Generosity Is an Easy Win for China After the Coronavirus Pandemic
Electrifying rural health care facilities would burnish Beijing’s reputation in poor countries throughout Africa and Asia and cost next to nothing.
As ground zero of the coronavirus pandemic, China owes the rest of the world more than a few planeloads of masks and ventilators to help address the ongoing global health crisis, especially given Beijing’s apparent lack of initial transparency. It now has a golden opportunity to do so, one that plays to its existing strengths in the renewable energy sector: electrifying health facilities across Africa and Asia. But before China can follow through, it will first need to embrace a less transactional and more humanitarian approach to overseas engagement.
In an effort to secure natural resources and access to markets, China has become a major global player in financing infrastructure projects in emerging economies, with its investments dominated by energy projects. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing plans to spend $27 trillion on energy alone in the roughly 70 BRI countries, one-quarter of that on grid infrastructure and the remainder on large-scale projects, which so far have been split evenly between renewable energy sources and coal. African and Asian governments and their citizens often welcome the money, but some resent the perceived resource colonialism—the use of economic or military leverage by one country to extract raw materials from another—that often comes with it.
The coronavirus pandemic offers China a unique chance to rethink its overseas energy strategy and in doing so resolve a silent human rights disaster that persists despite the availability of the technology and money to solve it: the fact that 500 million people across rural Africa and Asia are still served by health clinics that are off the grid and have no electricity. These clinics serve the world’s poorest people, who are also the most vulnerable to climate change. Yet their local medical facilities have no lights by which to give birth, no autoclaves for sterilization, and no neonatal warmers (much less ventilators, oxygenizers, or refrigerators for vaccines). For them, medical crises are an everyday occurrence and have been for far too long.
China could change that. As the world’s largest producer of solar panels and batteries, and the fastest-growing manufacturer of medical device equipment, Beijing has all of the necessary ingredients: renewable energy, health care technology, investment-ready and abundant capital, and deep diplomatic and business ties. It also has a political incentive—the need to repair its reputational issues in BRI recipient countries—to electrify the tens of thousands of hospitals and clinics without power in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
In other words, instead of being viewed globally as the source of the coronavirus crisis, for a tiny fraction of its BRI energy budget, China could come to be seen as the savior of rural health care in poor countries practically overnight. Calculations from India, where 230 million people are still served by unelectrified health facilities, show that for as little as 37 cents per person served by a facility, rural subcenters (which typically serve four villages) could be electrified with rooftop solar and batteries that power the most basic health services, including lighting, neonatal warmers, and autoclaves.
Add to that a population of 255 million in sub-Saharan Africa facing the same situation, and that would require only about $200 million in initial capital. Deploying such solutions takes days, if not hours, and could also be applied to managed refugee camps that house millions of displaced people with little, if any, energy access.
A well-funded and coordinated effort led by China that accounts for the upfront capital costs and creates a funding pool to ensure sustainable operations and maintenance over the 20-year lifetime of the systems, plus additional capital to supply energy-efficient medical equipment, could be a truly transformative contribution to global health. It would provide safer operating theaters, better maternal and neonatal care, reliable vaccine refrigeration, operational cost savings, and much more.
With fears that coronavirus-related disruptions to food supply could also increase the potential for famine in Africa and elsewhere, distributed solar power solutions (either rooftop panels or minigrids) can also help ensure healthier rural communities by powering local food supply chains through groundwater pumping, allowing agroprocessing for the increased yields that come from irrigated crops, and providing cold storage to extend the life of crops and reduce food waste. (It is estimated that in developing countries, 40 percent of food loss occurs after harvest and early in the supply chain, amounting to more than $310 billion of food waste and loss annually—mostly because of inadequate refrigeration and unreliable and expensive energy supplies.)
This would not be an expensive undertaking for China, and it would create long-lasting good will and tangible impacts rather than mere photo-ops in front of recent flights full of medical supplies sent to Europe. But it would require China to shift its overseas aid strategy away from big-grid infrastructure like hydropower dams and coal-fired power plants to distributed solar power and storage. Instead of continuing to export coal technology and dump poor-quality goods on Africa and Asia—and thereby locking those countries into outdated, dirty-energy technology and spoiling consumer markets—China can leverage its solar and battery expertise and innovate and invest in more efficient, quality-assured medical devices that use less power.
In 2018, China committed to make medical devices more accessible to Africa. That’s a start. But now more than ever, China has a responsibility to ensure a more secure world in a post-coronavirus era. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation created by Beijing would be the ideal place to take up the urgent opportunity of ending the rural health care crisis before the next global pandemic and hopefully in time for a COVID-19 vaccine.
William Brent worked in China for nearly two decades and is a leading climate solutions, renewable energy, and clean technology campaigner. Twitter: @mrcleantech