Grim prospects for African workers

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Socialist Review reports from a continent facing an unprecedented economic collapse

Despite the comparatively limited impact of Covid-19 on Africa, the continent as a whole is on the verge of its first recession in a quarter of a century. GDP growth is projected to fall from 2.4 percent in 2019 to between -2.1 percent and an eye-watering -5.1 percent this year. According to the IMF, this will be the sharpest contraction of the continent’s economy on record.
The International Monetary Fund describes the development as “an unprecedented health and economic crisis”. Output losses alone will cost the African economy between $37 billion and $79 billion as demand for the primary commodities that African countries mostly export falls. China, a major importer of goods from the continent, is likely to cut back drastically.
Africa’s least developed countries, such as Zambia, South Sudan and Mauritania, will be hit the hardest because they are highly dependent on the export of primary goods. Demand from Europe (which accounts for more than 50 percent of exports from West Africa) and North America will likewise nosedive. Oil producing countries have already started bearing the burden of a global collapse of oil prices, which fell by 50-70 percent between January and April.
This trend is set to continue, bringing cuts to jobs and wages. Intra-regional trade within Africa itself will also drastically slowdown. This could have disastrous consequences for both the organised private sector and the informal economy.
The continent imports two-thirds of its food. Coupled with the waves of locust invasion that have swept through East Africa for several months (including during the planting season in March), food insecurity will be a major problem for millions.
All of these factors have enormous implications for African workers. Already, with the gradual easing of lockdown, hundreds of thousands of workers in the formal sector are finding there is no work for them. Indeed, the African Union has warned that no less than 20 million jobs could have been lost.
The idea that we face either coronavirus or a ‘hunger virus’ is a myth. Workers face both simultaneously. The informal economy, which accounts for 86 percent of all employment, is already under pressure, with operators finding it almost impossible to get commodities to market, or find working-class people with money to buy what they do have to sell. Covid-19 could well be an example of the pandemics to come.
Preparing for health crises requires strong public health systems. The 1989 Abuja Declaration committed countries across the continent to earmark at least 15 percent of their annual budget to healthcare. So far, only four have done so.
At a more fundamental level, addressing the social determinants of health must take precedence. Free education, decent employment and working conditions have to be improved and health facilities upgraded. Luxury top-notch private hospitals and schools for the elite must be made available to all. A COVID-19 vaccine can play an important role in strategies to defeat the disease.
We must rally around the call for a #PeoplesVaccine – free to all. Enormous changes have been made by global capital over the past few months as governments seek to sustain ailing industry, with trillions thrown at the bosses to maintain their way of life, in Africa as elsewhere. Attempts will be made to make workers pay for these handouts to the rich.
Governments will tell us “there is no magic money tree”. This will ring false. Our trade unions, communities, social movements, and radical and revolutionary organisations must organise and mobilise to ensure we don’t pay for the economic collapse already beginning.
(Baba Aye is a leading member of Socialist Workers and Youth League, Nigeria)