Can Europe Make It?

Enlarging the context on COVID-19: Europe and Africa

As the dust on the first brutal phase of the pandemic settles in Europe, containment of the pandemic cannot succeed through unilateral responses.

Mehari Taddele Maru Fabrizio Tassinari
30 March 2020, 2.15pm
March 21, 2020, Nairobi, Kenya: A local health official with megaphone and bottle of hand sanitizer.
Donwilson Odhiambo/PA. All rights reserved.

In times of acute crisis such as the present one, it gives some solace to re-read the seminal book by the veteran British diplomat Robert Cooper The Breaking of Nations: “When you have a problem you cannot solve, enlarge the context.” Time and again in the past, Europe succeeded in reverting inward-looking navel-gazing and impasses by bringing in new resources and new thinking from the outside. As this initial brutal phase of the COVID-19 pandemics continues, Europe may find much-needed purpose and unity in walking the pre-crisis walk and look beyond its Southern borders, towards Africa.

As nations worldwide mobilise and direct their resources to fight COVID-19 within their own jurisdictions, Africa inevitably will take a low priority; but once testing is scaled up, infection rates are expected to surge and deaths may increase commensurately. For Europe to enlarge the context, it is essential that it keeps in clear sight Africa’s needs and the dire consequences of inaction.


In these long, uncertain days since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tables have turned on the European mindset and institutions. Europe spent a decade debating how centrists could handle the populist rage against immigration and globalization. COVID-19 sorted this dilemma out in a matter of days. For the first time since World War 2, closing borders and erecting barriers is not a choice. In a domino-effect of unilateral national decisions, country after country followed its neighbour in declaring lockdowns, curfews, closing borders and banning travels. Anyone proposing something different – read: herd immunity – is singled out as unconscionable or mad. In so doing, the pandemic has turned its head on the key European intuition that security and stability could be best attained by means of exchanges and integration. For now, at least, survival equals total lockdown and closure, end of story.

An unstoppable trend towards de-globalization seems now perfectly attuned to the almost identical sequencing of border closures, travel bans, lockdowns and curfews enacted by country after country. More severe, some countries have declared state of emergency and nationalized even private health service companies.

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EU in the global game of geopolitics

Before this crisis broke out, the European Union had bet on reinventing itself as a player that could finally compete in the global game of geopolitics with few but aggressive power centres. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Ethiopia as the first destination outside Europe to herald this shift and designated Africa the primary partner of its new world outlook. The leaders of the Commission went there again in March, just before the Coronavirus broke out in Europe. We wrote in these pages only a couple of months ago: “Only by recognizing and sharing the values derived from its unique transnational experience can Europe meet the promise of its holistic partnership with Africa.”

For all the truths that the virus has shattered and all the uncertainty that it has created, the crisis does seem to provide validation for the changes that the world order experienced before COVID-19 erupted. The United States is retrenching in a stubborn and erratic response, made up of changing strategies and empty threats against the “Wuhan virus”. China has for now emerged victorious from its battle against the virus, and citizens the world over now place their hopes on emulating aspects of the successful authoritarian lockdown by Beijing and on its timely ability to dole out state-led support, sanitary equipment, and medical advisers to countries in need. In the past few weeks, China has received not only massive orders for its masks and other health equipment, but also requests to share its expertise on containing the pandemic.

Fragile transnational governance

Covid-19 has proven the fragility of transnational mechanism. While the pandemic is borderless, the absence of robust transnational mechanisms ready to coordinate the responses to the pandemic, for example in relation to travel banning, may have increased the costs of the contagion. With nations, in essence, left to fend for themselves, the cross-border supply of critical professionals, materials, and goods including medical ones are now restricted. Moreover, the impact of such restrictions on the livelihoods of many, including populations in border areas have been affected significantly. More than that, bans on cross border mobility and the closure of borders has already bred more distrust undermining the foundations for integrative transnational arrangements. The economic and financial toll of the pandemic will be dramatic, and it is anyone’s guess whether and when Europe will go back to a pre-crisis mode of operating.

More essentially, as the dust on the first brutal phase of the pandemic settles in Europe, and set against Europe’s experience, containment of the pandemic cannot succeed through unilateral responses. EU policy makers will soon be confronted with the fact that the distance between Africa and Europe is only as far as the 14 kms that separate Gibraltar from Morocco. Virus knows no borders. The pandemics in Africa will threaten another round of outbreak in Europe and elsewhere. A failure in African response to the pandemics will be a failure to the world and vice versa.

A failure in African response to the pandemics will be a failure to the world and vice versa.

Africa’s plight

In Africa, the surge of confirmed cases is alarming. In less than a month, 46 of the 55 African countries have been hit by COVID-19, with over 2,746 confirmed cases, 72 deaths and 210 recoveries. Aside from their limited predictive, preventive and responsive mechanisms for containing and mitigating pandemics, African states have little capacity for identifying, testing, confirming, isolating and treating those infected. Although there have been some recent improvements in Africa’s public health systems, a high proportion of these systems are still in poor condition, with generally deprived public health facilities and a very small number of specialized hospitals. The high disease burden complicates the situation. For instance, Ethiopia, with a population of more than 100 million, has only one testing facility and less than 301 ventilators with an additional 134 being imported now.

There are more than 18 million refugees and IDPs housed in ‘temporary’ camps with little or no water, poor sanitation and non-existent health care make for rapid trans-national transmission of the virus. Porous borders and frequent and poorly managed cross-border movement among kin communities and pastoralists in border areas that remain outside the purviewof states will further facilitate rapid propagation of the virus across national frontiers.

Ethiopia, with a population of more than 100 million, has only one testing facility and less than 301 ventilators with an additional 134 being imported now.

For most African countries, there is no realistic alternative to prevention programmes because the financial and structural demands of an adequate treatment regime far exceed their capabilities. Prevention demands physical and social distancing, but this is unlikely without stricter community measures and lockdowns. Since seventy per cent of Africa’s population depends on the informal economy for its livelihood, social distancing will prove costly as the livelihoods of the majority of African families will be sacrificed to contain the spread of Covid-19. Unlike, European governments, writing blank checks to citizens will not be possible in Africa. Furthermore, the mobilization of communities to prevent the transition will require significant resource mobilization for preventive materials, relief aid and family income support. Hence flattening the infection curve will take much time and many lives unless EU and others step-up their support.

Since seventy per cent of Africa’s population depends on the informal economy for its livelihood, social distancing will prove costly.

Localization of response and primacy of governance

While the primacy of effective governance models and political leadership is essential to building an efficient global response, the battle against Covid-19 will ultimately be fought at the local level. Thus, ‘localisation’ of such a response agenda needs actionable and coordinated plans and a suitable implementation mechanism. We propose that the European Union and the African Union support and facilitate all the layers of collaboration responsible and extending upwards through local and national government authorities, and nation states to the international community. Perhaps the most important of these is the coordination of cross-border responses, information-sharing and the facilitation of inter- and intra-African mutual aid.

What is more, aggressive prevention in poor governance contexts works only with the exercise of state control of means of violence and administrative powers. Since the armed forces have a superior capacity for rapid deployment, African states will need to rely on their military assets in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the history of African armed forces, if they are deployed, mechanisms must be set up to ensure strict oversight and respect of human rights within the legally permissible derogation. In this regard, given its pedigree in human rights protection, the EU must consider support to human rights institutions with oversight mandates.

A transnational health agenda

To sustain an effective fight against Covid-19, measures have to be transnationally coordinated in order to ensure cross border transmission is arrested and refugee camps usually located in border areas get the necessary humanitarian and health support.

Furthermore, Europe and Africa face similar challenges, in so far as they have to aggregate national interests of several affected countries, and also forge overlapping consensus on points of convergence and try to build shared vision and narrow down the areas of divergence. This task is naturally taxing even in normal circumstances, and it becomes even more challenging in times of pandemic. It requires action at a pan-European and pan-African level.

At the regional level, in African and European contexts, the African Union and the European Union provide a necessary collaborative platform where layers of responsibility extend upwards from local and national government authorities to Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and the international community. The first joint action should be mobilizing significant financial and material resources to be effectively employed in the fight against Covid-19 and its health and economic consequences.

In this regard, the EU and AU may need to consider urgently establishing an advisory body comprising scientists and chief scientific advisers from both institutions and its member states to coordinate a response to COVID-19, both within states and across borders, particularly as regards harmonising epidemiological analysis and reporting, and sequencing the restrictive measures to be enacted on the populations.

The AU is also important for diplomatic initiatives aimed at defusing volatile situations and enhancing intra-regional and international co-operation while improving member states’ capacity for timely and efficient response to COVID-19. The African Union should urgently establish a transnational body on COVID-19 comprising heads of state and governments for high level coordination of Africa’s health and economic responses to the pandemics. The same body needs to forge a common African position in mobilizing support to African countries from the international community. The Peace and Security Council and Africa Centre for Disease Control may be tasked to jointly facilitate medical mobilizations and community leaders across borders.

While the emphasis is on the primary responsibility of states to respond in times of calamity, the international community needs to share the burden.

While the emphasis is on the primary responsibility of states to respond in times of calamity, the international community needs to share the burden. Norway and the World Bank and other donors are offering some assistance but the international community needs to consider wide-ranging measures for direct and indirect financial assistance, including the suspension of debt payments. Stressing the importance of aid in the effort to limit the effects of Covid-19 on the economy, the EU need to support the request of African states for significant financial support from the international community, including the global financial institutions. The EU may use its leverage with the G-20 and G-8 countries including players like US, China, and Russia to meet the plea made by AU for more resources.

In times of great upheaval and uncertainty, the natural inclination is to hold onto existing assumptions and paradigms. But there must be a sensible middle ground between discarding all our certainties and carrying on with business as usual. Europe and Africa must seize it now. We need to act, and act in global solidarity with all people and regions, specially the most disadvantaged and most vulnerable ones.

There must be a sensible middle ground between discarding all our certainties and carrying on with business as usual.

Else, as the Director General of World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom, pointedly put it “History will judge us on how we respond to the poorest communities in their darkest hour. Let’s act together, right now!”


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