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Q&A: Is China Really Delivering for Senegal In the Fight Against COVID-19?

Senegalese ambassador to China Mamadou Ndiaye. Image via CGTN.

As the co-chair for the upcoming 2021 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), Senegal is in a unique position to negotiate a better relationship with China as well as support other African countries to do so as well.

At Development Reimagined, an African-led development consultancy in Beijing, we recently sat down with Mamadou Ndiaye, Senegal’s ambassador to China to get his candid views on plans for FOCAC 2021, especially when it comes to the COVID-19 response and health.

DR: Thank you for speaking with us today, Ambassador Ndiaye. To start, could you give us a brief overview of Senegal and China’s relationship before COVID-19?

MAMADOU NDIAYE: Our relationship is a friendly and mutually beneficial one. China is one of our top development partners, we have been able to implement various development projects with Chinese support. For example, several of our major road projects have been funded by China. China is also our second-largest trading partner, and between 2005 and 2019 our bilateral trade grew over 11-fold. On both sides, scores of businesses have benefited from the increase in the volume of the bilateral economic and trade relations.

In 2018, Senegal became the co-chair for FOCAC, and this has provided a new opportunity for our bilateral relations, as well as our role within Africa. We take it very seriously.

DR: We’ve been tracking COVID-19’s progress in Africa, including in Senegal. What is your assessment of how Senegal has done so far? And has China helped enough?

AMBASSADOR NDIAYE: Our government was very proactive in our pandemic response and we enforced response measures before recording 10 cases. Our strategy drew on our Ebola experience in 2014 – where we imposed tight surveillance and control measures, which prevented Ebola from reaching our borders. But COVID-19 is of a totally different nature. Whilst our own measures have been effective, it is a global pandemic, we alone cannot stop it.

This is where support from others – especially China – has been pivotal. For instance, early on, we attended two meetings with the Africa Centre of Disease Control (Africa CDC) and China’s National Health Commission, where our experts received vital insights and literature regarding China’s experience. This was imperative for developing our own strategy suited to the African context. Chinese partners also made numerous donations of medical supplies and equipment to our hospitals.

TWEET TRANSLATION: I warmly thank my friend, President Xi Jinping, for the donation of 300,000 doses of Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccines and 300,800 syringe. I appreciate this gesture of solidarity from China in support of our efforts to fight the pandemic.

We have also been proactive in trying to secure COVID-19 vaccines. Senegal was one of the first African countries to start our vaccine rollout after successfully procuring 200,000 doses from Sinopharm. I personally handled the coordination with the African department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China and the ministry was very helpful in facilitating the negotiation, as this was not a donation. In fact, a new donation has just been announced, of over 300,000 doses. We have also applied for and received 324,000 Oxford-AstraZeneca doses through COVAX. However, only 2.5% of our population has received one dose – so there is still much work to be done.

DR: That is interesting that the Chinese government actually helped with the negotiation – does that mean China providing vaccines to a country like Senegal is “vaccine diplomacy?” We also noticed that Senegal donated some of the Sinopharm vaccines to the Gambia and Guinea Bissau. Why did Senegal do this? Was it a condition of the procurement?

AMBASSADOR NDIAYE: In so many of these discussions, people forget the spirit of cooperation and mutual support is often behind these initiatives, rather than strategic interests or malign forces. In Africa, we value solidarity.

Taking our own donation, the fact is, Senegal shares a lot with Guinea Bissau and the Gambia, including historic background, cultural heritage, and economic interest. It’s in this spirit that we donated 10,000 Sinopharm doses each to them.

Ground staff unload a shipment of Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at Blaise Diagne International Airport in Dakar, Senegal, Feb. 17, 2021. (Xinhua/Xing Jianqiao)

China too has a long tradition of solidarity.  But what is often overlooked is that early in the pandemic some African countries donated to China too. For instance, Equatorial Guinea donated US$2million to China in February 2020 to tackle the virus. Now, 22 African countries have received over 4.3 million free doses from China so far. This is solidarity in action, simple as that.

DR: So if these are the positives, what are the key challenges that Senegal has faced on the COVID-19 response? And can China do more to support Senegal in the future?

AMBASSADOR NDIAYE: From my vantage point in Beijing, I do see that one challenge we face at home is people not taking COVID-19 seriously – especially as “social distancing fatigue” sets in, alongside a lack of vaccine confidence. A report by the Africa CDC highlighted that one-third of respondents from Senegal thought COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe. To address this, Chinese actors could share more vaccine-efficacy information openly. We are also hopeful that Chinese-made vaccines will be approved by the WHO.

Yes, there are detractors about China’s role on the continent, but given my experience so far in China, the solidarity I’ve seen, the openness of Chinese stakeholders to our ideas, I am hopeful that China can remain a key partner in our growth and development journey.

senegalese ambassador to china MAMADOU NDIAYE

Going forward, Senegal has two priorities with China. In the short term, we are in the process of purchasing additional batches of Sinopharm vaccines.

Longer-term, we need to establish resilience in our health system. Specifically, two words: local manufacturing. Senegal is an excellent choice for local manufacturing of vaccines by Chinese or other pharmaceuticals as we already have a strong foundation. We are one of five African countries which have vaccine production capacity, as we have been producing yellow fever vaccines for over 10 years. Our Institute Pasteur was making COVID-19 test kits by early May 2020. Furthermore, we have a robust framework to attract investors. For instance, it only takes 6 days to register a business, and we provide tax and import incentives too. In my work, I am constantly encouraging Chinese firms to look at Senegal, as it is now as well as in the future, as a place for significant and long-term investment. This is the only way.

DR: As you mentioned, Senegal is co-chairing the FOCAC summit, taking place in Dakar in 2021. What would you say should be the priority in terms of health at that summit?

AMBASSADOR NDIAYE: Due to the pandemic, there is no doubt in my mind that health will be top of the agenda at FOCAC 2021. But health is not limited to COVID-19, for example, malaria also kills hundreds of people on our continent, so does AIDS. So we should focus on identifying concrete actions to build strong, sustainable health systems. I mentioned that local pharmaceutical investment should be a priority, not just for Senegal, but all African countries.

Building on that, another priority focus should be on training healthcare personnel. For instance, in 2015 the specialist surgical workforce (per 100,000 people) was reported at just 1.7 in Sub-Saharan Africa, whilst Physicians (per 1,000 people) was reported at 0.2. This is a serious problem – Africa just does not have enough trained professionals.

Training is very costly, so we need to assess how China can assist on this. So far, there’ve been at least 15,000 African students who have had medical training in China – although it has been reported that the intake has dropped recently, from 6,020 students in 2013/14, to 3,470 students in 2018/19. 

So, I think we could also explore opportunities for trilateral cooperation in health within Africa. For example, Senegalese people could get medical training in South Africa or Kenya. China could support this, and it might be cheaper than going to China. This is a different form to traditional ideas of trilateral cooperation involving other donors or the UN, but could be just as if not more transformational, especially in the context of Africa’s integration, including the African continental free trade area (AfCFTA).

Another potential area of cooperation is the promotion of Chinese and African traditional medicine in Africa. These categories of medicine can help supplement the health systems of African countries, especially in remote areas where access to modern infrastructure and equipment still needs to be improved.     

DR: Last question – going beyond health, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said FOCAC should prioritize ‘economic recovery and transformative development’. Is this really the right priority from both an African and Senegalese perspective

AMBASSADOR NDIAYE: To be honest, even if we have so far ensured COVID-19 cases in Africa are fairly well managed, the economic impact has been tough. The World Bank estimates that economic growth in Africa contracted by 2.0% in 2020 and that over 40 million people across the continent fell into poverty. While these estimates do not take into account our Government’s responses to alleviate the pain of COVID-19 lockdowns, they do mean economic recovery has to be a priority with all our interactions with partners – from China to France to the US and beyond.

But FOCAC – or any other summit – should not just acknowledge these issues. It needs to be a platform to decide on concrete initiatives. For example, we need an initiative for the integration of African economies into global value chains through diversifying and increasing investment into manufacturing capacity and value-added production.

As the world’s largest South-South cooperation platform, FOCAC has the legitimacy and potential to bring transformative changes in Africa and contribute to the prosperity of Africa and China.  Our countries must take it as a matter of pride to demonstrate that this partnership can yield results beyond everything that the world has so far seen in terms of economic development, social progress, innovation and knowledge sharing.    

Yes, there are detractors about China’s role on the continent, but given my experience so far in China, the solidarity I’ve seen, the openness of Chinese stakeholders to our ideas, I am hopeful that China can remain a key partner in our growth and development journey. And I also think DR is a key partner in supporting this to happen.

Development Reimagined is an African-led international development consultancy based in Beijing whose clients include governments, civil society organizations, and businesses. Visit Development Reimagined online at www.developmentreimagined.com or follow them on Twitter at @devreimagined.

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