Michael D Higgins warns of ‘mass fatalities’ in Africa due to coronavirus

Problems impeding Africa’s progress will remain after pandemic has passed, President says

"Mass fatalities" are a real risk in Africa and Latin America as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the President, Michael D Higgins has said.

The world faces the nightmare of the disease spreading like wildfire in the global south with “millions of deaths”, he said, citing the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.

Mr Higgins called for a global response to ensure guaranteed access for impoverished nations to any future vaccine.

He made the call as part of a wide-ranging speech entitled, ‘Europe and Africa, Towards a New Relationship’.


The speech was delivered remotely to the Dublin-based Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA).

Now is not the time for retreating behind borders in Europe, Mr Higgins said. “In the African countries where Covid-19 has arrived in greatest numbers, there are immense problems and inequalities in terms of healthcare provision. The same is true of Latin and Central America.”

A failure to contain the disease in Africa and Latin America would create the danger of the disease re-emerging in those places where it had been repressed, he said.

When the pandemic has passed, the structural problems that are impeding Africa’s progress will remain, the President said. The largest of these impediments was debt.

There was an unprecedented opportunity for Europe to begin its journey towards a new relationship with Africa, one that was this time based on solidarity and “African agency”.

“For the achievement of a fruitful dialogue between the European Union and Africa, there are preliminary tasks to be accomplished at European level, one of the most important being abandoning any affected amnesia as to the brutal colonisation of previous times, the detritus of imperial subjugations which surfaces too often, stirred by fingers of hands that are carrying the old intent.”

Ireland’s relationship with Africa has been unique and, unlike the historical relationship of former empires, it has been largely one of identifying with the aspirations of the African people.

The recent proposal from the G7 group of nations, in the context of the pandemic, that there be a six-month suspension of interest on African debt, should be seen for what it is, “a grossly inadequate gesture offered from a distance by those not sufficiently engaged”.

At the United Nations, he said, Ireland could show leadership by calling for an urgent redesign of the global financial institutions that have failed to eliminate global poverty, deepened inequality, lost cohesion between and within North and South, and left a world where conflict is endemic.

If Europe was sincere about its wish to be a partner in enabling Africa to achieve an inclusive, sustainable and prosperous future, debt cancellation had to be an intrinsic element of a European-led response, he said.

“It is my strong view that a temporary cancellation of debt interest would not suffice as an effective response. Rather, a much more radical approach is required to effectively relieve Africa’s debt burden, by restructuring, redefining and, in some cases, forgoing the bulk of outstanding debt.”

He said an overall commitment to good governance and state well-being was needed in many African states as a prerequisite, “but this cannot be used as an excuse for shirking Europe’s moral and ethical obligation to progressing Africa’s overdue economic and wider social transformation.”

The ongoing, unjust, under-representation of African nations in the United Nations was a major cause of concern. “The continent has been excluded from the Security Council,” he said.

The world order was going through a period of “great change” but he thought it was a “pessimistic time” in relation to the deepening of democracy and respect for the right of protest.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent