The world’s richest countries have agreed to freeze poor nations’ debt obligations, shortly after nearly 20 European and African leaders made a joint appeal for a massive international effort to boost Africa’s coronavirus response. “Only a global victory that fully includes Africa can bring this pandemic to an end," they said.
Finance ministers of the G20 group of major economies, which includes the US, China, India and others, said they will immediately put on hold poorer countries’ obligations to service debt they owe.
The statement issued after a videoconference on Wednesday put to rest concerns that China would block such a measure, which is aimed at helping the poorest nations focus their spending on healthcare and assistance to vulnerable people to contain the outbreak and its fallout.
The joint appeal signed by the leaders of France, Ethiopia, Germany, South Africa and other nations, published in the Financial Times, called for dramatic measures that include an immediate moratorium on all debt payments, public and private, until the pandemic is over.
While the G20 did not specify how many countries would benefit, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said 76 countries were eligible for the moratorium, including about 40 in sub-Saharan Africa.
Debt payments worth $20 billion will be suspended including $8 billion owed to private creditors and $12 billion owed to other countries, he said.
An additional $12 billion in debt payments to multilateral institutions like the World Bank are also under consideration for a debt freeze. The freeze on debt repayments will last through the end of this year and could be extended.
African officials have joined forces in recent days to appeal for billions of dollars in financial assistance and improve their position in the global competition with richer countries for badly needed medical equipment. The African Union appointed four special envoys to mobilise support and created a platform to help the continent’s 54 countries bulk-buy medical goods at more accessible prices.
While virus cases among Africa’s 1.3 billion people total more than 16,000, health experts have said the continent is weeks behind the US and Europe in the pandemic and the rise in cases looks alarmingly similar to Europe’s.
As the world braces for potential waves of the virus, the joint appeal said no region will be safe if Africa, with largely weak health systems, is left to fend for itself.
According to the statement an “unprecedented effort” is required, the appeal said, directly addressing the World Bank and IMF. “We must deploy a huge economic stimulus package of at least $100 billion” to give to Africa the resources it needs to fight the virus.
On Monday, the IMF approved $500 million to cancel six months of debt payments for 25 of the world’s most impoverished countries, including 19 African member states, so they can help tackle the pandemic.
On Wednesday, the IMF said sub-Saharan Africa could see minus-1.6 percent growth this year, “the lowest level on record”.
Calls for assistance have been growing at the highest levels. In his Easter message, Pope Francis called for debt forgiveness for the world’s poorest countries, saying they are being hardest hit by the pandemic and must not be “abandoned.”
Africa’s debt-to-GDP ratio has climbed from 30 percent in 2012 to 95 percent today, said French President Emmanuel Macron in an interview posted Wednesday with Radio France Internationale.
“We absolutely must help Africa to strengthen its capacities to respond to the health shock, and we must help it to respond economically to this crisis,” said Macron.
The new appeal, signed by all European leaders of the G20, has also welcomed a European Union plan for a pledging conference in May.