Covid-19 in Africa: From the vain hopes of 2020 to the brutal reality of 2021

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In 2020, with the meteoric rise of Covid-19 in the world, the African continent appeared to have been relatively spared, and this on a continent where one epidemic follows another, that has run-down or even non-existent health services, where corruption reigns and where one can legitimately ask if its bottomless pit of misery is ever going to end. But in 2020, Africa appeared to have escaped a new calamity, with the exception of South Africa where the official mortality rate from Covid-19 has remained high since last spring. However, just by looking at the situation of this country, the only one in Sub-Saharan Africa that's provided with an up-and-running health service, one can only imagine what's happening and what could happen in the rest of the continent if the pandemic propagates further. With the new "South African variant" this threat is made very real.

Certainly, there are serious dangers from the virus, but above all there is the fact that the majority of African states are governed by kleptomaniac, clan-riddled and parasitic national bourgeoisies, a young ruling class but one that is already well-rotted.

Populations are victims of state neglect

During 2020 and in order to justify the general inaction of states, a whole series of myths, lies and beliefs have circulated in Africa[1] sown around by different powers: Covid-19 wouldn't affect Africa because the majority of its population is young; the climate isn't favourable to its spread; there is less inter-action with other continents and, even, it's a "disease of the Whites". And all this seasoned with more or less ancestral beliefs. The bourgeoisie and its states use these beliefs in order to render their African populations more submissive and resigned - populations that have already suffered the ravages of one epidemic after the other. During this time the virus continued to spread, but in some countries that was mainly registered by cemeteries taking on the morbid job of keeping statistics, with gravediggers playing the role of accountants.[2]

Certain lies have served the self-mystification of some leaders: "In Zimbabwe, the heights of the state decimated by the epidemic", headlined the French newspaper Le Monde (January 2121): "Since December 2020, several members of the government posed arm-in-arm, faces uncovered, some ministers (particularly those that dethroned Robert Mugabe) became ‘national heroes’ victims of Covid: they seem convinced that they were immune thanks to their privileges". Three weeks ago, the Vice-President of this country said that reports of witnesses saying that the hospitals were overflowing was just "story-telling penned by mercenary writers". At the beginning of February, "when three of these leaders were buried, the tone changed": "(The virus) makes no differentiation between the powerful and the weak, the privileged and the disadvantaged, those who have everything and those that have nothing". We have no pity for a bourgeoisie responsible for the hecatombs but rather pity the populations held hostage by such a breed.

In Tanzania, the authorities assured everyone that the country was a victim of simple pneumonia: "Up to the end of last year, the government of Tanzania tried to convince its inhabitants and the world that Covid-19 could be cured by prayer, while refusing to take measures to stop its propagation until it was faced with the multiplication of deaths by ‘pneumonia’ and when a Zanzibar politician admitting contracting the virus".[3]  All these lies in order to protect Safari tourism!

Since last December, populations have been hit by the full force of the consequences of capitalist negligence, along with the intolerable arrogance of a dominant class as vain as it is rotten. "The second wave of the Covid-19 outbreak turns out to be more devastating in Africa", according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on which the African Union depends. Already, officially, many countries have gone beyond average death rates. In Nigeria, the most densely populated country in Africa, health authorities report having "to choose what patients to take in and whom to refuse care", according to the CDC. Everywhere there is a lack of oxygen and protective equipment. In Ghana the young are becoming infected and all this faced with a "South African" variant 50% more contagious than the first Covid-19.

South Africa: a macabre "example"

For some years now South Africa has been celebrated as an example for the continent to follow, as much from the economic as the social point of view, while boasting about a "democratic multi-racialism" after the sinister period of Apartheid[4]. But once the euphoria evaporated the "new" post-Apartheid bourgeoisie showed its true colours: brutal repression of workers' struggles[5]; corruption at all levels of the state; systematic destruction of the health services and, as a result, a laughable and criminal management of the AIDS epidemic. The misery of the townships has only increased and baleful, racist murders against immigrants have even taken place in Soweto.

It's within this context that the pandemic has arrived in this country; and disaster is added to disaster. As we've underlined, the rate of infection in South Africa has reached the highest since the first wave: officially 36,000 deaths; but doubtless around 80,000 taking into account the evolution of the number of natural deaths. One issue raised by Le Monde was one that the bourgeoisie couldn't really hide: "Some carers, their feet immersed in water from the intense rains, look after Covid-19 patients sheltered by a simple metallic structure on a parking lot. Published on an Instagram account and suppressed since, the image has become the symbol of the new health crisis which has hit South Africa. Overwhelmed by the numbers of gravely ill, the Steve-Biko hospital in Pretoria had no other choice than to look after them in tents initially set up to triage arrivals"[6]. On top of all this comes the weight of the new variant which is more lethal than the first. The only thing that the authorities have done for hospitals is to ban their workers from making declarations about their disarray faced with their nightmarish working conditions.

Vaccinating Africa: China on the lookout in the world-wide free-for-all

The African Union has promised at least 600,000 vaccine doses for 2021 added to those of the WHO (and its "equitable" distributor, Covax). The state powers, above all the European ones, have more or less realised that if Africa becomes an uncontrollable hotbed for coronavirus it will only add more chaos to the disorder. Thus, we have the alleged "help Africa" programme with ridiculously low numbers of doses for a continent which has need of 2.6 billion of them. In the present context, despite all the promises from here and there, no-one is capable of saying when and how these vaccines could be properly distributed across the continent[7] where only four or five countries have super-freezers and, above all, the financial means to take on the task.

But it's above all China which has found, with the vaccine, a supplementary means to increase its imperialist influence in Africa: it is using its "health diplomacy" inaugurated last year with masks, medical material or even the annulations of certain debts as those of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country hit by as much by coronavirus as by the resurgence of Ebola.

After the war of masks and of respirators, we now see the free-for-all at a global level around vaccines in a danse macabre between states and between states and the pharmaceutical industry[8], everyone against everyone else, and that despite the urgency of the situation, highlighting the dog-eat-dog frenzied rhythm of state policies. Thus, China profits from the pandemic in order to accelerate its "soft power" diplomacy - or as the Mao/Stalinists pledge hand on heart: a "stronger African/Chinese community of destiny" by making the African countries debtor-hostages in perpetuity. It presents itself in Africa as the antithesis of the old colonial powers with softer, friendlier words.

Thanks to the pandemic, China has made great strides in its grip on Africa. Its "soft" presence will fix nothing, it won't bring populations out of their misery and it will do the same as the other powers, which, in a more and more chaotic world, it will end up confronting.

After all the talk about the "African miracle" it is necessary to be clear: neither the "emerging countries", nor the new oil economies will come out of crisis. Without going into detail, the future of much of Africa is going in the opposite direction - towards "Somalisation" rather than stability. The arrival of the pandemic has only added to the woes of the African populations: accentuation of famines, inter-ethnic violence, the criminal actions of sects (mass kidnappings in Nigeria for example), violent displacements of populations (as in the Sahel) as well as - of course - inter-imperialist confrontations all over the place. And the pandemic will amplify all of these dramatically.

In this context, what can revolutionaries say? We are not prophets of doom and we don't rejoice in the misery inflicted on the proletariat and the exploited of this country; we'll leave that to the vultures of the exploiting class who don’t hesitate to profit from a capitalist world in full putrefaction and who bide their time before replacing the hyenas already there.

As much as in Africa as the rest of the world, it's the struggle of the proletariat that offers an outcome from the hell of decadent capitalism. Faced with mystifications and all sorts of nonsense propagated by its national, ethnic or religious "liberators", the exploited must become aware that they are part of one and the same class whose international struggle contains the germs of a future society.

Fajar. February 5, 2021.


[1]  We recall here the criminal affirmations of the old South African president, Thabo Mbeki, minimising the AIDS outbreak and thus contributing to the spread of the disease.

[2]"Normally Moussa Aboubakar dug two or three graves a day in the main cemetery of the village of Kano in the north of Nigeria. From one day to the next this figure rose to 75. I have never seen so many deaths as today’, said the 75-year old man, whose white Caftan was soiled by the sweat of his task at the Abbatuwa cemetery where he has worked for 60 years. The news that deaths had increased by 600 in a week created alarm in the second biggest town in the country. But the authorities have denied that these were due to coronavirus and swore that they were exaggerated. But in the meantime the gravediggers of Abbatuwa are running out of space" (El Pais, May 23, 2020). In fact, the African bourgeoisie and its states do not specifically count deaths of Covid-19, relying above all on the despair and resignation of populations faced with endless calamities. We should also note that even in the developed countries these figures are manipulated to the convenience of the ruling class, such as Spain, as well as throughout Europe over deaths in care homes; saying, without doubt, that they were going to die anyway!

  [3] El Pais, February 13, 2021. The president of Tanzania, John Magafuli, died on March 18, after disappearing from sight for some weeks, of what officials called a "heart condition". Magafuli, a populist mini-Trump and a doctorate in chemistry, had told his population to "rely on God", while his forces buried people killed by Covid-19 in secret. His death follows that of 10 senior politicians in the country in February

[4] See "Contribution to the history of the workers' movement in South Africa (II): From the Second World War to the middle of the 1970's", International Review no. 155 (summer, 2015).

And also: "Contribution to the history of the workers' movement in South Africa (III), International Review no. 163 (spring, 2019).

[5] See our article on the massacre of striking miners in Marikana by the South African police, August 16, 2012:

Also see the article from our section in Belgium which looks at the wave of repression of struggles which followed the massacre (Internationalisme, no. 356).

[6] "Covid-19: South Africa confronts a second brutal wave" (in French), Le Monde, January 18, 2021.

[7] Quite recently governments made a great song and dance through the media welcoming the first vaccine doses reaching the Ivory Coast. None of this preventing "very quickly each for themselves and 'vaccine nationalism' taking over (...). Africa has thus seen its Chinese, Russian and Indian ‘friends’ ready to come to its aid" (Jeune Afrique, February 2021.

[8] An example of this at the highest level is within the EU and between the EU and the UK. Pertinent to the question of poorer countries and their access to vaccines is that the "success" of the UK's vaccination programme is built on the cost to the populations of these poorer countries. For example, Britain has ordered ten million doses from a manufacturer in India that is mass-producing the AstraZeneca variety. But the Serum Institute of India is supposed to be, and is apparently licensed to be, producing vaccines for poorer countries which is why it is known as "the pharmacy for the developing world" (Daily Telegraph, March 3, 2021).


Covid in Africa