Lessons from Africa’s past to cope with COVID-19
How managing COVID-19 and other crises necessitates Africa’s structural transformation, and what we can learn from the early post-independence development projects.
- Omar Ghannam (OG)
- Kareem Megahed (KM)
- Tetteh Hormeku-Ajei (THA)
This article is part of the “Reclaiming Africa’s Early Post-Independence History” series from Post-Colonialisms Today, a research and advocacy project of activist-intellectuals on the continent recapturing progressive thought and policies from early post-independence Africa to address contemporary development challenges. It is adapted from a webinar of the same name, which you can watch here. Sign up for updates here.
On the value of looking back to the early post-independence period as Africa grapples with the COVID-19 crisis
There is a wealth of lessons to be learnt from the policies and thinking of the post-independence period, when governments pursued policies that were more faithful to the structural realities of African economies and driven by the desire to assert their economic and political sovereignty as a fundamental starting point for development. They attempted to address dependence on primary commodity export, foreign capital, and colonial currency, for example. They certainly made mistakes, many of which ultimately undermined the sustainability of their policies. But the clarity of thought and action in that period around Africa’s challenges in relation to their subordinate place in the unequal global economic order has been lost with the onset of neoliberalism in the 1980s and much of the progress undermined. Today, policymaking on the continent is again externalized to institutions like the IMF or designed according to a market logic that obscures Africa’s structural realities. But luckily, if we are going to effectively address COVID-19 and build societies that are resilient, equitable, and that can command the loyalty of its citizens, we don’t have to borrow ideas from outside the continent. Because the very fractures and deficiencies that have been highlighted by COVID-19 were things Africans themselves were contending with not too long ago.
On the immediate challenges African countries are facing in managing the COVID-19 crisis
Weak social infrastructure is one, medical facilities are severely lacking in Ghana due to decades of privatization and lack of investment. There were only a couple of places where emergency care units were available so the state was scrambling to create makeshift ICUs.
And similarly, the lack of domestic capacity to produce emergency equipment. Having previously relied on importing PPE, with Donald Trump seizing ships on the high seas, it became clear to African governments if they’re going to supply PPEs to their frontline staff, they have to make them themselves. In Ghana, having not invested in domestic production capacity over the years, we had to mobilize the private sector to sew masks and things like that, but this has not been adequate. And frontline health workers still lack adequate PPE.
Healthcare became more and more dominated by the private sector in Egypt in the 1990s and the early 2000s, and it’s now estimated that over 50% of hospital beds are owned by the private sector. During the pandemic, we have seen an almost complete collapse of the Egyptian healthcare system. Hospital beds are either unavailable or incredibly expensive: we’ve seen prices go up to USD3,000 per day for admission, which in a country where one third of the population makes less than USD300 per month, is roughly the average GDP per capita. So, during a pandemic, people are being asked to pay effectively their yearly earnings for one day in hospital, which is not only morally reprehensible, it also means most people can’t access the care they need, exacerbating the crisis. Another challenge is Egypt’s problems with hard currency, which means whenever there is a devaluation of the pound, the medical supplies we import become scarce.
This is in stark contrast to the centralized planning during Nasser’s regime. This includes the planning of production, which would have ensured that Egypt, in a situation like ours, would have had the medication and the personal protection equipment we desperately need, but also centralized planning of provision in the form of government run hospitals, which used to be the primary form of healthcare for most Egyptians.
It’s interesting that in Ghana, and I’m sure in many African countries, the hospitals that were built in the immediate post-independence times are the same hospitals we are now relying on; after decades of disinvestment, it is all we have left to use during the COVID crisis. Governments in that period were committed to providing free healthcare for their people so they built modern health infrastructure that has stood the test of time, and the same goes for water, education etc. Having just emerged from decades of colonial rule and the colonial destruction of their autonomy, the state had to play a central role in reorganizing society. But there was also a social contract between the state and its people, in which the state had to meet certain needs while people participated in the post-independence project, and this social contract was translated in terms of intervention in a range of areas that are relevant today.
On the relationship between immediate concerns like healthcare infrastructure and capacity, and the structure of African economies
Ultimately, the limitations in state capacity and institutions, and the lack of policy or fiscal space to transform this, are all rooted in the structure of our society and our economy. Economies that are structured to be dependent on the international order—that simply produce and export raw materials for the purpose of importing all the manufactured goods needed—are also inevitably politically dependent on regimes that have an interest in diminishing state capacity and weakening public infrastructure through liberalization, marketization, and privatization. For example, structural adjustment programs undermined capital controls in Ghana, allowing people to take money in and out of the country with minimal regulation. COVID-19 caused capital flight, and without necessary resources at their disposal, the government was forced to turn to the international community for more conditional emergency support, something that may not have been necessary were the appropriate mechanisms in place. This translated to a lack of fiscal and policy space for the state to commandeer resources and respond to the crisis.
It is this economic dependence on the global North that has been leveraged to so effectively demonize and weaken the state in Africa over the past four decades of neoliberalism. To dismantle the registrar capacity of the state, its social infrastructure, its cadre capacity, so that finally the state is not in a position to do the things they were called upon to do. And as a result we are facing a crisis of state legitimacy. If the state is unable to provide protective equipment to frontline workers and it can’t command the confidence of ordinary people, very soon, when they are asked to stay home, people will come and say “I have to go out and work,” and will defy the order.
In Egypt, rather than being dependent on the export of primary commodities, we are dependent on tourism for generating about 20% of our GDP. In the context of the country needing to import vital medical supplies, 60-70% of our foodstuff, and a lot of intermediate products necessary for factories to run, when a crisis of the scale of COVID-19 strikes and tourism is effectively halted, this creates profound problems for the Egyptian economy on a macroeconomic scale. The government recently released projections for the next year, and in the best-case scenario, we will see an extra 4% of Egyptians fall under the poverty line, and in the worst case scenario, we’ll see 10%, putting the final poverty rates at around 44%. That is a massive devaluation in the ability of millions of people to secure their basic needs. Egypt has become integrated into the global value chains that are the hallmark of neoliberalism, where each part of the product is manufactured somewhere else. Now with COVID-19 and the limitations it has put on production, access to production facilities, and the movement of goods and services across countries, the fragility of these global value chains have been exposed. And so many countries are suffering from their lack of control over the production of their most basic necessities.
One positive is that the inflation rate, which has been at historic highs since 2016, crossing the 30% threshold multiple times, has been at around 5%, due to the constriction in hard currency inflows with the stark decline in tourism. This means that for now, worsening poverty will not be exacerbated by rising inflation. But Egypt is now seeking a new international loan from the World Bank-IMF and other international lenders, which will undoubtedly trigger another round of austerity, spiking inflation and exacerbating the problem. And the country will continue to be trapped in the cycle of increased poverty, lower revenues for the state, international loans, and then austerity measures that in turn increase poverty.
What we’re seeing is that after decades of the neoliberal approach of leaving everything to markets and minimizing state intervention, in a crisis situation when the state is the only actor that is capable of intervening in a meaningful way, it cannot do so because it has been hampered by years of effectively being starved.
Another aspect, one we haven’t been able to quantify in Egypt, is the relationship between COVID-19, economic structures, and gender-based violence. We’ve been seeing reports from around the world that incidences of domestic violence have been increasing during the lockdown and curfews, which has also been exacerbated by rising unemployment. In Egypt, about one third of households rely on income generated by women, and in a lot of these households they are the primary breadwinners. However, most women in Egypt work in the informal sector where they have no formal protections, no unemployment benefits, no pensions or severance packages. This exacerbates gender-based violence as women are less likely to have the financial means to escape abusive relationships, to be able to provide for themselves and their children away from their abusers, and during COVID-19 they are effectively locked in with their abusers with no viable way of escape. So this is another area where we see that although Nasser’s regime was by no means a revolutionary feminist project—it presided over what we’re resigned to call a public patriarchy—it still guaranteed significant rights for women that have since been rolled back. And as a result we’ve seen significant changes in the attitude of society towards working women and their presence in the workplace and the kinds of rights they should be granted, which are brought into stark relief in moments like this.
On the post-independence approach to managing crises like COVID-19
Self-sufficiency was a core tenant of the post-independence projects, they focused on the internal orientation of the economy and believed the economy should be structured to fulfill the people’s needs first and foremost. So the provision of healthcare and other basic needs such as education and housing was a very important part of the social contract. Universal healthcare in particular played an important role in raising the average life expectancy of Egyptians. The Nasser government saw the last epidemic outbreak of cholera and worked significantly on reducing the incidence of other endemic issues such as bilharzia.
The regime also gave special attention to pharmaceutical industries—between 1952 and 1967, workers in chemical production (under which pharmaceuticals were grouped) increased fourfold within the span of 15 years with the gross value added increasing by 700%. They also saw a significant reduction in the reliance on imports, as the domestic production ratio of total supply increased from roughly 50% in 1947 to over 60% by 1967. The regime wasn’t successful in establishing a completely indigenous industry due in part to the serious internal limitations of their incrementalist approach, but there was significantly greater self-sufficiency when it came to medical needs.
On the connections post-independence governments saw between economic transformation and liberation
Speaking to my example earlier of capital flight, Ghana and other African countries created fiscal space through financial institutions and measures that ensured the wealth being generated in their economies were being used and reinvested for economic expansion. This includes instruments we’re familiar with, like development banks, and also central bank policies that made credit available to the most vulnerable sectors, such as the rural economy.
Above all, post-independence governments intervened to protect their economies within the international economic order. It was not simply a question of building a modern economy, but recognizing what structures they inherited from colonialism and reorganizing their place in the international economic order. Because they recognized that political independence has to be complemented and rooted in economic sovereignty—over their resources, over their people, over their knowledge. In important sectors like minerals, natural resources, and agriculture, they ensured those things were available for and oriented towards their people’s development. Across Africa, whatever their ideology, all post-independence governments nationalized the mineral resources in their countries and took the appropriate steps to negotiate the terms within which foreign investors could participate in extracting these resources, ensuring it was compatible with the development of their people. It was an assertion of sovereignty, to critically reorganize their economies in their continued fight against the legacy of colonialism.
Patrick Wayman is one of my favorite medievalists, he worked quite extensively on the Middle Ages and on pandemics and major crises, and he quite often says that major crises like pandemics and natural disasters don’t collapse systems or destroy them, they just expose the cracks that are inherent in the system. I think that’s exactly what COVID-19 has done, it has exposed the cracks of the neoliberal system. And so grappling with this crisis necessarily means grappling with the neoliberal and neo-colonial structures that have undermined an effective response, at which point it becomes useful to revisit the early post-independence period as a moment when governments, like that of Gamal Abdel Nasser, attempted to transform their countries relationship with the global economic system. In Egypt, there were a lot of internal limitations that ultimately proved fatal to Nasser’s project, leading to Anwar Sadat’s economic opening and the eventual triumph of neoliberalism with Hosni Mubarak’s facilitations. But it is of value to revisit the policies and thinking of that period in our present-day quest for alternatives.