While COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted normal exchanges between Africa and China, the two sides remain in close touch. The Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity Against COVID-19 pandemic held via video link on June, 17, 2020 where 15 African countries and China issued a joint and multilateral position on the Covid-19 pandemic with African and Chinese leaders calling on the world to adopt better synergy between nations to defeat the worldwide health and economic threat. The summit demonstrates that China-Africa ties remain close and strong. The summit was a joint initiative between the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of South Africa in its capacity as the Chair of the African Union (AU), and the Republic of Senegal in its capacity as the Co-Chair of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).
With African economies hit by COVID-19 crisis, the continent faces a double health and economic challenge: African nations need to allocate resources toward protecting the health of their folks, while attempting to minimize the negative economic outcomes of the outbreak. Also, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the international community had been worried that Africa’s vulnerable and underdeveloped medical systems may be overwhelmed by the spread of COVID-19. As a result, the Africa-China summit served as a channel for China to stand with Africa in solidarity.
Nevertheless, African nations have so far remained unwavering, with death tolls and infection rates low compared to European nations and other developing and developed countries. African nations have implemented strict measures in combating the pandemic as well as implemented lockdowns at early stage, and gained much experience from the previous fights against diseases, including the deadly Ebola.
Nonetheless, minor lapses could give rise to the extensive spread of COVID-19 in Africa, considering the recent dearth of large-scale nucleic acid testing and the large numbers of Africans living in poverty. Also, African nations are still facing a shortage of medicines, medical supplies as well as weak management systems. Therefore, this makes the China-Africa summit necessary because the summit served as a channel to strengthen China-Africa cooperation as the continent of Africa is still facing a great threat from the virus, and to cement China-Africa relations. It also served as a way for African and Chinese governments to generate more collaboration in urgently required areas such as providing aid to African nations, especially in the area of safeguarding public health as well as bolstered coordination among African nations in curbing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
China attaches great significance to improving the public health capacity of African nations. For instance, China sent its first medical team to the continent in 1963. At present, China has sent over 24,000 medical staff members to the continent of Africa, where they have offered medical services to more than 200 million African folks and trained tens of thousands of local medical workers. When the Ebola epidemic broke out in 2014, China was the first nation to send chartered flights to deliver emergency relief materials and dispatch a medical team to combat the outbreak, making significant contributions to the continent’s triumph over the disease. China-Africa relations in public health demonstrate that China has always followed the principle of practical results, sincerity, good faith and affinity as well.
As such, the China-Africa summit served as a way of reminding the Chinese and African people to transcend transactional basis into a relationship where both hearts and minds are in one accord. It also served as a channel of reassurance from Chinese and African leaders that China-Africa relations should uphold multilateralism, oppose unilateralism and racism. It was an avenue for both Chinese and African leaders to have a consensus that the relationship will not be shaken amid COVID-19.
Presently, African nations are burdened by their debt; numerous African nations are paying back what they borrowed and have little space to divert these resources towards more pressing health and economic needs. And since China takes seriously the debt concerns of African nations and is willing to act earnestly on the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative, through friendly consultation as equals, and expedite support for African nations worst hit by the pandemic makes the China-Africa summit necessary. This is because it served as a channel to respond to the international community regarding China’s alleged silence toward Africa’s debt issue. Therefore, I see President Xi Jinping cancelling the debt of relevant African countries in the form of interest-free government loans that are due to mature by the end of 2020 as one of my highlights.
This cancellation will effectively support these African nations’ response to the pandemic. China supports the suspension of debt reimbursement by the least developed nations and is willing to make its necessary contributions to the consensus reached at the G20 meeting.
Also, based on the fact that in my last piece on China and Africa looking beyond COVID-19 pandemic, I talked about how COVID-19 vaccine would likely come from China; all of which makes it only rational that African nations maintain close contact with China not only in its fight against the pandemic but also other health challenges. As such, when President Xi announced that once the development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccine is completed in China, African countries will be among the first to benefit. This will be China’s contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries. This makes me believe that if we can come together to fight the epidemic, then it will be an era where the community of shared future for mankind was established.
With that said, as China nears its milestones of eradicating absolute poverty by 2021, the summit is especially timely for China and African nations to proactively work together on innovative and pragmatic cooperation. This may comprise of the cancellation of significant debt President Xi announced during the recent summit and China’s supports for Africa’s effort to develop the African Continental Free Trade Area as well as to enhance connectivity and strengthen industrial and supply chains. It is worth noting that a truly “innovative and pragmatic” approach would be to work together with African debtor nations to discover the optimal balance between debt stock and debt relief flow; one that supports the continent’s own sustainable poverty eradication ambitions.
Since Africa and China have always been a community with shared future, where Chinese and African folks have been standing together through thick and thin, sharing weal and woe and completely trusting each other, I will conclude by saying the China-Africa summit indicates that if we make friends by our power, the friendship will break up when the power is lost；if we make friends by money, we will separate when money is gone; therefore, only heart-to-heart exchanges can last long.
Ehizuelen Michael Mitchell Omoruyi is executive director, Center for Nigerian Studies, at the Institute of African Studies, Zhejiang