Authors: Shannon Smith
Affiliated organization: Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Type of publication: Online Article
Date of publication: March 30, 2020
As COVID-19 spreads in Africa, the effects could be devastating even for a continent accustomed to battling infectious disease. COVID-19 endangers African lives and African economies, and efforts to control the disease will themselves come with an enormous economic and social price.
What Does COVID Mean for Africa ?
The regional chief of the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that Africa is experiencing an “extremely rapid evolution” of numbers of COVID-19 cases. In the fight against the novel coronavirus, Africa does have certain advantages. Demographics are on its side. The median age of Africa is under 20 years less than half that of Italy and international data shows that risk of serious medical complications and death from COVID-19 rises significantly with age. Additionally, Africa has experience confronting infectious diseases, including the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014-2016.
Many African countries have made improvements in health security since that outbreak, including the establishment of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Finally, there is an unresolved scientific debate as to whether warm weather will inhibit spread of the virus. The pandemic, however, could overwhelm those advantages, and Africa’s health, economic, and security sectors will be at the frontlines of this fight.
- Africa’s health systems are weak, and its health workforce already overtaxed. Africa already has fewer health professionals per capita than most regions of the world, making any impact on the health sector more resounding.
- Africa is already confronting multiple health challenges, including HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, meaning millions of people may be immunocompromised and more at risk of serious complications from this respiratory virus.
- The emergence of a new disease can have a devastating and lasting impact on already fragile health systems. In West Africa, an estimated 10,600 people died of HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria during the Ebola epidemic as a result of the strain it caused to the health system. Moreover, maternal and child health declined significantly and still had not recovered well after the end of the epidemic.
- The tools that countries have adopted to try to mitigate the spread of the disease closing borders, cutting off flights, shuttering schools and universities, encouraging or requiring physical separation or sheltering in place, and ordering the closure of businesses and even entire industries all exact a high economic cost.
- For Africa’s oil and other commodity exporters, plummeting prices add to the distress.
- The outbreak disrupted supply chains and affected infrastructure investments, African commodity exports, and African imports that provided stock for small businesses.
- Global GDP growth could fall by one-half of a percentage point or could even contract for the year under some scenarios. Foreign direct investment has already diverted from emerging markets to perceived safer harbors in bond markets at the expense of African development opportunities.
- COVID-19 has already infected senior officials in multiple countries.
- For countries with elections scheduled in the coming months, COVID-19 may disrupt registration, campaigns, and other activities and may prompt electoral commissions or incumbents seeking to extend their tenures to postpone elections.
- African security forces (like security forces everywhere) are themselves vulnerable to COVID-19. The close conditions under which many military members live and work do not permit social distancing. Further, security threats such as Boko Haram have not ceased their attacks on military and civilian targets.
Confronting COVID-19 in Africa
In its guidance, the African Union has said, “Limiting transmission and minimizing harm from COVID-19 will require an all-of-government approach. Social unrest could result from healthcare facilities having insufficient capacity, stock-outs of essential food, medications, or other supplies, and resistance to social distancing policies that limit work, school, cultural events, and/or religious practice. … All government agencies will need to be involved in implementing COVID-19 response activities, including, for example, finance, justice, trade, agriculture, education, and finance.”
Border security is important but so is cross-border trade and international cooperation. Those factors will have to be balanced. Entire sectors, such as aviation and tourism, will be hit especially hard. Countries will have to rewrite budgets and re-allocate resources to adjust to these new realities. Economic effects of a lockdown will be felt most by those who have least. Accordingly, resources will need to be directed to those communities that are in need.
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