Congressional hearing tackles US COVID-19 response in Africa

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A scene from the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on the COVID-19 pandemic response in Africa. Screengrab from: YouTube

WASHINGTON — Democratic backsliding, Chinese involvement, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis in Africa are all chief concerns to the United States, U.S. leaders testified at a congressional hearing Thursday.

While 713,000 coronavirus cases have been reported in Africa as of July 27, a number that has more than doubled since July 1, the data on COVID-19 on the continent is incomplete, said Chris Maloney, acting assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Africa bureau. The number of cases has recently accelerated, including in Ghana and Nigeria, and “we don’t know how widespread the outbreak could be,” he said.

The picture looks quite different in each country and the response must be determined at the country level, Maloney said.

USAID looks at the pandemic through three lenses: health, humanitarian, and the second- and third-order impacts. In the health response it has focused on enhanced risk communication and community engagement work, including correcting misinformation and promoting good practices; infection prevention and control; supporting national lab systems; surveillance and national response teams; case management; and coordination, Maloney said.

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Several world leaders delivered video speeches during the opening of the 73rd World Health Assembly. One prominent leader was missing, however.

USAID has redirected some funding in programs such as PEPFAR and the President’s Malaria Initiative so that they can be “COVID aware” by procuring personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, and generally figuring out how to adapt, Maloney said.

Since March, the U.S. has committed almost $470 million in COVID-19 response funds and nearly $20 million to respond to the locust infestation in eight countries in East Africa, according to Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs. That builds on more than $100 billion in U.S. investments in health systems in Africa during the past 20 years, he said, adding that COVID-19 threatens many of the gains made with that funding.

“A healthy population makes Africa and the rest of the world safer and more prosperous. This long-term approach stands in sharp contrast to others like the Chinese Communist Party whose defective goods, slipshod infrastructure projects, predatory lending habits are designed more for the benefit for the CCP than the benefit of Africans,” Nagy said.

“China wants to come in with some PPE equipment, much of which doesn’t work and all of a sudden become the savior.”

— Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary, U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs

China came up several times at the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing, including an exchange in which Rep. Tim Burchett, a Republican from Tennessee, raised concerns about plans for China to build the headquarters of the Africa Centers for Disease Control, saying he was concerned about data security.

Nagy said, “we are absolutely seized with that issue,” adding that it would be an “unmitigated disaster” if China built the headquarters. He said a decision hasn’t yet been made and he believes several member states of the African Union also have concerns, which could be brought up at the next executive meeting.

The U.S. has invested $100 billion over 20 years on African health systems and “now all of a sudden China wants to come in with some PPE equipment, much of which doesn’t work and all of a sudden become the savior,” Nagy said.

“Our long-term goal is a peaceful prosperous Africa,” he said.

Though many embassies in Africa are operating at 60% staffing, Nagy said he has ordered ambassadors to look at how governments use COVID-19 to abuse populations and to restrict democracy, and to see where violent extremist organizations may be trying to expand their operations.

One of the most concerning impacts of the coronavirus is the democratic backsliding, with some countries already postponing elections, Maloney said. In other countries governments or police forces have violently cracked down on citizens violating lockdown orders, with Zimbabwe arresting 105,000 people, likely part of the opposition, under the guise of violating the lockdown, he said.

There are a number of important elections on the continent this year and some countries may try to use COVID-19 as an excuse to delay elections while others may justifiably postpone elections by a few months in order to have credible elections, Nagy said. U.S. ambassadors and USAID are working to devise programs to address some of the challenges and are closely monitoring elections, including in Somalia, where the prime minister was recently dismissed by the national assembly, he said.

“We must be clear-eyed about the situation today and mindful of the difficult days that lie ahead. Soaring unemployment, increased food insecurity, ballooning budget deficits are also significant concerns. The secondary effects of unanticipated migration flows, declining commodity prices, diminished tourism revenues, rising food prices are just some of the concerns facing African governments,” Nagy said.

“We must be clear-eyed about the situation today and mindful of the difficult days that lie ahead.”

— Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary, U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs

Globally only about 10% of supplemental U.S. COVID-19 funding is currently going to those second- and third-order effects, with about two-thirds going to the humanitarian response and 20% to global health, Maloney said.

Moving forward, there will be a need for greater investment in economic growth and other second- or third-tier effects that may require difficult trade-offs and potentially less spending on humanitarian issues, he said.

One lawmaker questioned the speed of the U.S. response, with Maloney replying that it is a mammoth task to get this much money out the door this quickly, and that all humanitarian funding appropriated in the emergency supplemental bills will be obligated by Friday. Any delays, and there were some early on, were the result of trying to ensure that the response was aligned and done right, he said.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California, tried to get Nagy and Maloney to comment on the $4 billion in funding for the global response in the Senate’s HEALS Act, or outline how much more funding was needed in the response, but both declined to respond.

“The needs are tremendous,” Maloney said, adding that even if Congress were to approve a large package of funding it would likely not be enough, so the agency will work with what it has.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.