COVID-19: US should help Africa, or China will

COVID-19: US should help Africa, or China will
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There’s no place where countries are struggling more right now to combat the rise of the COVID-19 delta variant than in Africa.  

With only 3 percent of Africans fully vaccinated, the deadly delta variant is quickly spreading throughout the continent. African hospitals have been forced to turn desperate patients away because they do not have enough oxygen ports or beds. 

The stories are harrowing. As John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention summarized the situation, “It is frightening to see what is going on across the continent.”  


I have traveled to Africa numerous times, and I went back earlier this summer. Even in the best of times, the nations of the continent can face serious challenges; COVID-19 and the accompanying lockdowns have compounded the problems facing many African economies.  

In this moment of crisis, desperate African nations are understandably looking for a helping hand, and America faces a clear choice: Will we heed the calls of those in need, provide life-saving assistance, build critical international relationships, and demonstrate that the United States is capable of supporting nations in our economic and political orbit? Or will we leave that task to the only viable alternative: China? 

The pandemic has left developing countries vulnerable to tilting further into China’s sphere of influence. We can’t let that happen.  

Over the last decade, China has become increasingly dominant internationally, growing its GDP by 5 percent annually and controlling trade infrastructure across Africa and Asia. Through its “Belt and Road Initiative,” it has invested in ports, rail lines and telecom networks across the world. These projects — which typically finance Chinese companies, labor and bank loans — have served to expand both Beijing’s market reach and political influence.  

This trend should concern all Americans. With so many lower-income countries in Africa in need of assistance, the U.S. can lead the way out of the pandemic and demonstrate the benefits of our political and economic models of free enterprise, free speech and democracy — or we can let their needs be met by an authoritarian regime as it seeks greater influence across the world.   

The situation has become more dire over the last year with countless countries finding themselves in need of outside aid. According to a recent report from the Atlantic Council, “The COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated the rate of these Chinese gains, with new and existing partners increasing their dependence on China.” 

Fortunately, the United States can help Africa recover from the pandemic while turning the tide on Chinese influence. We have a tool at our disposal called Special Drawing Rights (SDR) that can be used to assist countries in distress.   

Authorizing additional reserve funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would help the United States stabilize the international financial system. By increasing the SDRs available to African nations, we can give struggling countries the liquidity they need to ramp up full vaccination programs, stop the delta variant’s spread and bring economic opportunities to the continent. 

The IMF recently took a step in the right direction by approving an initial $650 billion in SDRs, but more help is needed. Congress should vote to authorize U.S. support for an allocation of additional reserve assets to properly ensure African nations can respond to the pandemic without turning to China for additional aid.  

The United States and its allies can ensure that the IMF delivers struggling countries the relief they need for pandemic response. We should take advantage of this opportunity. While I believe that a new, larger issuance is the best tool available to assist current countries in need, I also encourage the Biden administration to use its influence to encourage healthy fiscal policies by those countries receiving assistance. Our long-term goal should be to ensure that SDRs are used as rarely as possible. To that end, I am hopeful the administration will, to the extent allowable by IMF rules, explore coupling assistance with transparency into the finances of recipient nations and other guardrails to ensure this relief gets to those who truly need it the most. 


African officials are calling on America to lead the way at the IMF. The president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, described the medical necessities the funding would be used for, in addition to procuring vaccines: “tests, treatments, critical supplies like oxygen and the health systems that enable testing, treatment and vaccination.”  

We’ve seen this approach work before. During the global recession in 2009, a one-time major allocation of SDRs successfully empowered indebted African nations to address their balance sheets and strengthen their economies, thereby bolstering the global economy and increasing demand for American exports. This allocation was supported by a robust bipartisan coalition in Congress. 

There is a historical precedent that should remind us all of what we can accomplish when we work together. During my time in the Senate, I worked across the aisle with Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinSenators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats struggle to gain steam on Biden spending plan Press: Where's Merrick Garland when we need him? MORE (D-Ill.) and others in support of President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) — an initiative mostly focused on Africa. That effort is estimated to have saved at least 18 million lives and boosted goodwill toward the United States abroad.  

We are now faced with a new emergency. Congress and the Biden administration should act this fall to ensure the release of more SDRs to help save lives in Africa and ensure that American democracy, rather than Chinese authoritarianism, remains the shining example to the world.  

Sam Brownback was the U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom from 2018 to 2021. He previously served as governor of Kansas, a U.S. senator, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.