa, accelerate industrialization and promote green growth and low-carbon development. We must end all conflict and entrench democracy and good governance.

Thanks to our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, the cause of African unity has been revived. It has given a new impetus to the project of political and economic integration, which has been strengthened by the arrival of the AfCFTA.

Africa has found a new voice. It is bold and unabashed in its expectations of our partners. At the same time, we are determined that Africa’s challenges must, are and will be solved by Africans themselves.

Yours sincerely,

Cyril Ramaphosa

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