Cyril Ramaphosa, South African President and Chairperson of the African Union visits citizens under quarantine who had just been repatriated from Wuhan, China, following the Covid-19 outbreak.
Cyril Ramaphosa, South African President and Chairperson of the African Union, visits citizens under quarantine. | Photo: GovernmentZA | CC BY-ND 2.0

An Island of Internationalism: The African Union’s Fight Against Corona

Although corona is a global health threat, immediate reactions to contain its spread have mainly followed a logic of national sovereignty, threatening many of the hard-won achievements of decades of international cooperation. In this situation, the African Union (AU) is a rare case of internationalism: it has played an important role in providing coordination, expertise and technical support to its member states, engaging in advocacy, and mobilizing resources. It is imperative to applaud, but more so to support the AU in continuing to play its vital role as one of the few islands of internationalism these days.

While the epicenter of the corona pandemic is currently still in Europe and the United States, the virus is also spreading across the African continent. Many experts are warning of the dramatic social, economic, and political consequences the coronavirus may have for many people’s lives in Africa. Out of the 55 African countries, 51 have confirmed cases of COVID-19. Among the most affected countries are South Africa, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Cameroon which together account for 45% of the continent’s positive cases. Other countries such as Burundi, Gambia, and South Sudan have so far reported less than five cases. But these numbers may change quickly.

 

African Union Member States reporting COVID-19 cases (Source: Website of the African Union, https://au.int/en/covid19)

Quite early on, African governments have taken partly drastic measures to respond to the growing spread of the virus. 43 African countries have fully closed their borders with some of them also closing all international air traffic. In 18 African countries, among them South Africa and Rwanda, total lockdowns are currently in effect while other governments such as those of Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, and Senegal have imposed curfews. As elsewhere, these measures are highly controversial, especially after excessive force has been used in implementing curfews and isolation, like in Kenya and South Africa.

For many African governments, these were also risky measures, given the high social and economic costs as well as the potential for social and political unrest they imply. Several governments have therefore combined restrictive measures with programs to mitigate their negative consequences: in Rwanda and Nigeria, for instance, the government decided to provide food and other goods to vulnerable communities while the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, established a national COVID-19 fund to which he donated his salary for the coming three months.

Another story from Africa

For the past weeks, the main storyline in Western media on Africa and COVID-19 has been asking whether ‘Africa’ can cope with this situation. This storyline not only implies a strong skepticism towards the ability of Africans to successfully tackle crises, it also – if only implicitly – repeats (neo-)colonial narratives of Africans as incapable, a worry to the world, and in need of foreign assistance. It crucially neglects Africa’s experience with the successful combat of Ebola, in which – as anthropologist Paul Richards demonstrates – ‘ordinary’ people’s knowledge and adaptive capacities did play a significant role.

The narrative of the likely catastrophe to come over Africa also downplays important steps already taken in reacting to the crisis as well as the daily efforts by those realizing such steps. One such neglected story is that of African international institutions such as the African Union. Unlike its European counterpart, the African Union has over the past weeks been crucial in providing expertise, information, and coordination to governments and citizens about how to react to the undeniable spread of the virus. While the rest of the world seems to have reverted to the logic of national sovereignty, this is a rare case of internationalism in these days that requires both attention and support.

What the AU has been doing

The most visible public face of the African Union’s responses to the corona outbreak is the specialized technical institution called the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). This is particularly remarkable given that Africa CDC has only been launched three years ago.

When the coronavirus was first detected in China in December 2019, Africa CDC started working closely together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and its subregional centers in order to support AU member states in their responses to the likely spread of the virus. Since then, the AU has displayed at least five functions which International Relations scholars attribute to international organizations: coordination and standard-setting, expertise, technical support, public agenda-setting, as well as mobilization of resources.

Firstly, the AU has been an important convening power leading to coordination and joint standard-setting for AU member states. In mid-February 2020, African Health Ministers met for an emergency meeting in order to agree on a continental strategy to better prepare and respond to the likely spread of the virus in Africa. African Finance Ministers followed with a virtual meeting in March discussing the virus’s likely fiscal consequences and ways to tackle them. In late March, the current AU Chair, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, convened a virtual meeting of the AU Bureau – which apart from South Africa currently comprises Mali, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Egypt – joined by the Chairperson of the AU Commission and the Director of Africa CDC. The AU Bureau inter alia decided to establish an African Coronavirus Fund. Just one week later, a second virtual meeting of the AU Bureau followed. The AU’s convening power, however, also reaches beyond the official governmental level. Since early March, for instance, weekly webinars bring together more than 300 clinicians from across the continent – crucial experts who, without the AU, would most probably not exchange experiences and coordinate in such a manner.

Secondly, Africa CDC has been providing important expertise to AU member states and their citizens. As part of the continental strategy, an Africa Taskforce for Coronavirus (AFTCOR) was set up providing strategies, data, and training in six technical areas ranging from surveillance to clinical management of positive cases and risk communication. For each technical area, a working group was established which is comprised of Africa CDC staff and member state representatives. Africa CDC also gathers and publicizes important data such as daily statistics on infection, death, and recovery numbers as well as data on measures AU member states have taken in response to the virus. Strategic documents provide recommendations for stepwise responses to COVID-19 and guidance on implementing social distancing for member states and communities. AU member states are also provided with continuously updated information via instant messaging services. For those professionally or privately charged with care-taking roles for COVID-19 patients, an online portal provides training materials such as online courses and case studies to support evidence-based care.

Thirdly, technical support to member states has been an important area of AU activity in response to the spread of COVID-19. Africa CDC has led the expansion of testing capacities across the continent. In January 2020 not a single lab in Africa was able to process COVID-19 tests. Today, 48 African countries have such labs. The institution has also coordinated the distribution of test kits as well as donated medical supplies and equipment to member states.

Fourthly, Africa CDC and other AU institutions have been fulfilling an important public agenda-setting function. Africa CDC has put in place a clear public outreach campaign through its Twitter and Facebook channels, through podcasts and leaflets, aiming at creating awareness and providing information to African citizens about infection patterns or care and prevention strategies. Apart from that, a key concern is also to fight misinformation. As elsewhere as well, in many African countries fake news around the coronavirus spread quicker than the virus itself. Africa CDC has therefore started working on a rumor tracking system to monitor and respond to rumors being spread about COVID-19.

Fifthly, as in other policy areas, a key function of the AU in fighting the corona outbreak has been the mobilization of resources. The AU Bureau, which in late March has set up the African Coronavirus Fund, also immediately decided to contribute 12.5 million USD as seed funding to it. But the fund is clearly set up to attract attention from ‘the international community and philanthropic entities’. In this sense, the AU’s convening power has so far also been used to send a united message to other international institutions, the G20, and individual donors appealing for the need to release additional funds, defer interest payments, and support the acquisition of much-needed medical supplies.

Threats to the AU’s internationalism

The global spread of the coronavirus poses unprecedented challenges to all humankind and globally creates a state(s) of exception. Yet it does not turn everything into exception mode. Unsurprisingly, the AU’s internationalism in response to corona is therefore also built on deep and long-standing challenges to international cooperation that endanger the organization’s effective fulfilment of the functions discussed above. For instance, despite the AU’s clear coordination and agenda-setting role, not all member states follow suit. From the 55 AU member states, nine have so far not taken any measures against COVID-19 or have not provided information about it. At the same time, some of the measures taken by individual member states, the closure of airspace in particular, heavily compromise the AU’s ability to implement its tasks such as the distribution of much needed medical equipment.

Also, as the AU in general, Africa CDC is an under-resourced institution that works under serious staffing and financial constraints. This makes the achievements so far made even more impressive. However, it also underlines the institution’s vulnerability and gives a sense of what it would be able to realize if it was financed properly.

Finally, in responding to the coronavirus, the AU has so far deliberately addressed both AU member states and African citizens. Lessons from other parts of the world and Africa’s own experiences with Ebola are clear: in order to successfully fight a deadly virus, the behaviour, creativity, and adaptive capacities of individuals and communities are as crucial as expert knowledge and governmental management. However, the AU’s track record in effectively reaching out to citizens and communities is still poor. Despite the organization’s claim to be ‘people-centred’, for many African citizens, the AU is still a distant, government-driven institution that has so far rarely fulfilled its people-serving function.

Gaining trust and support from African citizens who are as important as African governments in realising the continental strategy to fight corona will therefore be a crucial precondition for the AU’s effective internationalism in the weeks to come. In fact, it might be a historic chance for the AU to prove how close it is to the people. This requires listening to the experiences and concerns of citizens as much as providing crucial information for them – which has so far been the main focus of the AU’s engagement with citizens. It would also require stepping in where restrictive measures imposed by African governments violate continental human rights law.

Learning from the AU

For the African Union, fighting against the spread of corona is also a fight for survival. As Cedric de Coning shows, the virus itself as well as the restrictive measures African governments have taken in response to it required the AU to suspend meetings and travel. This threatens some of the very foundations of the AU’s work: The AU’s Peace and Security Council, the central decision-making organ for peace and security matters, has temporarily suspended its work; the initiative to deploy an AU military force in the Sahel region cannot be realised quickly; and the commencement of trading within the African continental free-trade agreement is likely to be postponed. Against this background, the reason why the AU has become so involved in leading a continental response against COVID-19 is all the more clear. But isn’t that also true for other international institutions, not least for the EU? Aren’t Viktor Orbán’s emergency law, the fight over corona bonds, and the discrete suspension of the right to apply for asylum also a threat to the EU’s own normative and institutional foundations? On 24 March, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, tweeted about his exchange with the AU Commissioner for Social Affairs and the Director of Africa CDC. Borell noted that the EU ‘will not forget its sister continent’. While the EU’s support for the African Union in the weeks and months to come will be crucial, this might also be an opportunity to engage beyond the donor-recipient relationship that has shaped EU-Africa relations for long. In fact, it might be time for the EU to listen to the AU’s achievements in setting up a continental response to the corona crisis and to learn from it as sisters do.

Antonia Witt
Dr Antonia Witt is a Senior Researcher and Project Leader at PRIF’s Research Department Glocal Junctions where she is working on African regional organizations and the African Peace and Security Architecture.

Antonia Witt

Dr Antonia Witt is a Senior Researcher and Project Leader at PRIF’s Research Department Glocal Junctions where she is working on African regional organizations and the African Peace and Security Architecture.

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