COVID-19 in West Africa: Multiple crises demand a new approach to co-operation

By Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, Chief Executive Officer, African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) and Honorary President, Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC)

This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.

ENVISION Project in Senegal
Healthcare workers in Senegal. Photo: RTI International/Sam Phelps

West Africa is in the midst of a food crisis of exceptional magnitude. The recent meeting of the Food Crisis Prevention Network — which monitors the food and nutrition situation in the Sahel and West Africa — reported that the crisis is expected to affect 17 million people in the coming months; twice as many as the average of previous years. This worsening situation is mainly due to a high level of insecurity.

The COVID-19 pandemic is already hitting the region hard as a result of the collapse of world commodity prices, the devaluation of some currencies, inflation and difficulties in importing agricultural inputs. Moreover, some policy responses, such as limiting mobility, closing or restricting market activity — are de facto threatening the livelihoods of the majority of the population. It is feared that the spread of the pandemic will be rapid and massive, especially since — despite a young population — the immune systems of millions of people are weakened by malnutrition or chronic illnesses.

In addition, in the coming weeks, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the Permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS) warn that the region could be affected by an invasion of locusts from East Africa.

The region could therefore face four simultaneous crises: food, security, health and potentially locusts. To my knowledge, this situation is unparalleled in history. Considering the foreseeable impact of the sanitary crisis alone on the world’s richest societies and economies, one cannot but be alarmed at what will happen to some of the world’s poorest countries in the face of these four concurrent ills.

Governments will not have the means to cope. Health systems are very weak; national budgets are low and will be cut back significantly due to the impact of the global recession.

As useful as they may be, moratorium on foreign debt and the mobilisation of existing international solidarity mechanisms will not be enough. That is why, in my opinion, Africa must be fully integrated into a global strategy first and foremost to fight the disease and then rebuild the “world after COVID-19”; and this for two reasons.

The first is that the pandemic will not be defeated until the last battle has been won. This battle will be fought in Africa, because it is the last continent to be affected. One can only shudder at the thought of Africa being forcibly “confined” by the rest of the world because it is the last and uncontrolled focal point of the virus. This catastrophic scenario would bring unimaginable human, social, economic and geopolitical consequences. Is the international community in a position to mobilise?

Certainly, the Extraordinary G20 Leaders’ Summit stressed that “consolidating Africa’s health defence is a key for the resilience of global health”. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has its Strategic Plan for Preparedness and Response up and running, but it is grossly underfunded. The WHO announced on 26 March that Africa would have only two weeks to respond before plunging into a rampant spread of the virus.

Lack of time is as much a severe problem as is a lack of resources. We can only hope that the pandemic will be less virulent than elsewhere because of the youth of the population. Let us hope that a medicine will be available in the coming months — which is not impossible. Let us also hope that in this case, the international community will be able to manufacture enough medicine for tens of millions of people and deliver them as soon as possible at affordable terms. Finally, let us hope that when the rest of the world has emerged from the crisis and no longer needs masks and respirators, it will finally mobilise on a large scale even if it is too late to avoid massive contamination.


The second reason is economic. The African Development Bank estimates that the continent could have a solvent middle class of 1.4 billion people by 2050. They could be one of the pillars of future global growth. Africa is also the continent where the most infrastructure will be built in the coming decades. Its roads, power grids, airports, bridges and water supplies will be a source of growth for itself and the world.

West Africa and its fragile Sahelian zone will have to face these threats, questions and contradictions with lucidity. So will their international partners. Given the multiple and interlinked crises that threaten the region, the time is now to rethink co-operation and break across policy silos. Vertical policies must be swapped for place-based strategies, built with a broad spectrum of local actors.

We, for our part, will have to focus on the essential. Two-thirds of the population of our region depend on the food economy; half live in the countryside, the other half in the cities; one-fifth of its population lives less than 50 kilometres from a land border. These numbers, from the work of the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC), should serve to guide us.

SWAC was born out of a crisis: that of the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s. It played an instrumental role in the fact that this region is — by far — the best equipped in Africa in terms of prevention and management of food and nutrition crises. Its Secretariat ensures that the dynamics of conflicts, urban and rural changes, food systems, border issues, trade networks and the role of women within them, are better documented than anywhere else.

I firmly believe that our Club is more indispensable than ever. It was created in response to a need for dialogue and knowledge; the tormented months and years ahead must strengthen our determination to rise to the challenges that lie ahead.


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