By Austin Maho (PhD).
The much anticipated extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19 finally held on Wednesday the 17th of June 2020.
The virtual summit brought together leaders of African nations who used the occasion to affirm China African solidarity and deliberate on a common front in combating the COVID-19 pandemic in the continent.
For African countries, it was a win as China used the opportunity to once again affirmed its support and commitment to the development of African countries which are suffering from the twin effect of COVID-19 and the consequent economic meltdown.
Two areas of intervention in Africa stood out in President Xi’s keynote address. One is the pledge to give coronavirus vaccine to African nations once it becomes available and debt cancellation for vulnerable African nation.
The Chinese President in his statement listed African countries as first beneficiaries of its vaccines agenda. “We pledge that once the development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccine is completed in China, African countries will be among the first to benefit.’’
Xi’s statement can be viewed as a contrast to recent controversies generated by comments by some Western medical practitioners that only seek to use Africa as a testing ground for COVID-19 vaccine development.
In early April, two French scientists had canvassed that COVID-19 vaccine should be tested on poor Africans before being administered on rich Western countries. The statements made by Camille Locht and Jean-Paul Mira sparked anger and resentment across the continent and once again demonstrated and reinforced the belief that Western countries only see Africans as Guinea pigs for wealthy Western nations.
The assumption of treating Africa and Africans as Guinea pigs has several sad precedencies. In 1996 an American pharmaceutical company, Pfizer took advantage of a meningitis outbreak in the city of Kano to test “Trovan”, an experimental antibiotic drug, on 200 children, without knowledge of the Nigerian government or consent of the parents of the children. Many became paralysed and many died and Pfizer got off the hook with a slap in the wrist.
Guided by history, the fear that African countries would be left behind in the development and availability of a coronavirus vaccine for its teeming population remains a source of worry.
Also, it would be recalled that earlier in March this year the Trump Administration had launched a hostile takeover of a German medical company called “Curevac”. The aim of the planned takeover by the Trump administration was to secure exclusive rights over a coronavirus vaccine being developed by the company.
The US was reported to have offered a “large sums of money” for exclusive access to all future Covid-19 vaccine to be developed by the company.
According to German officials, Trump was doing everything to secure a vaccine against the COVID-19 for the US, “but for the US only”.
If the Trump government can work against its traditional Western allies in such a Machiavellian manner what hopes for African countries?
It is against this background that President Xi Jinping’s pledge to prioritize Africa nations once China develops a vaccine against the coronavirus should be seen as a true hand of friendship and Solidarity.
The gesture by the Chinese government also includes capacity building as the Chinese leader promised to also speed up the construction of the Africa CDC headquarters. By building and hopefully equipping the Centre, Africa would be better positioned to respond more effectively to future disease outbreaks in the continent.
The thorny issue of debt burden, especially for fragile African economies was not lost to the Chinese President as he promised to cancel their debt and also work with other G20 nations to canvass debt suspension for African countries.
For African countries, unlike most of the developed world, the coronavirus pandemic is more of an economic crisis than a health emergency. The global lockdowns have meant a drastic reduction in demand for commodities and a resultant drop in prices which has led to a drastic fall in growth forecast for African countries.
A key problem for many African countries in this regard is debt servicing and repayments which would become more onerous in a changing economic environment.
Notably, the IMF and the World Bank have been at the forefront in calling for debt relief for the world’s poorest countries especially those with unsustainable debt situation. While no country has risen to the challenge, China by its announcement becomes the first country to take the bull by the horn in debt cancellation and suspension for poor nations in Africa.
Jinping announced that through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) framework, China would cancel debts of some African countries in the form of interest-free loans, due to mature by the end of 2020.
“For those African countries that are hardest hit by the coronavirus and are under heavy financial stress, China will work with the global community to give them greater support.
“We encourage Chinese financial institutions to respond to the G-20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative and to hold friendly consultations with African countries according to market principles.”
This is cheery news and shows China’s long term commitment to the growth and development of the African continent and further dispel fears and rumours of “debt trap”. The onus is now on Western nations and institutions to equally do same.
It is gratifying to equally see the strong position taken by leaders of African countries during the summit.
In a Joint statement, they rejected unilateralism for multilateralism and called for synergy to defeat the global health and economic threat posed by the coronavirus.
They gave support to China with respect to Taiwan and the propriety of her new national security law in Hong Kong,
They called on other nations to emulate China and help weaker nations.
They lauded China African friendship and Solidarity and called on the global community, “to work in solidarity and collaboration, share best practices, and provide more material, technical, financial and humanitarian support to help African countries overcome the impact of COVID-19 and achieve independent and sustainable development”.
President Buhari who was part of the summit also issued a statement in support for global solidarity and urged the international community to collaborate and share knowledge in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
“As we face a common pervasive and invisible enemy, it is important that we all remain united to save our shared humanity because this virus knows no borders.
“The fight against a global pandemic that continues to take so many lives, threaten livelihoods and challenging the very fabric of societies, requires enhanced cooperation and worldwide solidarity”.
Evidently, China by its gesture and pledge to African countries is leading a global push for global action against the coronavirus pandemic.
We are all in this together, it is either we win this together through global solidarity and action or risk destroying our shared humanity.