“We need to get the virus under control in Africa, too”

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Nursing with face masks for ambulances

Enabel delivered 4 fully equipped ambulances to the DR Congo. © Enabel

With over 47,000 confirmed cases and 1,843 deaths (situation as of 5 May 2020), the African continent has so far been relatively spared from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Nevertheless, we are undoubtedly at the start of a major spate of new infections. Vulnerable groups in particular are at risk: people living with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, displaced persons and residents of refugee camps. Moreover, the health systems in many African countries are unable to cope with a pandemic of this kind.

'There is a real chance that this crisis will cause vulnerable health systems in Africa to collapse,' explains Minister for Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo. 'It could become the Achilles' heel of the global fight against the virus. If we are unable to keep the virus under control in Africa, it could also have repercussions for us. It is in our own interest and in the interest of our health care that we help the weakest health systems to contain this pandemic. We also need to avoid new hotbeds of conflict and migratory waves from developing.'

The socio-economic impact for Africa also looks particularly bleak. Because a social safety net is often non-existent or very limited, the consequences for the local population can be disastrous.

The Palestinian territories - one of Belgium's 14 partner countries - have also suffered greatly during the corona crisis. In the Gaza Strip in particular, the dramatic situation threatens the already highly vulnerable population: because of the high population density, but also because of the poor health care and economic situation.

Nurse pulls up vaccine

The health systems in many African countries cannot cope with a major pandemic. © Enabel/Tim Dirven

Multilateral and European approach

Belgium prefers to adopt a multilateral (international) and European approach. At global level, the fight against the pandemic is broadly in the hands of the following organisations: the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the health dimension, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA) for humanitarian aid, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for food security and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for the socio-economic dimension.

'The WHO deserves our explicit support for its essential role in managing this crisis,' the Minister explains. 'It sets the standards, coordinates the international response, strengthens health systems in least developed countries and plays a role in research and development.'

As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, our country is demanding that more attention be paid to the most vulnerable countries, especially in Africa. Humanitarian organisations must not be hindered in their activities. Belgium also calls for the blockade of the Gaza Strip to be lifted, and for free humanitarian access to be granted in accordance with international humanitarian law.

Reputation in the area of health care and vaccines

The Belgian Development Cooperation enjoys an international reputation in the area of health care and vaccine development. Health projects are supported in 9 of our 14 partner countries. Belgium gives preference to supporting health care systems and human rights.

'In its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in our partner countries, Belgium makes use of existing instruments and current partners', according to the Minister. 'We therefore work via financing flexible funds and the general resources of international partner organisations'. By contributing to the "overall" budget, the multilateral partners can mobilise the resources where they believe they are most needed.

'In addition, current health programmes are being reoriented with the aim of combating Covid-19,' he adds. 'This should make it possible to meet the immediate needs, such as protection, diagnostic or treatment products or equipment. Furthermore, unspent funds will be reallocated to bolster the humanitarian response.'

Our country strives to achieve maximum coherence of all the actors in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Ultimately, this should result in resilient health systems in partner countries and a vaccine against Covid-19. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) remain an important guideline in this respect.

The Belgian Development Cooperation's response to Covid-19 focuses on 4 areas:

1. Humanitarian aid

Humanitarian aid is primarily managed through flexible funds from the UN and the International Red Cross. These funds can be mobilised quickly.

For example, the CERF - Central Emergency and Response Fund - of the OCHA can respond quickly and in a coordinated manner to the most urgent needs. Belgium is a dependable donor. As such, CERF finances the WHO to support fragile health systems, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) to provide sanitation kits to schools and the World Food Programme (WFP) to manage humanitarian operations.

As the needs are so great, the WHO and OCHA have launched a Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP). Minister De Croo: 'We will provide contributions for this from the unspent funds. The funds will be allocated to the CERF and the Red Cross, among other things'.

Men unload UNICEF relief supplies

Material from UNICEF is unloaded in an African partner country. © UNICEF/Desjardins

Our country has also already organised logistics actions, using the repatriation flights of Belgian nationals who were stranded in the partner countries. In particular, humanitarian equipment was taken along on outbound flights, from organisations such as the Belgian Development Agency (Enabel), UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM). The taskforce "shortages" thoroughly screened this medical equipment before it was dispatched.

Finally, Belgium has been supporting the Gaza Strip for many years. This is done through OCHA's humanitarian fund for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the Red Cross.

2. Vaccine development

A vaccine needs to be developed as quickly as possible. For this reason, Belgium supports the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation (CEPI): a platform of private and public actors working together to speed up the development of vaccines. Fellow Belgian Peter Piot played an important role in setting up the CEPI in the wake of the Ebola crisis in 2017.

The platform fully supports the intense cooperation between the WHO, the World Bank and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI). The ITM in particular is working closely with the CEPI. The Belgian resources come from underutilised funds.

3. Structural development cooperation

The various partners of the Belgian Development Cooperation are trying to align their existing programmes with the fight against the pandemic. For example, Enabel already provided medical equipment to the DR Congo in March, but capacity development projects in Burkina Faso and Senegal have also become more concrete.

The non-governmental sector is also making efforts in this direction. Not just NGOs, but also the mutual health organisations and unions, and the ITM. 'I'm willing to look at requests to adjust existing programmes', explains the minister.

Belgium is also trying to strengthen the impact of its development cooperation by collaborating with the European Commission and other EU Member States under the umbrella of "Team Europe". In Niger, for example, Enabel will implement a Covid-19 project funded by the EU, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

4. Economic dimension

It goes without saying that the pandemic is having an enormous socio-economic impact in our partner countries. Belgium is currently studying the best way to respond to this. The response will cover social protection, agriculture and food security, the development of small and medium-sized enterprises and the inequalities suffered by women and girls. Healthy SMEs in Africa must not be left high and dry! ‘The Belgian Investment Company for Developing Countries (BIO) can play a role in this respect, but also other "development finance institutions" (DFIs) of the EU member states’, according to the minister.

Belgium has also called for a moratorium on debt repayments by LDCs until March 2021. This covers bilateral debts - country by country - as agreed by the Paris Club and the G20. The Paris Club brings together the governments of the leading industrialised nations, including Belgium. The aim is to find coordinated and sustainable solutions to the payment difficulties of indebted states.

Minister De Croo: 'It is crucial that all implicated creditors participate, including those who are not members of the Paris Club.' Indeed, the current rising level of debt is due to loans from private creditors and lenders who are not members of the Paris Club such as China. 'We must avoid that the allocated funds are not used to pay off other debts. The aim is to strengthen social and health services.'

Both the IMF and the World Bank are making significant efforts to assist low-income countries.

'I see development cooperation as an important strategic policy instrument', the minister concludes. 'It is a lever that can make a tangible and direct difference for broad population groups. I therefore welcome the intention of the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council to assume a driving role from Europe to help actively shape global coordination action targeting Africa'.