Africa: The Covid-19 Crisis and An Agenda for National & Global Problem-Solving

25 March 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic is still in full swing, but its lessons start to emerge for those whose commitment is to think ahead. We are currently at war, like so many global leaders declared, but the question is who is gonna win the peace and how the peace will look like.

There is an overwhelming agreement that the world will be very different at the end of the crisis: our plans as individuals, families, communities, countries and leaders change and adapt. What has also become evident is that the complexity of the threat the humanity faces requires a new international agenda, one that is pragmatic and dedicated to problem-solving. Europe and Africa can lead the way for the reorganization of cooperation in the aftermath of the pandemic. In a world of continued great power competition despite coronavirus (including in terms of narratives and blame games), Europe and Africa are the most naturally prone to cooperation, and we should remember in context that this is not opportunistic: the new EU team has signalled from its very first visits that Africa is a top priority for Brussels.

Our models will have to change. The detractors of the state have been silenced by the scale of the Covid-19 challenge. At the same time, even in the most developed countries of the world, the events of the past weeks have exposed the limits of the current public institutions and services -- they are not adapted to act quickly and decisively and are badly prepared to respond to scenarios such as the one triggered by the pandemic.

The task will be to reconstruct the state, to make it more efficient and responsive - a brainstoming on "new social contract" has started in African countries like Morocco, but the new situation demands newer perspectives. Solving collective problems will ask for a smart, administrative state, that will put in place new forms of cooperation, abroad and at home.

In terms of global formats of cooperation, like with the financial crisis a decade ago, there will be more calling for G20 solutions than G7 ones. In terms of national politics, hopefully, the attempt to bring together trust and competence will deal a blow to all the populists who have prospered in the last decade; but one must work for this purpose also, or, quite the opposite, populists will capitalize on the crisis by advocating simple but untenable "solutions".

Political leaders will have to expand the circle of typical stakeholders and bring in more expertise from outside. Here, mastering technology for the good will be one of the key avenues for building this new type of state. Rather than paying lip-service to "capacity/institutional building" soundbites or being paralyzed by ideological fixations, African and European leaders should join forces, put together different sets of challenges, skills and expertise, and actively design and test the robustness of a more involved state.

That is a smart State, swift in crisis (particularly the health one) and dealing effectively with its economic fallout, but not overreaching or power grabbing. This is a challenge for 54 country leaders now, as well as for continental (AU, AfBD, AfCFTA) or regional (ECOWAS, EAC, SADC, Maghreb Union) organisations' leaders and their teams: whoever leads now will capitalize on the crisis and turn it into opportunity.

The strongest business people - the Dangote, Sawiris and others-  of the continent and their foundations, as well as media and civil society will also play a key part in energizing societies along the path. This crisis management in 2020+ is special because it involves a right combination of leadership and management: inspiring people and leading them forward, while delivering on the health and economic front as smart and speedy as possible (despite historic economic shortcomings and underdevelopment in some of the countries).

The slogan "this time is different" could not apply more, particularly at those who look at 1929 or the 2007/ 2008 financial crisis for guidance. It does not mean that all we planned has to be dropped but it needs to adapt: (women and youth) empowerment is still important, security in the Sahel remains a major challenge, other SDGs remain vital to fulfill, but the EU Green Deal and some African Economic plans (including some global plans of transition via AI to 4IRs) have to be adjusted to match the new realities. People will want (back / new) jobs, and there will be extra strain on (leaders of populous countries like Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and others, to deliver. There will be a competition for financial resources in state budgets, like in affected business - and other organisations'- ones.

Internal consolidation in each country, particularly as coronavirus expands across the globe like a web, will not be enough. With the spread of coronavirus, we have the confirmation that, sometimes, borders are only a fiction. It is totally wrong to speak about deglobalization when, in fact, what is required to deal with issues such as pandemics is more international engagement. Europe and Africa have to cope these days with the consequences of an imported crisis and not even regional coordination will be enough. This is more than the typical government-to-government diplomacy, we have to start acknowledging that the problems go beyond the traditional silos we are used to operate. It is time to bet on multinational teams, whose different outlooks can bring forward the out-of-box solutions everyone is hoping for.

There have been some missed opportunities in the EU-African cooperation, but the lack of ambition should be replaced with a bolder agenda driven by the assessment of the crisis' impact. Global issues have to be framed properly and there is an opportunity for the two geopolitical and continental blocks to lead in terms of smart solutions and research and innovation.

To be more concrete, I think that Africa can teach a lesson or two to Europe based on its recent experience with the Ebola outbreak, but also with crises of similar type. At the same time, Europe can assist in making sure that the African response to coronavirus integrates some of the hard lessons the Europeans have come to internalize as the scale of the disaster has become evident.

A certain sense of solidarity and cooperation is very valuable these days. The two continents can work more closely together, and the political leaders can facilitate more permeability of the networks of experts and consultants. Moreover, Africa and Europe share a fundamental commitment to inclusiveness and to fighting against poverty and inequality. Putting these principles at the core of the attempt to reconstruct both national institutions and pragmatically-oriented forms of international cooperation is another element of the agenda.

As the coronavirus episode shows, a global crisis can originate from anywhere and can have massive and systemic consequences. The scale of the challenge demands renewed and revamped forms of international cooperation that can leave behind some of the shortcomings we observe these days: shortsighted leadership, resource misallocation, unfocused innovation and research, lack of crisis preparedness, and insufficient transnational cooperation.

The arguments for decisive and coordinated actions are here and I can only hope that Africa and Europe will pick up the gauntlet of international problem-solving. For Africa and African leaders, UN SDGs should remain a priority track to development, while adjusting implementation plans to the new normal. Investing in people know how and training (particularly reskilling to prepare people for the economic recovery after the current expected job loss and economic downfall) should also be a priority, and Europe and Africa should stick together here as well. Also, installing quickly national and continental "war rooms" (crisis communications, health best practices and next economic policy steps) becomes a must. We are all in this together, it's a global problem, we must act and collaborate. Like an African wise proverb says: In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.

Radu Magdin is a strategic communications analyst and consultant and former prime ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova.

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