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To exit the Covid-19 era, Africa needs to rebuild the social contract

Patrick Smith
By Patrick Smith
Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report.

Posted on Wednesday, 20 January 2021 12:57

Fireworks explode over the new suspension bridge crossing the River Nile in Cairo, Egypt, January 1, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Prospects that the record-breaking vaccine development and distribution plans will start to counter the political and economic devastation of the pandemic have opened this year with a blast of hope and goodwill. It will be short-lived unless there are credible efforts to launch a new social contract.

This would have to be both a national and an international project, buoyed by the hundreds of millions of voices calling for radical reforms to the global system, its inequities and its march towards environmental apocalypse.

The latest report by UN Secretary General António Guterres captures the shape of the emergency and why the 2020 pandemic is a by-product of the climate crisis. Carbon emissions that can be traced to the richest 1% of the world are more than double those produced by the poorest 50% of the world. The pandemic cut greenhouse gases when factories and airlines paused their operations. But that will count for little if emissions bounce back as we jump into 2021?

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Financial innovations could help Africa’s most indebted states mitigate climate threats and the pandemic’s economic damage. International financial institutions should develop green bonds and debt-for-climate swaps, encouraging finance houses and hedge funds to take responsibility for what Guterres calls the “broken state of the planet”. Carbon taxes are another tool to rescue the environment. Such taxes could penalise the biggest sources of carbon emissions and provide climate credits for the mostly low-carbon economies in Africa. This could build on the flawed system of carbon trading.

Africa’s successful response to the pandemic also could be a launch pad for a wider remaking of the political order and a counter to the blind alley of authoritarian populism.

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With the leadership of the World Health Organisation’s Matshidiso Moeti in Brazzaville and the Africa Centres for Disease Control’s John Nkengasong in Addis Ababa, Africa’s health professionals went on alert to fight a pandemic whose epicentres were in Europe, the US and Asia. It was their determination, and a seriousness among political leaders, that resulted in Africa, helped by climate and demography, registering just 3.5% of COVID-19 deaths in 2020 with its 17% of the world’s population.

READ MORE Covid-19: ‘All African countries have the capacity to carry out mass vaccinations’ – Nkengasong

Hopes of a new social contract in Africa, with higher investments in education and health and a determined push towards digital and green technologies, will require a spirit of political inclusion. A decade of economic crises have pensioned off neo-liberalism. With more open economic thinking, African governments can start to redefine relations between the state and companies with a wave of investment in education, boosting access to technology and reliable infrastructure.

For most governments, the urgent priority is a great leap in agricultural production, but they should not lose sight of those African musical, literary and cinematic talents taking their place on the world stage, alongside the new generation of tech pioneers who are attracting the attention of Wall Street and Shanghai investors. As this year’s protests have shown, radical political change will be necessary here, too, to strengthen these pillars of the continent’s future.