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COVID-19 and Impending Cold War in a Fractious World: What Could be Africa’s Fate?

Emmanuel Matambo

The provenance of the coronavirus pandemic (the COVID-19 virus) has been traced to Wuhan, the capital of China's Hubei Province. To China's rivals and detractors, this fact is an effective tool in their efforts to undermine China's growing global influence and its expectations of being a leader in providing public goods and combating disease. The COVID-19 virus presents the world's most threatening health crisis in more than a century. Due to the rapid spread and severity of the pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, in March the World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic.

History is replete with examples of how global leaders have worked in conjunction to address common threats. For example, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union worked in concert to defeat Nazi Germany in World War IInotwithstanding the fact that capitalist America and Britain were ideologically polar opposites of communist Russia. However, the three powers had to make their marriage of convenience in order to defeat a global threat. Unfortunately, the foresight demonstrated by the three powers that defeated Adolf Hitler's Germany appears to be lacking in the current international system.

COVID-19 is a global threat that has not only claimed almost a million lives but also wrecked economies and unleashed political and racial passions around the globe. The pandemic comes at a time when the world is in a state of flux. One-time champions of globalization, the United States and the United Kingdom, are now trending isolationists. Furthermore, the current U.S. Administration has aroused manifold sensibilities on a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues including racial discord and bias, the alleged mendacity of political principals, the initial ineffectual approach to COVID-19 in domestic affairs, the U.S.-China trade war, global technological competition, and the racialization of COVID-19.

U.S.-China competition in trade, technology, and regional hegemony has inspired debate about the possible emergence of a new cold war. Although a U.S.-China cold war would differ in many ways from that between the U.S. and USSR, for economically weak regions like Africa it might still bear threats to the continent's well-being.

Donald Trump's characterization of COVID-19 as the "China virus" has racial undertones that further undermine any possibility of U.S.-China collaboration in dealing with the virus. This bodes ill for Africa, where COVID-19 will slow economic growth "to between -2.1 and -5.1% in 2020, sparking the region's first recession in 25 years." The African Development Bank predicts that COVID-19 and its after-effects could force about 49 million Africans into extreme poverty. Compounding these grim possibilities, "only 21 out of 54 African countries are clinically prepared to deal with epidemics." This makes collaboration among global powers (America and China) all the more compelling and urgent for Africa.

America and China are Africa's most significant partners in a range of areas, from foreign direct investment and infrastructure development to the fights against disease and terrorism. Their emerging cold war threatens to reverse the cooperation that Africa has enjoyed with both countries, and the consequences for ordinary Africans are potentially ghastly. A new cold war would ensure that Africa's cooperation with either of the two belligerents would likely be perceived as pandering to one of the opposing camps. This could jeopardize, among other things, the progress Africa has made in recent decades toward liberal democracy and good governance. On this issue, the fear is that America would likely coddle authoritarian African leaders provided they side with America against China. This was too often the case during the U.S.-Soviet cold war when America backed despots such as Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko primarily for their opposition to the Soviet Union.

There is genuine concern that such transactional relationships might be the norm in the impending cold war. The real victims in Africa would be ordinary Africans whose fate would be left to the whims of their rulers, with no international recourse expected. The extension of presidential term limits in Africa could become more prevalent, for example.

In addition to undermining Africa's democratic inroads, a new cold war could also threaten Africa's security, especially vis-à-vis the rise of extremism and its potential appeal to African youth. Africa is the world's youngest continent with almost 60 percent of its population under the age of 25. These young people need jobs; every year, about 12 million young Africans join the ranks of the employable demographic. Unfortunately, the continent at the moment only produces about three million new jobs annually, 25 percent of what it needs. The many job-seeking youth who are left idle are potential converts for extremist groups. Should choosing sides in a U.S.-China cold war become the sine qua non for economic cooperation with Washington or Beijing, developing African nations may not receive much-needed help in creating jobs for their exploding youth populations and starving extremist groups of desperate recruits. Moreover, a concerted fight against extremism might be difficult to wage if the country grappling with violent insurgency is seen to belong to one camp of the cold war. This portends ill for Africa's future.

Emmanuel Matambo is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg's Centre for Africa-China Studies. He was an Africa Program Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars from August to November 2019.

Photo source: World Map. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Cbrittain10. Source: License:

About the Author

Emmanuel Matambo

Emmanuel Matambo

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Research Director, Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more