‘We can use this as an opportunity’ - Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on how African nations can recover after COVID-19

Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes part in a discussion on "Challengers of Job-Rich and Inclusive Growth: Growth and Reform Challenges" during the World Bank/IMF Annual Meeting in Washington October 8, 2014.
There are fears that COVID-19 has the potential to wipe out three decades of growth and development in Africa
Image: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
  • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, ex-finance minister of Nigeria, fears the COVID-19 pandemic could wipe out two or three decades of growth and development on the African continent.
  • Debt standstill arrangements are needed to help African nations finance recovery and build a more sustainable future.
  • Subscribe to the weekly World vs Virus podcast on Apple, SoundCloud or Spotify.

“We should not be complacent about where Africa is. The number of cases is still doubling every two weeks and that is with very minimal testing.”

These are the words of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, ex-finance minister of Nigeria, former managing director of the World Bank, chair of the board of Gavi, and the main guest on this week’s World vs Virus podcast.

Speaking of the pandemic’s impact on Africa and its people, she addresses the difficult decisions facing governments trying to balance their population’s health with economic need.

Past experience with diseases like Ebola and Polio have taught the continent some important lessons about isolating cases, effective contact tracing and community education programmes to promote containment measures. As surging patient numbers stretched the health services in many developed countries, Africa’s healthcare capacity for dealing with the pandemic could be quickly overwhelmed.

This knowledge helped drive many African countries to act quickly and put full or partial lockdowns in place to slow the spread of the virus. While these moves helped control the virus, they have sparked unprecedented economic disruption.

“Right now under prediction is a contraction on the continent of about 2%. This has not happened for the past 25 years. So I have this fear that the two or three decades of growth and development may be lost,” Okonjo-Iweala explains.

A high proportion of Africa’s workforce operates in the informal economy – more than 70% in some urban areas – earning enough to live day by day. Being unable to work due to lockdown restrictions leaves many of these people without money to feed their families.

Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes part in a discussion on
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is chair of the board of Gavi, the global alliance for vaccines.

“On the continent there has been this saying that the hunger virus might kill people before coronavirus. So you have to think of the economic consequences right away, as well as the health consequences. And it has not been easy balancing the two,” she says.

Asked what keeps her awake at night...

“Although the number of COVID-19 cases in Africa is quite low compared to other regions, the true extent of the pandemic’s impact remains unclear,” she says. “If case numbers keep doubling as they have been, troubling times lay ahead."

Education could also be at risk, widening equality and opportunity gaps. “With schools closed, education could become another casualty of the pandemic as many African children don’t have internet access to facilitate online learning."

And while lockdowns can control the virus, they present their own safety issues. “With children unable to learn, confined to home with their families, gender violence rates are increasing in many parts of the world.”

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

How quickly will economies recover?

African nations, like many countries around the world, have a long road ahead. “The impact will last a little bit longer than we think – it's not going to be over this year, even next year; it might prolonged into 2022. And that is why these countries need breathing room,” Okonjo-Iweala says.

While many developed countries have the fiscal capacity to spend around 10% of their GDP on recovery stimulus packages, the average for African countries is around 0.8%. Poorer nations need some form of debt standstill arrangement for a year or two, rather than paying to service debts, to help them finance their recovery and build a more sustainable future – one that includes putting women and youth at the centre of decision making.

Still, the crisis presents Africa with a chance to set new priorities and address a range of challenges in a new way. “Africa needs to reimagine and rethink itself. And I think we can use this as an opportunity,” she explains. “I see that out of this crisis, we can really make many good things.”

Find all previous episodes of World Vs Virus here.

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