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Why American Economist Jeffrey Sachs Believes Africa Can Tame Covid-19

June 19, 2020

Jeffrey Sachs in Ghana with the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, 2010
Jeffrey Sachs in Ghana with the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, 2010

Over the past 30 years, the Harvard-trained American economist Jeffrey Sachs has become one of the leading voices advocating for development policies that actually help the poor. As the director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, he and his team advise governments, corporations and institutions on practices that help translate the Sustainable Development Goals into actionable solutions. We interviewed him on the coronavirus crisis in both Africa and America, as well as on the growing anxieties about Africa’s sovereign debt in these times of recession.

There are currently around 276,733 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Africa, with cases increasing throughout the continent. What should African countries be doing now?

Fortunately, the rate of infection and death rates in Africa remain far below the rates of the U.S. and Europe, but the battle against the virus must be fought every day. There are four overwhelming steps needed.

The first is physical distancing. People should be wearing face masks whenever in public, using hand sanitizers frequently, and keeping a good distance (2 meters or so) from others to avoid infections and avoid giving infections to others. Governments everywhere should be distributing face masks and hand sanitizers for free on a massive scale. When countries need budget support for this, they should receive it immediately and unstintingly from the IMF and the African Development Bank.

The second is testing and isolating infectious individuals. Africa’s cadres of community health workers should be deployed, by phone and in person when they are equipped with protective equipment, to identify and test people who are potentially infected with Covid-19. That includes people who are showing Covid-19 symptoms and people who have been in close contact with known infected people. When people test positive, or who are otherwise believed to be infected, they should be helped to isolate – either at home if there is a place for them where they will not infect their family members, or in a public facility that is converted to take care of Covid-19 cases. The third solution is to stop large gatherings of people that could massively spread the virus. Such gatherings include sports events, religious celebrations, entertainment venues such as concerts, large night clubs, and other areas where the infection could spread rapidly and widely. Such events are called “super-spreader” events and they are known to have been responsible for a significant proportion of all cases.

The fourth step is to protect places where people live together in large numbers, including retirement home and nursing care centers, prisons, worker hostels, and the like. In such places, the virus can spread wildly and rapidly. Tens of thousands of deaths in the US occurred in care centers because not enough protection was provided to the vulnerable people in those settings. If these four steps are taken, it should be possible to enable other parts of daily life to continue. But going back to the “old normal” is not possible. We all need to be hyper-vigilant to prevent new outbreaks and to isolate infectious individuals as rapidly as possible, before they infect others.

You were one of the first people to advocate for debt cancellation for the world’s poorest countries. Many people remember the work you did with Bono, to raise awareness on the issue of debt. Now, African governments owe around $400 billion, and some estimate that 30 or 40% of that money is owed to China. How do you feel about the latest calls, such as the one expressed in Obiageli Ezekwesili’s April 16th Washington Post Op-Ed, for writing off the debt that Africa owes China and other lenders including the World Bank and IMF?

All creditor countries, including the Paris Club, China, and other creditor nations, will have to help the indebted poor countries to overcome the pandemic and resume economic development. In most cases, perhaps all, that will entail a stop in debt servicing during the duration of the pandemic. In many cases, it will require a cancellation of part or all of the outstanding debts. This is just a reality. In all cases, fighting Covid-19 and escaping from extreme poverty must take precedence over debt servicing. This should be a basic principle enshrined in global policy. And as a general rule, low-income countries should be helped mainly through ample grants rather than through loans. For many poor countries in need, loans are just a dangerous invitation to future financial crises.

You have long argued for greater funding for the most impoverished African nations, saying that much of the money should be used for public health and education. The World Health Organization estimated in April that there were fewer than 5,000 intensive care beds across 43 of Africa’s 55 countries. And UNESCO estimates that over one-fifth of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are out of school. Do you think Africa is just wasting a lot of the money it is being lent or given?

The problem is that there is really very, very little global assistance even though there is a lot of talk and debate about aid. It comes to a small fraction of 1 percent of the income of the rich countries, currently around 0.3 percent, and much of that is not directed to low-income countries. We often speak about the “global community,” but there is not much community. There are the rich and then there are the poor, and gap is enormous. Consider the fact that the world’s 2,000 or so billionaires have wealth of around $10 trillion dollars. Consider that Mr. Jeffrey Bezos, the owner-founder of Amazon, has wealth of around $160 billion and has increased his wealth by around $44 billion in 2020. It’s time for him to give a substantial proportion of that wealth for the global good, starting with the urgent needs of poor children. Of course, he is not alone. The billionaires should be taxed on their mega-wealth and should also dramatically step up their philanthropy. There are hundreds of millions of children in desperate need, of schooling, decent nutrition, healthcare, and true opportunities for their future.

In your seminal 2005 book The End of Poverty, you famously expressed that extreme poverty could be eliminated globally by the year 2025. In light of the work you did with respect to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and the latest objectives for the Sustainable Development Goals, how realistic is this 2025 target in a post-Covid economic environment?

Every year of neglect pushes back the end of poverty. Already 2025 was not possible as of 2015, when the Millennium Development Goals were followed by the Sustainable Development Goals. I was glad that world leaders did adopt as SDG 1 the goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030. Yet even 2030 looks impossible now because of the Covid-19 epidemic and because of the selfish politics of Donald Trump’s administration, which preaches “America First” rather than “America and the world together,” which would be the humane, decent, and smart approach. Perhaps if there is a new US president committed to global cooperation I will be somewhat more optimistic. Of course, there are also reasons for optimism. The new digital economy is, on the whole, a friend of ending poverty. We can use the digital technologies for e-health, e-education, e-banking, e-governance, and more. In other words, the digital technologies can serve as leapfrog technologies, if they are widely available throughout Africa. I believe that the African Union should team up with China, Japan, Korea, the European Union and others to build out Africa’s digital network and renewable energy resources.

Let’s switch to America now. The numbers have shown that Covid-19 is disproportionately killing Hispanics and African Americans in the US, confirming the poor health and precarious living conditions many African Americans find themselves in. You were a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary. If Joe Biden were elected president in November, what three things do you think he could do to improve the health and livelihoods of African Americans with a view to future prosperity for black people in America?

The explosion of unrest in the Black Lives Matter movement reflects the fact that the precarious living conditions of many African Americans is the result not only of discrimination but of continued brutality by racist individuals and institutions in U.S. society. Trump himself is clearly a racist and a promoter of white supremacy. That is the shocking and awful reality. It’s why voting Trump out of office is so vital for the wellbeing of all Americans, but especially for the wellbeing of people of color, immigrants to the U.S., and people of Islamic faith, all of whom have felt the brunt and the anxieties of the dark forces stirred by Trump.

We need, in the U.S., three kinds of reforms: economic, political, and ethical. Economic reforms mean a living wage for all persons; universal access to publicly financed health care; universal access to debt-free and affordable higher education; and decent work conditions including vacation time, paid sick leave, paid family leave, and other basic standards.

Political reform means ending the corrupt system of big money buying our politicians. We need tight limits on campaign funding, and ample public funding of campaigns. We also need to make it easy to register to vote and to cast a vote, for example through vote by mail, election days as holidays, early voting, and so forth.

Ethical reform means that we put the dignity of every American at the center of our concerns. Politics should be about the common good, not the mere struggle for power. The common good starts with respect for all people, tolerance, and working together for common purposes. This is all possible, even realistic, once we agree that our national recovery depends on a commitment to an America for all its people. The demonstrators on the streets of American cities these recent weeks have already made a great advance.



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