The economists envisage a severe economic crisis that is already present with the halt to international trade and business activity. The IMF predicts that the crisis will be more severe than that of 2008. The loss of more than 5 points of growth should bring sub-Saharan Africa into recession in 2020 with a decline in GDP of 1.6%, a level never seen in the region.

By Ra-Sablga Seydou Ouédraogo

Ra-Sablga Seydou Ouédraogo

© RS Ouédraogo

The pandemic from Burkina Faso

I am writing this column from the least affected region of the world by COVID-19, besides Oceania, both in terms of the number of people infected and the number of deaths. The catastrophe announced in Africa is far from being confirmed in reality and everything suggests that it will remain in the form of a simple projection on paper. Moreover, many have denounced systematic catastrophism when it comes to the African continent.
We must avoid catastrophism; chauvinistic triumphalism also. Indeed, apart from hypotheses under discussion, there is no definitive empirical argument to explain this African resilience. Despite the significant efforts made by governments with limited resources, collective mobilizations and great initiatives of the population, it is obvious that the contained severity of the pandemic on the continent is not primarily due to policies and collective action. Catastrophic scenarios and irresponsible jubilations both misjudge human action on the continent, by denying it or, on the contrary, overestimating its effectiveness. We must abandon these slags of Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism, all views with fragile analytical foundations.

Although I am experiencing the pandemic in the least affected part of the world, the situation in my country, Burkina Faso, is not so enviable. Indeed, the pandemic is grafted onto a superimposition of terrorist, community and humanitarian security crises. The terrorist attacks which has left the country mourning for 5 years now seem to be more taking up root in the interior regions, with aggravating community tensions and civilian massacres. The result is a dramatic humanitarian situation for at least one tenth of the 20 million Burkinabè, thus about 800,000 displaced fled their homes and villages.

COVID-19 imposes competition to security issues on the public agenda. The mobilization of the state and that of society in general has been more rapid and massive against the pandemic than against insecurity. This is probably because terrorist insecurity directly affects less institutions of political power in urban centers. From this point of view, the pandemic has revealed that there are major inequalities regarding health risks here and throughout the world.

The response measures taken in Burkina Faso were quickly contested and likewise in the sub-region due the difficult living conditions where the population lives a daily hand to mouth economic cycle. The measures to close the markets were thus contested by the ordinary citizens of the city, meanwhile the middle classes still had access to supermarkets to do their shopping.
Targeting the most vulnerable through response measures has also proven to be very complicated. The surge of solidarity fueled by businessmen and companies as well as by public actions is struggling to reach the poor populations whose incomes have been most affected.

All of this indicates the great difficulty and complexity of governance in a country like Burkina Faso. How to tackle at the same time, with the limited and now amputated means, a health crisis which is superimposed on a serious security crisis and that with limited political instruments? More so, as a double injustice done to this country and the others of the Sahel: on the one hand, they suffer the hardest the dramatic consequences of the climatic changes caused by the polluting emissions for which they are little responsible; on the other hand, the conflicts which affect them today have roots in the dislocation of Libya by the NATO attacks. Enough is not said or stressed on the fact that these countries are objectively among the most difficult to govern.

How will the pandemic change the world? What do you see as long-term consequences of the crisis?

Scenarios abound on the impact of the pandemic and on post-COVID-19. Even if economists are perhaps the least fortunate in forecasting, they seem to be the most verbose. They envisage a severe economic crisis that is already present with the halt to international trade and business activity. The IMF predicts that the crisis will be more severe than that of 2008. The loss of more than 5 points of growth should bring sub-Saharan Africa into recession in 2020 with a decline in GDP of 1.6%, a level never seen in the region.

Response and support plans for populations and businesses already cost record amounts that will weigh heavily on the future. Will the massive debts of the States limit the capacity to invest tomorrow?

In reality, economic policies will determine the future. Liberal rigorism over public debt would lead to disarmament of states in the face of important social problems and would prevent them from dealing with the short comings revealed by the pandemic. Under these conditions, the widening of inequalities that began 40 years ago and which has already reached an exceptional level will continue. This scenario is paradoxical because it announces a worsening of poverty and inequalities of which COVID-19 was however an excellent revelation in rich countries as in poor countries.

Politically, the pursuit of neoliberal policies would lead to the development of xenophobia, identity crises and nationalist isolationism in the world. In addition to the ideology of hatred of the other, governments would be armed with new tracing and control technologies. It will in fact be a continuation of the populist wave that has been spreading for a few years now in Europe, the United States and Latin America and the technologism which is waiting to seize the world and humanity.
The Sino-American War, which now spills over into several other sectors, could be the geostrategic poster of post-pandemic global relations. In this case, COVID-19 will have been a lost crisis that will cost more than the no less lost crisis of 2008.

What gives you hope?

On the contrary, a more optimistic scenario is not excluded. After all, the world could learn the lesson, as it had after the 1929 crisis and the Second World War.1 Governments, under pressure from public opinion, could initiate social renewal to treat groups in distress, rehabilitate neglected areas, invest in people, combat inequality and achieve the expected ecological goals. Assigning these priority objectives to social services would lead to a major reorientation of economic policies by freeing them from the short-term financial logic and the neoliberal ideology which has weakened societies.

It’s not just a dream. Both theoretically and empirically, neoliberal policies have received strong challenges and critics in the past that can no longer be ignored. In this second scenario, the aim is to act politically on the consequences by hastening the slow agony of neoliberalism. As after the 1929 crisis, the change in the direction of economic policy would be decisive. It would offer more flexibility to States. But it is important that developing countries are not excluded from the benefit of the newfound room for manoeuvre. In particular, the African State needs to redeploy itself, to re-cement its proven legitimacy and to build peace and development. Because COVID-19 has shown the urgency of building strong endogenous economies, Africa needs more than ever that its States be remembered to take back the initiative.

Paradoxically, hope may have come from the racial drama in the United States. Perhaps COVID-19 by creating the conditions for individual and collective introspection has raised awareness and fueled the powerful challenge against police crimes towards blacks. The tremendous transracial momentum that is spreading across the United States which seems to echo in Europe and elsewhere in the world, may be a catalyst for a renewal of the civil rights issue. In these times of crisis, the anti-racist struggle, coupled with the fight against others inequalities and poverty, can constitute a powerful civic movement in favor of the redefinition of politics and governance to benefit the less fortunate more. Can we dream of a new cycle of social progress built from the ashes of COVID-19? Yes! We can even hope, better yet, work towards it.
1 See Ngaire Woods


Ra-Sablga Seydou Ouédraogo is an economist-researcher at the University of Ouaga 2. He heads the FREE Afrik Institute, an independent research organization dedicated to West African economies and based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. His research focuses on monetary and banking economics, the evaluation of economic policies and the political economy of conflicts. He was previously a post-doctoral researcher at the universities of Princeton in the United States and Oxford in England.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., online editorial office
July 2020

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