Africa Reacts to Covid-19’s Impact on the U.S. Primaries

In our “Africa Reacts” series, the CSIS Africa Program asks prominent African journalists, civil society activists, and thought leaders to share their analysis on the U.S. presidential election process. Sub-Saharan Africa has not featured prominently in presidential campaigns, but the outcome of the election will have important ramifications for U.S. policy toward the region. By flipping the script—featuring African analysts’ views on U.S. politics rather than U.S. analysts’ opinions on African developments—we are seeking to start a new conversation about the future of U.S.-African relations.

In the third installment of Africa Reacts, we asked a new group of top African analysts to provide their thoughts on Covid-19 and its impact on the U.S. primaries. Many noted the tradeoffs of holding the Wisconsin primaries, which went ahead on April 7 despite warnings from U.S. authorities regarding social distancing. Others commented on President Trump’s approval ratings amid his mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis, while some questioned how Trump and former vice president Joe Biden will amend their plans for health care and welfare to satisfy voter needs. Finally, some analysts looked ahead to the November election, wondering if the United States will prove itself a leader in modeling the effective implementation of e-voting platforms.

Read the first and second installments of our Africa Reacts series. 

The contributions in this commentary have been edited by the CSIS Africa Program for brevity and clarity.

Oluwatosin Adeshokan, Nigerian Journalist (@theoluwatosin)

The coronavirus pandemic has undone years of PR enjoyed by the great United States of America. For a lot of Nigerians—and Africans in general—needing guidance on what governance should look like, the United States might no longer be a model because of how the pandemic has been handled. But more importantly, inside the United States, there might be a shift in what political parties will be offering to voters. After years of arguing that the United States does not need and can't afford single payer health care, the Republican party will need to guarantee health care that covers everything while being affordable. We may see a change in the Republican Party’s philosophies, especially with regard to social welfare programs. The United States is facing an economic recession, and the Republican Party will have to bring forward proposals and suggestions that will be left leaning, perhaps going against what it believes. While the pandemic may bring about policies that make the world and United States a better place, the question is, how far will the Republicans take it?

Chipo Dendere, Assistant Professor at Wellesley College (@drDendere)

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the complicated relationship between U.S. and Chinese interests in Africa to the forefront. Africa has never featured prominently in American elections—a huge oversight on the part of American politicians. However, the recent trade war with China and growing tensions amid the pandemic have forced the United States to make statements directly on China’s treatment of black people. It is unclear at the moment if China will become a major campaign issue in the general election, but what is clear at the moment is that the United States is aware of and concerned about China’s growing influence in Africa, though it may not be admitting this publicly.

Aaron Masho, Ethiopian Journalist (@AaronMG)

It seems as if Covid-19 was weaponized in Wisconsin. America is so divided that its politicians are brazenly bending the rules amid craven acquiescence. Hardly earth-shattering, you might say, given America's history of voter suppression, but the fiasco in Wisconsin may represent a snapshot of what's to come in November. They are all twists in the surreal spectacle that has been unfolding before the world's eyes.

Golden Matonga, Malawian Journalist (@GoldenMatonga)

If Africa could vote in the next U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump would be overwhelmingly booted out of White House, thanks to his America First policy and the narcissism that seems to antagonize both allies and enemies alike. The coronavirus has reminded the world that we need to stand together, but anyone yearning for American leadership has been resoundingly disappointed. 

The underlining reasons that brought Donald Trump to power—ordinary Americans’ disillusionment with status quo—have not evaporated. Trump's base remains intact even though his handling of the pandemic will create some shifts, I suppose, at least more so than the impeachment trial or any other goofs of his presidency.

So, Africans are spoiling for a Trump ouster and nervously looking for signs that Biden can bring together a formidable coalition that can finally end what many see as a racist, anti-African, anti-internationalism White House.

Waihiga Mwaura, Journalist, News Anchor and Moderator, Citizen TV Kenya (@WaihigaMwaura)

 The U.S. primaries are a distant thought in the minds of many East Africans at this time. When Covid-19 started spreading beyond China, each African country, and dare I say the whole world, took its focus away from the American poll and faced its own internal disruption caused by the virus. 

Covid-19 has interrupted the U.S. campaign cycle because, let’s face it, when the world is calling for social distancing, holding a campaign rally is the last thing you want to do. So there has been little or no discussion about the American poll for the last two months in Kenya. When Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race last week, the general feeling on Kenyan social media was that the Democrats had lost their only chance of beating Trump. Sanders, though a familiar face, seemingly brought a freshness to the Democrats’ camp with his wide appeal and progressive policies. Many believe that he did not carry the baggage that Joe Biden carries, and some even predict (on social media) that another four-year term is a given now for incumbent President Trump.

Some political commentators have wondered how Trump's popularity will be affected by the haphazard manner in which he has handled the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States. The president downplayed its impact but has now been forced to reckon with the pandemic’s destruction. Nevertheless, a CNN poll surprised many when it revealed that he still had high ratings of 49 percent. Interesting times indeed. 

Another question on the minds of many is whether it is realistic for America to hold an election in 2020 having lost the most number of people to Covid-19 as of now. Thousands of families are grieving across the country, and they are expected to participate in an election in the next couple of months? Maybe America should borrow a leaf from Ethiopia, which postponed its election initially planned for the end of August. But there are those who say that elections must not be tampered with because that will be a perversion of democracy. Covid-19 is testing the leadership mettle, and it is even more complicated because the United States has an election coming up. 

Caleb Okereke, Managing Editor, Minority Africa (@CalebOkereke)

Covid-19 furnishes Americans with a golden opportunity to evaluate how their preferred candidate reacts to the issue of global health—whether at the reins of power or not. Besides impacting the primaries from a logistics perspective and leading to a reduced turnout of voters, I see it making them increasingly critical of proposed policies from candidates and more involved in making these candidates get granular about how these policies affect them. That is not to say that neither Biden nor Trump will lose the foothold they have on voters on both sides, but it is safe to assume it will alter perception—and perception we know from history and from certain elections in Africa can affect reality, if not change it.

Mary-Ann Okon, Broadcast Journalist, Producer/Presenter, News Central TV (@mimieyo)

Every cycle of crisis provides opportunities for nations to rise to leadership in one way or another. For America, the Covid-19 crisis offers an opportunity not just to lead in the fight against the virus, but to also lead in reviving the global economy and democratic processes. For once, the world has seen a deliberate move toward the use of technology for social connections. In this light, the year also affords the United States the opportunity to take the lead in the use of technology for effective and efficient democratic processes, including the primaries. The fact that this virus has come at a time that appears to disrupt the electoral process in the United States should not be seen as a hindrance. Rather, it is a great time for the United States to leverage technology to conduct a free and fair electoral process.

This November, the United States can prove to the world that it’s not just a poster child for democracy in words but that it can hold credible elections through the power of technology. A process where no one is left behind, and every vote counts; this outcome will greatly bolster the image of the United States globally. If the United States can achieve this, it will, in turn, give the world a greater impetus to plug into technology for e-voting. Countries like Nigeria with the help of civil society will have more reasons to push for legislation powering the use of technology in elections, for “as it goes in America, so goes the rest of the world.” America must not toy with this opportunity, and neither should she politicize it.

Kweku Opoku-Agyemang, Economist, Center for Effective Global Action (@Kweku_OA)

The economic, social, and psychological impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on the U.S. primaries are already apparent—and the remaining contests will never be the same. Primary voter turnout was already low before so many Americans found themselves filing for jobless benefits, and the crisis has since eclipsed 9/11 in terms of unemployment, economic fallout, and death. Hopefully, more technologists and academics can collaborate to help the U.S. primaries remain effective amid the pandemic.

If you are interested in contributing to future Africa Reacts commentaries on the U.S. presidential election, please email CSIS Africa Program Manager Marielle Harris (

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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