Africa needs to rise above policy dilemmas amid Covid-19 crisis

By Xolisa Phillip

As forecast in 2020, Africa is coming up short in the Covid-19 environment, fiscally and in terms of social policy provisions. Governments on the continent are scrambling to secure Covid-19 vaccine supplies while confronting the economic fallout flowing from the pandemic. In addition to these considerations, the climate crisis is another factor that looms large for the region.

It is no secret that the Covid-19 outbreak is fast undoing the gains made throughout the continent, including in South Africa, over the past 20 years. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have noted this developing trend in successive publications released since the onset of the pandemic.

The distinguishing – or exacerbating — factor for the region is the scale and the depth of social policy, fiscal leverage and monetary policy buffers. More appropriately, the insufficient availability of these instruments has been fundamental in accelerating the adverse consequences of the coronavirus crisis.

Afreximbank chief economist Hippolyte Fofack put this more eloquently at the recent Deloitte Outlook Conference, saying: “[When] this all started, the IMF said the countries with reserve currency will fare better than those that do not have that privilege.” Fofack then pointed to the massive stimulus packages deployed by governments in European Union states, in the US, the UK and China.

The perils of that schism have shown up in the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out. While African Union chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa has decried the skewed nature of vaccine distribution and access, with purchasing power being a key determinant, and global trade constraints, countries in the Global North have secured sufficient supplies for their populations.

The contrasts between what is happening on the African continent and other regions could not be starker. But as the economic, social and health crises stemming from the pandemic play out on the continent, the realities of the climate crisis are converging with these issues to create another policy dilemma.

Covid-19 has further highlighted climate change as another frontier Africa cannot afford to neglect or leave unaddressed.

In previous periods, governments and policymakers alike on the continent often outlined the hypocrisy of the Global North in matters pertaining to climate change. This was so with regard to the growth trajectory of the region and its implications within a climate change framework.

The argument would go along the lines of the fact the Global North had achieved full development and was, therefore, better placed to make concessions about its economic growth path to accommodate climate change provisions. However, the same could not be said about the Global South, specifically Africa.

The discussion would often pit the two issues against each other: first achieve economic growth and then start considering climate change. The dualism of the debate took on a similar form to that of the economic growth policy versus social policy predicament.

In terms of the latter discussion, governments in low- to middle-income countries are in many cases faced with the difficulty of choosing which policy area to solve for and prioritise to ensure equitable outcomes. In this paradigm, too, the Global North is on a better footing.

Perhaps a “green growth” path is in the offing for the continent, one which encompasses economic and social policy aspects.

Consider that Africa is being subjected to more pandemics, which renders it vulnerable to disease, because of changing weather patterns. This is a fact highlighted by Eric Dugelay, a partner at Deloitte’s Sustainability and Risk Advisory.

“Indeed, the [Covid-19] crisis can sometimes be summarised by climate change. I hate that simplification, but there is such a strong connection with climate change. After reflecting upon this for the last six months, I can see that the correlation is positive,” said Dugelay during a panel discussion on climate change at the Outlook Conference.

Dugelay sits on the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, a creation of the Financial Stability Board. A total of 1,500 CEOs around the globe have expressed support for the 32-member task force.

However, Africa accounts for 3% of that support. A handful of organisations and companies in South Africa, including the South African Institute of Chartered Accounts, have also voiced support for the task force.

For Dugelay, that is not enough because the task force looks beyond CO2. He cites undernourishment as a rising risk for the region. The conversations taking place within that structure are too pertinent for Africa to be left behind.

Incoming data show that the region is most at risk for food insecurity, which correlates with climate change. Some parts of the continent are experiencing prolonged drought periods while others are becoming wetter. This further illustrates how the issue cuts across economic growth and social policy considerations.

As the panel discussion on climate change unfolded, it was interesting to note the absence of government policymakers and decision-makers. It was unclear whether this was by design or because of their lack of availability.

But what was clear, though, is that in an increasingly complex and interconnected environment, the artificial barriers that exist between public sector policymakers and decision-makers and the private sector are better resolved than maintained.

* Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.