If there’s any upside to the unprecedented uncertainty gripping the world right now, its that the economic fallout has opened up a new debate about the right sort of policies to have. Its time to think creatively about what we can do and where we want to take this country, this continent and this planet. Its time for new thinking, imagination and boldness.


“We know how to bring the economy back to life. What we don’t know is how to bring the dead back to life.” – Nana Akufo Addo, president of Ghana

The total number of deaths in the coronavirus pandemic has passed the 250,000 mark. The health and economic calamity continues to evolve rapidly; the world is scrambling to understand it.

Even as there are signs that the curve is flattening in the U.S., scene of one-third of the world’s fatalities, estimates of how many will die have doubled from 60 to 120,000. Italy and Spain, two of the worst hit countries in Europe, have peaked.
California, the largest state in America, has flattened the curve, joining Asian nations such as South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and, of course, China. Europeans and North Americans are starting to emerge from lockdown. New Zealand claims to have totally eliminated community transmission of coronavirus.

But the virus is continuing to take its toll. The United Kingdom has passed the 20,000 death mark; Russia, which appeared initially to have escaped the worst, is battling with an outbreak that led President Vladimir Putin to declare that “we don’t have much to brag about.”

New infections and deaths are on the rise in Brazil and Ecuador, giving rise to fears that the third wave of the coronavirus will be experienced in the developing world.

Despite dire forecasts, Africa has so far experienced only a fraction of the number of cases seen elsewhere.

By late April, the known infections worldwide was 3.4 million and the number of deaths about 240,000. Africa had only 45,000 reported cases, with 1,800 deaths – less than one per cent of the total in both categories.

Though it is too early to claim anything conclusive, fears of a tsunami of cases in Africa have not been lost yet.

In a continent as large as Africa with 54 countries, it is hard to pinpoint what explains this. One possibility is that, other than South Africa and Ghana, there has been less testing. This is suggested by the fact that Africa’s morbidity rate – the number of people who die after contracting the virus – is around 5 per cent, compared to a world average of less than two per cent.

South Africa – with 90 deaths and about 5,000 cases – has a case fatality rate (CFR) of about 1.8 per cent, somewhat less than the rest of the region but close to the global average.

The global CFR could in reality be much lower, as it is believed that many more people have been infected than tested positive. This is certainly the case in the U.S. where, as more testing has been carried out, the CFR has decreased.

Further complicating the picture are suggestions based on data from New York, Italy, the U.K. and Spain that the actual number of deaths from COVID-19 is at least twice the official number. People who die at home or in nursing homes before they are tested are not counted.

Curve flattens in South Africa’s powerhouses

While the number of positive cases in South Africa has risen along with more testing, it is still not increasing at anywhere near the level of the worst hit regions.

Relatively speaking, South Africa has contained the spread since the first cases were brought in on a flight from Italy in early March.

The South African response was decisive and carefully thought out and much credit goes to President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize in the way they have led the response and mobilised the country.

Because of our history with the HIV/AIDS crisis, the country has some of the best infectious disease experts and epidemiologists in the world, exemplified by the husband and wife team of Salim Abdool Karim and Qarraisha Abdool Karim.
South Africa was also willing to learn from what worked in other countries such as South Korea and China.

Most experts agree that the lockdown has limited the spread of the virus, reducing infection rates and delaying the onset of the peak and buying us time.

But there is no cause for complacency. Professor Salim Karim has warned that preventing exponential spread in South Africa is very, very unlikely.

Professor Shabir Madhi, of Wits University, who is heading the public health subcommittee advising the president, estimates that up to 45,000 South Africans could die from COVID-19. That means the worst is yet to come.

Nigeria, with a long experience of dealing with infectious diseases – and a history of containing Ebola during the 2014 epidemic – has also flattened out the number of positive cases, although new cases continue to rise.

Still, there is growing concern out of the most populous State, Kano, where a number of elderly people, including some of the State’s most prominent citizens, have died in recent weeks. These deaths have been attributed to other causes but with the negligible amount of testing, we are unable to know for sure.

But while the continent’s two biggest economic powers are not typical, it is striking how uniform the African numbers are. No African country has yet been affected anywhere close to the scale of the worst affected countries.

The African Exception?

From the beginning, there have been warnings that Africa, with its dense urban slums, large numbers of people with chronic illnesses, and inadequate public health systems could be facing a catastrophe.

But this has so far proven not to be the case.

In response, there have been suggestions on social media that people are resistant to the disease by virtue of being black.
The U.S. is, sadly, proving the opposite. African-Americans are dying at alarmingly higher rates than other population groups.

In Chicago, about 70 per cent of deaths are black, while the city is only 30 per cent black. In Milwaukee in Wisconsin, where only 26 per cent are black, 73 per cent of those dying are black. In the nation’s capital, Washington DC, it is 44 per cent and 72 per cent.

Eugene Scott, in the Washington Post, puts this down to four factors that are specific to African-Americans: higher rates of underlying health conditions and less access to health care; blacks holding a lot of the “essential” jobs that make social distancing difficult; insufficient information from the government reaching the black community; and racial disparities in housing.

All of these factors are prevalent to an equal or even greater degree in South Africa, where housing for the majority of the population and the access to health care is often worse.

Unlike the Great Recession of a decade ago, all the major economies will be struggling or crashing at the same time. Kristalina Georgieva, IMF managing director, said 170 of its 189 member countries will suffer falling output in 2020. “The bleak outlook applies to advanced and developing economies alike. This crisis knows no boundaries. Everybody hurts”…


What is extraordinary is how much we still don’t know about the silent killer that the New York Times this week described as capricious: “The question of why the virus has overwhelmed some places and left others relatively untouched is a puzzle that has spawned numerous theories and speculations but no definitive answers.”

What seems to be the case is that Africa was the last continent to be affected because of proportionately fewer air links with the rest of the world. By moving to lockdown early on, many African authorities have slowed the spread of the virus in the general population, but we have to contend with the reality that the constrictions on economic activity cannot be sustained.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control has warned that it is too early to draw any firm conclusion, but there are a few clues as to what is going on in Africa.

Africa benefits from having a youthful population.

A Lancet Infectious Diseases paper found that globally, the case fatality rate for those under the age of 60 is 1.4 per cent. For those over the age of 60, the fatality rate jumps to 4.5 per cent. For those 80 and over, COVID-19 appears to have a 13.4 per cent fatality rate.

The global CFR among those under 20 is 0.2 per cent.

Africa has a median age of 19.4, against 40 in Europe. Of the continent’s 1.2 billion people, only about 50 million are over 60.

Africa might have benefited from being in the tropics and from the fact that the virus first struck during summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

Research from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore indicates that higher temperatures and humidity are correlated with a lower rate of coronavirus spread, similar to the correlation between climate and the influenza virus.

This is confirmed by researchers from Spain and Finland, who found that 95 per cent of positive cases occurred at temperatures between -2 and 10 °C.

Researchers from Beihang University in China, found that in the early days of the outbreak, hot and humid cities saw a slower rate of spread than cold and dry ones.

If this is valid, this is an ominous sign for South Africa, as it heads into the winter months.

Several recent studies have suggested a link between the BCG (the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin) vaccine – which was developed to fight tuberculosis – and the rate of death from COVID-19.

Tuberculosis is caused by a type of bacteria, while COVID-19 is caused by a virus. But the BCG vaccine might help people build immune responses to things other than tuberculosis.

Medical researchers in the U.S. and U.K. concluded by analysing data from 178 countries that those countries that do not have a BCG vaccination policy saw ten times greater incidence of and mortality from COVID-19, compared with those that do. Some of the worst hit countries such as the U.S., Spain and Italy do not administer BCG.

Almost all African countries administer BCG, though some only began doing so in the 1990s.

This link has not been scientifically established, but clinical trials are now being held to determine whether those nations that make BCG vaccination mandatory at birth are less susceptible to high COVID-19 related deaths. If this could be conclusively shown, it would be a massive breakthrough.

A World On Life Support

The path of the coronavirus and response to the pandemic has devastated the global economy. The Financial Times describes it as the worst collapse since the Second World War, and the most difficult moment for the global economy in almost a century.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects the global economy to shrink by 3 per cent this year. This is far worse than its 0.1 per cent dip in the Great Recession year of 2009.

The lockdowns, business shutdowns and travel restrictions are destroying demand, at the same time as a financial crisis is unfolding.

In a worst case scenario, the world is heading into a global Great Depression.

Unlike the Great Recession of a decade ago, all the major economies will be struggling or crashing at the same time. Kristalina Georgieva, IMF managing director, said 170 of its 189 member countries will suffer falling output in 2020. “The bleak outlook applies to advanced and developing economies alike. This crisis knows no boundaries. Everybody hurts,” she said.

The IMF predicts that worldwide trade will plummet by 11 per cent this year. Global manufacturing supply chains are being broken.

During the Great Recession, China continued to grow at 9 per cent. Although it is reopening its economy ahead of the rest of the world, China’s GDP plunged by 5.8 per cent in the first quarter of this year, dipping into recession for the first time in 44 years. Meanwhile, the country remains on guard against a second wave of infection.

The U.S. economy is at a standstill and economists are projecting unemployment to reach 20 per cent in the second quarter. The IMF expects the U.S. economy to contract by 5.9 per cent this year.

Most of Europe is on lockdown and Germany, France and the U.K. are in deep recession. The Eurozone will suffer a 7.5 per cent drop and Japan, 5.2 per cent. U.K. output could dip by 6.5 per cent this year.

Emerging markets and low-income nations across Africa, Latin America and much of Asia are at especially high risk.

On a more positive note, the recent monetary and fiscal policy responses from across the world have generated some optimism for a rebound.

The world is desperate for good news, but there will be no end to the pandemic and return to pre-crisis behaviour until a vaccine is developed, which could be well into 2021. The impact of the coronavirus is likely to be prolonged and the peaks could be followed by more peaks.


The IMF forecasts that there will be 5.8 per cent global growth in 2021, but this is at best a thumb-suck because there is still so much uncertainty.

Governments in the developed world have been willing to make massive interventions to stimulate demand and interventions by central banks to ensure liquidity by keeping the cost of borrowing low and financing credit supply.

The U.S. enacted three aid packages worth $2.7 trillion. The Federal Reserve has enacted a $2.3 trillion rescue package for the economy. But at least 32 million Americans have lost their jobs and there is more pain to come.

And President Donald Trump’s erratic moves could jeopardise a U.S. recovery, even as the rest of the world struggles to get back on its feet.

African Economies In Pain

Even though Africa is the continent least scarred by the health crisis, it could end up the most damaged by the economic calamity.

Emerging market assets have been precipitously dumped and there has been capital flight worse than during the Great Recession.

Commodity prices that have buoyed African economies for the last quarter century have collapsed. Major mining operations have been mothballed.

Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, has been driven into deep recession by the oil price crash – and is expected to contract by up to 7 per cent this year. Angola has been battered as well.

The tourism industry, a key part of the economies of countries such as Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa, has shut down.

Remittances from diaspora communities have declined dramatically.

There has been a huge fall-off of trade with partners such as China, Europe and the U.S.

The World Bank predicts that growth in Africa could fall to between minus 2.1 per cent and minus 5.1 per cent, led by severe downturns in Nigeria, Angola and South Africa.

Africa’s domestic economies have had a stranglehold placed on them where countries have implemented social distancing measures, closed borders and imposed lockdowns.

The majority of Africans work and trade in informal markets, meaning that millions are now unable to work.

The African Union estimates that up to 20 million workers could lose their jobs. Even in developed countries, workers are just one pay-cheque away from being completely broke. The scale and impact in human terms are unimaginable.

People have no money to spend, further collapsing demand. There are signs of widespread hunger and the World Bank is warning of a food security crisis. Social and political unrest will surely follow.

And this is before the full health impact is felt.

The World Bank, IMF and African Development Bank have announced billions of dollars in emergency credit facilities to African countries and called for bilateral debt relief. But that will not be enough.

Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the IMF, estimates that emerging countries may need as much as $2.5 trillion in support. African leaders are calling for, at the very least, a debt standstill.

The needs are insatiable – scaling up the health sector response, maintaining wage payments amidst a massive wave of firm bankruptcies, relieving social distress and growing hunger and poverty, all while protecting the overall stability of the financial system.

President Ramaphosa’s R500 billion social and economic package is intended to go some way towards alleviating the worst of the crisis in the short term but much will depend on its execution and the fiscal sustainability of the programme. Given the experience of the past decade, can we expect those implementing the programme to ensure that this massive pot of money will find its way to the intended recipients?

The early signs are not encouraging.

In order to pay for it, Ramaphosa has indicated that he will use whatever is available to prop up the economy and prevent social collapse, including IMF loans, but at some point the bill will come due.

Other African countries do not have our options. They are being called upon to drain their treasuries to provide support for the poor and unemployed and to bolster their health systems, just as tax revenues have literally collapsed. Ken Ofori-Atta, the Ghanaian Finance minister, says he is green with envy at the “unthinkable stimulus packages” being announced by the developed nations.

“Their generous tool kits are not available to us,” he laments.

Living With a Pandemic

There is great uncertainty about the speed of the recovery, largely because it depends on the continued path of the virus – and medical advancements that have not yet happened.

The world is desperate for good news, but there will be no end to the pandemic and return to pre-crisis behaviour until a vaccine is developed, which could be well into 2021. The impact of the coronavirus is likely to be prolonged and the peaks could be followed by more peaks.

With so much at stake, there is an unprecedented global race underway to produce a vaccine, with seven clinical trials underway, and a group from Oxford University providing the most optimistic timeline of about six months.

For Africa, the main lesson is, in the words of Ken Ofori-Atta, that it is time to challenge the unbalanced nature of the global architecture. Which means, perhaps, that the point is not to replace one overlord with another but to imagine a world order in which we all have a place at the table…


The ability of the virus to mutate and to come back, maybe in a more virulent form, is why the Asian nations emerging at the other end of the first wave are not dropping their guard.

The lockdown strategy has been implemented to flatten the curve – to prevent the pandemic occurring in a compressed time frame – and buy time to prepare health facilities for a spike in cases.

In the absence of a vaccine, therapies of existing drugs are being used for COVID-19 patients. But while studies are being fast-tracked around the world, they are not yet conclusive. The drug, remdesivir, originally developed to treat Ebola, is said to be showing some promising early results but other therapies such as the much touted hydroxychloroquine are still viewed with skepticism and only used to treat the most severe cases.

In the absence of a vaccine, attempts to move countries out of lockdown – which are now underway – have to be strategic, phased, targeted and managed on a long-term basis – and accompanied by widespread testing and surveillance and proper equipment for health care providers. Countries could also go back into lockdown if there are further spikes.

There will be no way forward without knowing where the enemy is – tracking the virus and isolating it. South Africa has one of the world’s most innovative programmes, sending 28,000 health workers into communities for screening and testing.

Some of what we know about catastrophic viral pandemics is drawn from the experience of the 1918 Spanish flu which killed between 50 million and 100 million people.

The flu came in three waves. The first relatively mild version was in March 1918 and it appeared to have run its course by the northern summer. The second more virulent and infectious version struck in September 1918 and the third continued through 1919.

The second wave came to South Africa via two troopships of soldiers who were returning from the Western front and stopped in Freetown en route, where the flu was raging. When they docked in Cape Town, they were quarantined, but not effectively, and set off a wave of infections that ended with the deaths of about 300,000 people – six per cent of the population of the country at the time.

Epidemiologists have puzzled over why the diamond miners in Kimberley, almost a quarter of whom died in the flu, died at 35 times the rate of the gold miners in Witwatersrand.

It is now believed that the miners on the Reef had already developed some immunity from the first strain that had traveled up from Durban earlier in the year. The more isolated Kimberley miners only experienced the second, more lethal wave.

The End of Globalisation?

In seeking to find a culprit for the pandemic, we do not need to look too far: the globalised economy, the era of free and easy travel and movement between countries spread the virus. Globalisation made the globe more vulnerable to a pandemic.
The upside of globalisation – the free movement of capital and ideas and the free trade that has driven the global economy since 1945 – is presently being reassessed in a harsher light. Some assume that the age of globalisation is now over.

French President Emmanuel Macron sees the crisis as an “existential event for humanity” that will change the nature of globalisation and the structure of international capitalism.

Is it likely that nation states will turn themselves into fortresses surrounded by moats to keep out aliens and foreigners? Depending on the devastation to economies and the forces of populist nationalism that will be unleashed by the pandemic, that could well be the outcome.

But it would hard to see recovery in such a world. It was a global trade war in the 1930s – spurred on by the U.S. Congress’ Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act – that was one of the major drivers of the Great Depression and helped set the stage for the Second World War.

The stronger argument is that the moment demands greater community between nations in fighting a common enemy. What the coronavirus has taught us is that the existential threats of the 21st Century, from the pandemic to climate change, are ones that threaten us all.

The very qualities required to defeat this virus – scientific knowhow, capable and responsible government, global solidarity, basic humanity – are what we need for survival and prosperity in the years ahead.

These are the very elements that are threatened that at this moment.

However, instead of co-ordinated policy responses from governments around the world, we see a fracturing of international co-operation.

We should not forget what the last quarter century of turbo-charged globalisation has brought us. It has lifted billions of people out of extreme poverty, not just in India and China, but in many other nations, and in large parts of Africa as well.
However, as the gap closed between the developed and the developing world, it brought stagnation and job losses to the middle and working classes of the U.S. and Europe, and widened inequality between a global super-class with unimaginable wealth and just about everybody else.

It also gave us the pandemic which, if nothing else, is a moment to reflect and reset.

One reason for pessimism is that the U.S., which was the prime mover and leader of the post-1945 world, has been missing in action.

Trump has steered the U.S. away from any constructive international role. He has rejected calls to create a global taskforce to deal with the pandemic and threatened to cut funding to the World Health Organisation in the middle of the worst health crisis in a century. While his administration’s incompetence at home has cost many lives, its reputation abroad has been badly tarnished.

Trump has dashed hopes that the world’s two leading economic powers will co-operate. He has indicated that he wants to run for re-election on a China-baiting platform, exacerbating the ill feeling that has been generated by the last three years of trade wars.

With the U.S. abdicating, many people are finding it hard to imagine a globalised world without a hegemon, which is why many believe China will takes the U.S.’ place in a new global order. Xi Jinping has, for the last three years, already emerged as the most outspoken champion of globalisation.

But to be the leader of a free world, one must also possess the magic ingredient of soft power, which presupposes an admiration for one’s system of governance. China, with the recent experience of the Hong Kong protests and the many thousands of Muslim Uighars still in detention, not to mention its initial lack of transparency around the outbreak of the coronavirus, might not be best placed to lead the new world order.

There’s also a lot of anger towards China right now. Oby Ezekwesili, Nigeria’s former minister of Education and a former vice president of the World Bank, has argued that China should pay compensation to Africa for failing to transparently and effectively manage the global catastrophe.

For Africa, the main lesson is, in the words of Ken Ofori-Atta, that it is time to challenge the unbalanced nature of the global architecture. Which means, perhaps, that the point is not to replace one overlord with another but to imagine a world order in which we all have a place at the table, and in which the two greatest powers find it in themselves to work together, and with the rest of us, for a common humanity.

If there’s any upside to the unprecedented uncertainty gripping the world right now, its that the economic fallout has opened up a new debate about the right sort of policies to have. Its time to think creatively about what we can do and where we want to take this country, this continent and this planet. Its time for new thinking, imagination and boldness.

Mcebisi Jonas is the chairman of MTN and former deputy Mminister of Finance in South Africa.