Conference Transcripts of Opening Speakers

On May 14, The Carter Center of the United States, the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, and the South African Institute of International Affairs jointly organized a virtual workshop: “Preventing a Covid-19 crisis in Africa—How can African Countries and International Partners Coordinate their Pandemic Response?” Below are transcripts from the three opening speakers, Ambassador Mary Ann Peters, Dr. Peng Yuan, and Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, and closing remarks by Ambassador Zhong Jianhua.

Dr. Yuan Peng, President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR)

Hello, first of all, thank you to the South African Institute of International Affairs and the Carter Center for co-organizing this meeting with our organization. CICIR and the two institutions have a long-standing friendly and cooperative relationship. I had planned to visit Africa for the first time this year, but because of the epidemic, it was not possible. I was very keen to complete my trip to Africa as soon as possible and talk to South African think-tanks. Carter Center founder President Jimmy Carter is a witness to the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States and has been working to move forward China-U.S. relations during and after assuming the presidency of the United States. The Carter Center has long focused on the issue of China-U.S. non-trilateral cooperation and has held many relevant discussions with the organization. I remember the conversation at The Carter Center and the photo with Mr. Carter, which is a wonderful memory.

The outbreak of the coronavirus has suddenly affected all aspects, affecting not only people’s lives, but also international politics and global economy. At the beginning of the outbreak, we considered this an opportunity for China and the United States to cooperate in the fight against the epidemic and repair bilateral relations damaged by the trade war. Unfortunately, the outbreak has had more negative effects on China-U.S. relations. Some U.S. politicians and the media have used the outbreak to “demonize” China.  The Institute recently held a video conference with several U.S. think tanks, and everyone agreed that the outbreak should be used to promote rather than undermine bilateral relations. The new coronavirus outbreak is an “invisible enemy” and we should not be entangled in “who should be responsible” but should cooperate immediately to solve the problem. It is not too late for us to start this discussion on trilateral cooperation today.

Now, we should put vaccine research and development first, put people’s lives, health and safety first, rather than “election” and political interests first, and now should be “vaccine first”. We should first ease tensions between China and the United States, such as joint vaccine development, which is the most pressing need of all parties around the world. Secondly, we should work together to help other countries fight the epidemic, especially African countries with poor health and epidemic prevention capacity. We have successful experience in this area, such as the U.S.-China partnership in the non-joint fight against Ebola. The new corona outbreak is a new test of China-U.S. relations and a new opportunity for cooperation. We should put aside some of the dissonance in bilateral relations and seriously consider anti-epidemic cooperation. China and Africa maintain close traditional friendly relations, the United States also wants to improve relations with Africa, China-U.S. cooperation in Africa should not be a zero-sum game, we can achieve win-win cooperation in Africa. Here, once again, I would like to thank The Carter Center and the South African Institute of International Affairs and other colleagues for co-organizing this discussion. It is hoped that after this meeting we can form the relevant research results and promote the formation of a cooperative atmosphere. I wish the meeting a success!

Ambassador Mary Ann Peters, CEO, The Carter Center

Thank you for joining this urgent and timely workshop. President and Mrs. Carter asked me to convey their best regards to everyone joining us from three continents at this difficult time.

The ongoing COVID-10 pandemic threatens to overwhelm healthcare systems and continues to disrupt the global economy. Such a transnational threat requires a concerted effort by the international community to work together in assisting communities affected by the disease, as well as to contain its spread, and ultimately to prevent its reoccurrence as well as those of other pandemics.

China has achieved much in its COVID response, and the U.S. is still in the middle of its own containment efforts. Yet as the pandemic continues to spread to regions around the world, healthcare systems across the African continent may face a particularly daunting challenge. Although there are always complexities and unknowns in making projections, the WHO warned that 190,000 people across the continent could perish from COVID-19, while the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) projected anywhere from 300,000 to three million deaths. Given the gravity of this challenge, all of us should engage in the spirit of constructive feedback, proactive cooperation, and innovative and bold problem-solving.

Since 2016, The Carter Center has organized a series of meetings like this one in the U.S., Togo, China, Djibouti, South Africa and Ethiopia. Our last trilateral cooperation workshop in Addis Ababa, in May 2019, focused on exploring cooperation in public health development and capacity building. Two of the issues discussed at that workshop offer particularly valuable lessons. The first involved an analysis of lessons which can be learned from the U.S. and China’s cooperation in containing the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. Given the COVID threat, one question is if it possible for such cooperation to once again take place, and if so, how best can such cooperation be achieved?

The second issue involves the Africa CDC. Following the successful international efforts to contain the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, African leaders realized it was important to maintain the momentum and prepare for the next epidemic. In response, the U.S and China signed a historic MOU offering support for establishing the Africa CDC. We look forward to learning about how such cooperation helps tackle the COVID crisis.

The Carter Center urges more engagement between all parties in order to boost information sharing and coordination—so that best practices can be shared, resources can be maximized, existing programs can be optimized, and innovative solutions can be developed.

Some of the panelists today have already come up with innovative approaches, through either current or proposed projects, which many of you have already had an opportunity to review. We look forward to learning more about these projects later this morning, and strongly urge all participants and observers present for this engagement to find ways for collaboration and partnership-building after the workshop, which will be capable of maximizing the impact of these projects. We further encourage that any consensus on policy prescriptions developed through today’s discussions be taken to government agencies and policymakers in China, the U.S. and African nations.

I want to thank our two partners, CICIR (China Institute of Contemporary International Relations) and SAIIA (South Africa Institute of International Affairs), for making this virtual workshop possible. I look forward to the discussions in this workshop, and especially the postworkshop collaborations that may follow. We will produce a post-workshop briefing of projects and recommendations, and will share it with stakeholders interested in forging closer cooperation among African nations, the U.S. and China in this historic fight against Covid-19.

In his March 25 op-ed in the Financial Times, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia notes, “Momentary victory by a rich country in controlling the virus at a national level, coupled with travel bans and border closures, may give a semblance of accomplishment. But we all know this is a stopgap. Only global victory can bring this pandemic to an end.” This workshop is a preliminary attempt to address Prime Minister Abiy’s call for action, and to join the growing efforts in laying the groundwork for a global victory over the pandemic.

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, Chief Executive, South Africa Institute of International Affairs

On this pandemic we are as strong as our weakest link. If there is one thing the crisis has highlighted it is that we need more not less cooperation and coordination. After al this pandemic (or war as some have described it) is one which all of humanity is fighting, on the same side.

But this is more than just a health crisis. It has affected governance, finance, development and social issues. And thrown into stark relief the shortcomings of different countries and regions in these areas.

We all recognize that we are living in unprecedented times, made more so by the difficult global political polarization. Some see the world in zero-sum terms. While that is not wise for any country, it is even less so for African states with limited resources and weak public health infrastructure. African states have recognised this, which is why their approach since the outbreak has been one based on cooperation and coordination.

Already African institutions and countries have taken significant early steps to coordinate the pandemic both inside the continent and outside.

They have also been able to learn from the various pandemics they have to deal with in the past, such as Ebola in west Africa and the DRC, but also HIV/Aids in South Africa. The instruments they have had to put in place to deal with those are also useful in countering tis pandemic.

Nevertheless, cooperation with international partners is crucial. Even though the relationship between the US and China has been difficult in recent times, we must explore, based on the cooperation of the pas between these two countries on public health issues in Africa, whether there is space for Africans to engage both partners in mutual cooperation on areas where there is need and where trilateral cooperation can reap benefits.

In discussing this however it is also important to raise two issues that need to be factored in and considered. The first is the issue of race and the second the issue of debt.

  1. The diplomatic fallout between China and several African countries (notably Nigeria) about the treatment of African migrants in Guangzhou. China has tried to frame the evictions and other kinds of discrimination as overzealous attempts by local authorities to contain a fresh outbreak of COVID-19, while African civil society has framed it as racism. Some in the US have weaponised this incident in the wider US-China diplomatic tensions. From the African side the issue of racism does raise its head from time to time and will need to addressed.
  2. Debt relief is the other, where there is potential for cooperation. African leaders are currently trying to negotiate a freeze in debt repayments to redirect those funds into public health efforts. The IMF and the World Bank have expressed support for this measure, but China (as many African countries’ largest bilateral lender) has yet to commit, although it has so far not dismissed the possibility. Such rescheduling should not be only until the end of the year but should probably be extended to the end of 2021. There is also the situation of private lenders who hold much African debt, and while negotiations are underway with them, it is inherently a more complicated process than with multilateral or bilateral lenders. Trump administration officials have in the past dismissed the idea of bailing out countries in debt distress, if those debts are to China. Bringing them both to the table to facilitate a blanket debt repayment pause, as well as making sure that African countries do not also face credit downgrades or barriers to future credit lines are key areas for cooperation. Such cooperation will be material, but sadly may be unlikely in the current milieu.

Ambassador Zhong Jianhua, Former PRC Special Representative of African Affairs

Summarizing China’s experience and lessons from the fight against the epidemic, the most important are:

The first is to believe in science. There is always a view that politics is more important than science. We did this in the first half [of the pandemic], and as a result we paid a price.

The second is to respect the experts. In this fight against the epidemic, experts are not only respected, but also worshipped. Zhong Nanshan, Zhang Wenhong and others are well-known, and no matter what they say, social media immediately spread their guidance.

The third is to rely on the masses. It is impossible to close a city with a population of more than 11 million without public cooperation.

The fourth is efficient execution. In the early days of the epidemic, the bureaucracy in Wuhan was everywhere. When the elderly patients were taken to hospital, they were not given proper care. After the media’s exposure, the district party secretary had to issue a public apology.

It is recommended to focus on two key elements of the fight against the epidemic in African countries: the failure of the health-care system, and the failure of social order.

As my favorite CBS anchor, Dan Rather, says: No matter who you are, or where you are, remember that you are a human being.