Increasingly we are beginning to see that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic extend beyond health. The prolonged shutdown of economies has hit poorer countries, including many in Africa, the hardest. Fernando Saldivar S.J describes the work of the Jesuit Justice and Ecology Network Africa’s (JENA) work for the Vatican COVID-19 Commission. JENA issues a stark warning that conflict and poverty are likely to continue long after the virus has been overcome.
In March 2020, Pope Francis called on the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development to establish a COVID-19 Commission to bring together the Church’s resources and begin reflecting on the needs of the post-pandemic world. The Jesuit Justice and Ecology Network Africa (JENA), based in Nairobi, Kenya, has actively been collaborating with the Vatican’s COVID-19 Commission from its inception, providing insight into the situation in Africa and the unique difficulties the continent faces.
The Vatican believes that it is essential that analysis, reflection, and ultimately action, incorporate the experience and wisdom of the global Church. Therefore, the Vatican has emphasized the need to collaborate with regional centres of social analysis and theological reflection, drawing on the expertise of those from the Global South. Towards that end, JENA has been engaged with the Commission’s taskforces on economics, security, ecology, and health, providing the Vatican with in-depth analysis in each area.
The inspiration for this work is Pope Francis’s vision for integral ecology, developed in his 2015 encyclical letter on Care for our Common Home, Laudato Si’, where he contends that “everything is closely interrelated, and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis.” Our interconnectedness with the environment and one another means that national borders cannot mark the outer limits of our concern for each other.
With its deadly ability to cross borders with ease, to afflict rich and poor alike, COVID-19 underscores for all of us just how interconnected we are. The world that emerges from the pandemic will be poorer and sicker than the one that entered it, and each of the areas that the Commission’s taskforces are tackling affect one another. In particular, JENA has emphasized the link between conflict, poverty, and the pandemic in Africa.
In the economic sphere, JENA has emphasized the ongoing debt crisis in Africa, which has gotten worse since the pandemic started. When COVID-19 hit, African governments which were already straining to service their debt obligations faced the choice of paying their creditors or saving lives. In many cases the fix has been to take on even more debt to try to respond to the crisis. Zambia may be at risk of becoming the first COVID-related default in Africa, but it far from the only country in distress. Debt casts a shadow over Africa’s ability to plan for the post-pandemic future to a far greater extent than any other region of the world.
As the cooperation of multiple countries and international organizations will be necessary for efforts at debt relief to be successful, JENA has highlighted Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, which speaks of multilateralism as one of the primary ways of building both human fraternity and a politics based on solidarity and love. Another area where this comes into play and where the cooperation of the international community is critical is in regard to peace and security.
JENA points out that, even before the pandemic hit, one of the most pressing security issues in Africa was the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. In fact, the African Union had already made this a priority with its Silencing the Guns in 2020 initiative.
Moving forward, one of the practical suggestions that JENA makes is increasing the visibility of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and encouraging more states to join. In effect since December 2014, the ATT is the first major international treaty to address authorized conventional arms transfers, as opposed to simply regulating the illicit arms trade. The ATT framework has the potential to greatly increase transparency in the global small arms trade and is therefore important to African regional security.
Through its written analysis, and complemented by a series of webinars that it has hosted over the course of the last month, JENA argues that the Vatican can play a key role in increasing visibility for those specific policy areas that Africa’s recovery from COVID-19 depends upon. Everything is indeed interconnected, but one size does not fit all. Debt and security are two key areas, among others, where Africa’s priorities in the post-pandemic world are unique to its own situation and call for targeted assistance from the global community.