The Future of the African Continent in Light of Covid-19 Crisis

Ahmad Askar | 11 May 2020

The large-scale spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa raises numerous concerns about the extent of readiness of its countries in countering the epidemic and the nature and magnitude of the losses they sustain. These concerns get even worse in view of the challenges faced by the continent on all fronts, particularly with regard to the continent’s poor health system and the possible consequences of failure to counter the pandemic. This maximizes the continent’s political, economic, security and social costs in a manner that would adversely reflect on the future of the African continent and its relationship with the outside world going forward.

Features of the pandemic spread in Africa: indications and significance

  • The first infection with the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa was recorded on 15 February 2020, two months after China announced its first infection. The pandemic is rapidly spreading in Africa; it spread in 30 countries in less than 30 days. Soon afterwards, it expanded to reach 53 countries except Lesotho.[1]
  • The first confirmed cases were associated with European citizens as the “patient zero” in Africa was an Italian citizen who travelled to Nigeria.[2] This resulted in the activation of the contagion transmission chains in the continent.
  • As of 10 May 2020, the number of infections in the African continent reached nearly 62,131 cases (see Figure 1), the number of deaths reached 2,257 cases, and the number of recoveries reached nearly 21,478 cases. The hot spots are considered to be northern, western and southern Africa where the number of infections is distributed on the basis of 22,282 cases in north Africa. Egypt ranks first with 9,400 infections while the least number of infections was recorded in Libya, namely 64 cases. Second comes west Africa with 19,971 cases. Ghana ranks first with 4,263 cases, followed immediately by Nigeria with 4,151 cases. The least number of infections in the region was recorded in Mauritania, namely 8 cases. Next comes the southern Africa region with 10,081 cases. While South Africa ranks first with 9,420 cases, Lesotho has not recorded any cases so far. Next comes the East Africa region with 6,955 cases. Djibouti leads with 1,189 cases while the least infections were recorded in the Comoros, namely 11 cases. In the Central Africa region, the number of infections reached 3,059 cases, led by Niger with 815 cases. The least number of infections in this region was recorded in the Central African Republic, namely 179 cases.[3]

  • The efforts made by African organizations and governments to enhance their capabilities against the epidemic seem somewhat encouraging. Most African countries have partially or wholly implemented some precautionary measures, including travel restrictions, cancelation of hundreds of international trips, closure of land and air borders, home quarantine, closure of educational establishments and suspension of religious gatherings.[4] A number of African countries, such as Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Burundi, Kenya and Rwanda, have established mobile testing units to intensify their diagnosis processes, an idea adopted by the Southern African Development Community (SADC(, comprising 16 member states.[5]
  • In collaboration with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), the African Union (AU) issued the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19 Outbreak to limit the spread of the epidemic and limit the harm resulting from it. It is implemented through the Africa Task Force for Coronavirus (AFTCOR) and Africa CDC’s Incident Management System.[6] The continent’s capabilities have been strengthened and the number of ready countries has been boosted to more than 43 thanks to the support of the World Health Organization (WHO).[7]
  • Member countries of the African Union (AU) Bureau have agreed, during a meeting held on 26 March 2020, to establish an African anti-COVID-19 fund, to which they contributed nearly 12.5 million dollars in seed funding. A further 4.5 million dollars was pledged in support of the work of the Africa CDC.[8]
  • African countries have strived to activate the preventative rather than therapeutic strategy in view of the limited African capabilities in the hospital and health sector. A number of initiatives emerged, such as the presidential task forces that were created in a number of countries comprising some public health experts to guide the pandemic response.[9]
  • Africa is characterized by a number of positive factors in its fight against the virus, such as the average age (19.4 years), which is half the age average in Europe (40 years),[10] and the virus’ response to high temperatures according to some expectations.[11] Africa is also experienced in confronting infectious diseases, including the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014-2016.[12]
  • However, the COVID-19 pandemic has simultaneously exposed some gaps in managing the crisis in many African countries. Some critical shortcomings pose challenges to the measures of containing and mitigating the epidemic spread, including overcrowding in some African cities such as Lagos and Kinshasa (more than 10 million people), poor access to water and sanitation facilities and fragile health systems.[13] The African continent is characterized by the lowest physician density in the world with 1 doctor per 5,000 inhabitants on average. Average health expenditure accounts for nearly 5 percent of the continent’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).[14] The number of ventilators is also limited. In Mali, there is only one ventilator per 1 million people.[15] This places a heavier burden on the continent’s shoulders and warns of serious consequences in case of the escalation of the epidemic spread in the continent going forward.
  • The pandemic spread has been accompanied by pervasive misinformation in most countries which negatively affects the trust of citizens and adherence to government directives. Most importantly, it was thought that the virus only affects the elderly or those suffering from chronic diseases, which was proved wrong. Chloroquine, essentially an anti-malarial drug, was promoted as an effective and protective treatment against the virus before overdoses resulted in deaths in Nigeria. It was also claimed that coronavirus is transmitted by mosquitoes although it is a respiratory illness. Some claimed that hot weather kills the virus which is an unconfirmed assumption whose validity continues to be studied by scientists. Meanwhile, average temperatures in some African countries reporting the highest number of cases reach nearly 40 degrees Celsius.[16]
  • The COVID-19 is sweeping across the African continent at a time when its countries are facing record numbers of population displacement. There are nearly 25 million displaced people and refugees as a result of ongoing conflicts in some countries of the continent. While there are no reports so far of infections with COVID-19 in camps of refugees and displaced persons, the virus spread therein is likely to be rapid and devastating in view of the poor and often inaccessible health services. Besides, observing social distancing in those camps is near impossible.[17]

Africa’s losses from COVID-19

The COVID-19 spread in Africa places severe strains on health, the economy and security. It is endangering African lives and economies. Besides, efforts made to control the disease are likely to be  extremely costly.[18]

Political effects

  • The epidemic is capable of creating chaos and troubles in fragile African countries. Its spread can put pressure on social stability in most countries of the continent. It may even contribute to the outbreak of further troubles and insurgencies and the possibility of being dragged into civil strife. While the health and economic consequences are projected to be destructive, the political consequences may be even more devastating.[19]
  • There are clear indications that the pandemic is being exploited by some African governments and their opposition powers that seek to politicize it to obtain immediate or long-term benefits. For instance, the Ethiopian government has decided to postpone indefinitely the general elections which were to be held in August 2020. This could be regarded as a lifeline for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in view of the political polarization and troubles experienced by the country on an ethnic basis. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni is trying to hold on to power beyond 2020 by taking a decision to postpone the country’s presidential elections scheduled to be held in 2021 for five years to contain the virus.[20]
  • Some of the measures implemented by some African governments constitute a threat to community peace and political stability in their countries. Decisions related to pardoning thousands of prisoners to reduce the spread of the virus could lead to insecurity for communities which warns of a spike in the crime rate in African cities, particularly in view of the poor or non-existent reform programmes in most African prisons.[21]
  • The pandemic has caused postponing the ongoing negotiations between the Sudanese government and some political powers and movements that had been expected to be finalized in April 2020, together with the suspension of talks regarding the Renaissance Dam crisis between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.[22]
  • The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has not served to halt ongoing conflicts in some countries of the continent. In Cameroon, where the largest number of infections with coronavirus are located as of 15 April 2020 in western and central Africa, the conflict persists between the northwest and southwest regions, which also applies to the terrorist organizations active in the continent’s east and west.

Economic effects

Most expectations have indicated that African economies have been adversely affected by the pandemic spread. Some even put forward pessimistic scenarios about the continent’s future in this respect.

  • The AU has put forward two scenarios with regard to the COVID-19 crisis; the first is based on the persistence of the virus till July 2020, while the second foresees its persistence until August 2020. The AU forecasts that the rate of economic growth in the continent will decline to between -0.8 percent and -1.1 percent, while a growth rate of 3.4 percent for 2020 was projected by the African Development Bank and of nearly 2.9 percent by the World Bank.[23] The AU forecasts that the continent will experience a sharp drop in exports and imports by 35 percent, that is a loss of nearly 270 billion dollars,[24] and that nearly 20 million jobs in both the formal and informal sectors could be lost because of the pandemic. According to the United Nations Organization (UN), this figure could reach 50 million jobs.[25]
  • Other indicators also indicate a slowdown in the African economy where the growth rate will decline sharply from 2.4 percent to -5.1 percent in 2020.[26] As a result, African economies could sustain losses ranging between 90 and 200 billion dollars in 2020.[27] In March 2020, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) estimated a decline in Africa’s GDP from 3.2 percent to 1.8 percent due to the disruption of global supply chains, demand shocks in sectors such as energy, tourism, remittances, the slowdown in investment flows and the loss of jobs, supply-side shortages and inflation pressures. In Nigeria, worst-case scenarios indicate a decline in the country’s GDP from 2.5 percent to -3.4 percent in 2020 due to the decline in oil prices. Indicators in South Africa in case of the virus spread indicate a decline in GDP growth to -8.3 percent.[28]
  • Opening the door for borrowing from international institutions. For instance, Nigeria seeks to borrow 6.9 billion dollars from some international institutions to compensate for the losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.[29]
  • Projections indicate that the tourism sector in Africa will be greatly affected in view of the halt of the air transport activity. The AU report has indicated that this sector’s losses will exceed 50 billion dollars, in addition to the loss of nearly 2 million direct and indirect jobs.[30]

Health effects

  • While the 2001 Abuja Declaration required African countries to allocate at least 15 percent of their budgets to healthcare, it has received little response.[31] A 2016 study concluded that of the 25 countries most vulnerable to infectious diseases globally, 22 countries are located in Africa.[32]
  • The Global Health Security Index shows that 21 out of 54 African countries are somewhat prepared to deal with the pandemic threat. The other 33 are completely ill-equipped.[33] There are 2,000 ventilators across 41 African countries and 5,000 intensive care beds across 43.[34] This causes concerns in view of the poor potential and equipment.
  • The number of deaths as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to rise; Africa is likely to lose anywhere between 300,000 and 3.3 million people because of the epidemic unless the necessary measures are taken to stop its spread.[35] WHO indicates that if the precautionary measures fail to reduce the spread of the epidemic in Africa, 29-44 million Africans will be vulnerable to infection with the epidemic. African healthcare systems could receive between 3.6 and 5.5 million people, with the likelihood that 82-167 thousand cases will require oxygen and that 52-107 thousand critical cases will require breathing support.[36]

Social effects

  • In view of the poor social protection in most African countries and the association of the epidemic spread with the escalating economic, security and political challenges, those hardships would lead to more social tensions and the outbreak of insecurity in the continent.[37]
  • Escalation of the food security crisis in the continent where every one of three African citizens lives under the global poverty line,[38] with the possibility of contraction of agricultural production between 2.6 percent and 7 percent under an optimistic scenario. Food imports will also decline substantially due to a combination of higher transaction costs and reduced domestic demand.[39]
  • Loss of trust between African citizens and governments if measures taken by the latter fail in countering the pandemic. This could lead to a wave of public outrage and the outbreak of some troubles.

Security effects

  • The COVID-19 epidemic has not prevented the continued activities by terrorist organizations in areas of tension. On 24 March 2020, ISIS operatives took over a port in Mozambique. The Boko Haram movement targeted 92 Chadian soldiers in the Lake Chad area. The Somali Al-Shabaab jihadist movement is intensifying its operations against military and security forces in the country.[40]
  • Security forces are the most vulnerable to infection with the virus, especially that they are relied upon in countering the pandemic and that circumstances do not allow them to observe social distancing. Besides, the increasing spread of the epidemic entails imposing more restrictions on the operations of UN peacekeeping missions in the continent.[41]
  • The occasional use of disproportionate force and violence by the security forces further distorts the relationship between security agencies and poor African communities that have been severely affected by the lockdowns and curfews.

Impact of the escalating epidemic crisis on Africa’s relationship with the international order

  • Africa is considered home to epidemics. Therefore, there are fears that it could transform into an epicentre for COVID-19 epidemic going forward in case the epidemic spreads at an accelerating pace. This would block any movements between Africa and the outside world to prevent the transmission of the virus.
  • According to UN estimates, Africa needs a financial support of 100-200 billion dollars to counter the health challenges. It needs many times that amount to alleviate the economic implications for it as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic.[42]
  • The continent faces a debt problem and seeks to negotiate easing its debts or having them written off. It will also have to borrow more from international institutions and powers in view of its failure to repay its foreign debts estimated at 236 billion dollars.[43]
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is causing the disruption of infrastructure projects in Africa, particularly those carried out by China under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Therefore, the attention and resources of the Chinese government are expected to be diverted away from the Initiative to counter COVID-19 for at least one whole year.[44]
  • Traffic in African ports has been greatly affected by the lockdown and the halt of international trade traffic with Africa. The Kenyan port of Mombasa has recorded its lowest arrivals of cargo ships since February 2020, with 37 cancellations and a further halt of 104 dockings coinciding with the disruption of supply chains.[45]
  • The COVID-19 epidemic will hamper foreign investment opportunities in the continent in view of the damage sustained by several sectors such as tourism, trade and mining, among others. In addition, travel restrictions will restrict the movement and size of trade between Africa and the outside world.[46]
  • Poor health systems and the limited number of ventilators in Africa constitute a challenge for its governments. This brings about a responsibility for the international community to support it to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic in case there is an increase in total infections in the continent.

Future of the African continent in view of the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic

  • The epidemic is expected to constitute a winning card that both African governments and opposition quarters would seek to use to obtain political gains and remain in power or try to reach it. This would expose most countries to outbreaks of political conflicts and troubles in light of clustering challenges and implications as a result of the COVID-19 spread which would threaten the continent’s entire political landscape.
  • Expectations do not indicate a reduction in Africa’s security challenges. A correlation exists between the implications of the epidemic spread and security instability in the continent. However, there does not seem to be a halt, albeit temporarily, in ongoing conflicts in some African countries. The same is true for the escalating terrorist activity in the continent, supported by the assumption of the reduced role of military and security forces and troops of peacekeeping missions out of fear of the epidemic spread in their ranks.
  • Economic recession in the continent seems inescapable going forward in light of the decline in the prices of raw materials that constitute the main export source in African countries and the complete halt of some sectors such as air transport, tourism, hotels and trade. Thus, the African economy will face a liquidity crisis and a noticeable slowdown in growth rates that could reach negative percentages according to some estimates. The continent will also witness the postponement of the continental free trade agreement due to lockdown decisions between countries in the continent.
  • While Africa has good experience in countering endemic diseases having been a permanent home to them during past years, the health sector has not been adequately developed to counter those epidemics. This situation is likely to persist going forward due to the potential recession of African economies. Africa is likely to face a large-scale spread of the virus as long as it does not carry out tests and trace the epidemic which could transform the continent into a new epicentre for the epidemic.
  • Some geopolitical implications could contribute to reformulating Africa’s relations with international powers and changing the strategic interests of both sides at all levels in light of the COVID-19 epidemic implications. For instance, in light of its crisis, China is likely to give up its support for Africa. This could pave the way for creating new roles and opportunities for new powers such as India and Japan.[47]

Conclusions

  • Due to its limited resources, poor health systems, burdens of other epidemics, urban density, African conflicts and displacement of populations, Africa continues to face an arduous fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The human cost of the pandemic is likely to rise directly or indirectly.
  • The COVID-19 crisis underlines the necessity of integrating health security into the national security strategies of African countries.
  • In light of this crisis, greater importance is attached to focusing on the preventative rather than therapeutic strategy to reduce the virus spread in view of the poor health systems and the possible delay in discovering a treatment for the epidemic. Thus, curbing the epidemic is contingent on the capability of African public health systems, particularly in densely populated regions. As a priority, it also requires protecting health sector workers.
  • Community involvement and mutual trust between governments and communities are an integral part in eradicating the epidemic with a view to creating the behavioural change that would contribute to countering the crisis. This was key to containing the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Liberia.
  • International assistance is needed, although it could be slower and less abundant compared to what is needed by Africa which could be the epidemic’s last global epicentre.

Endnotes

[1] Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Coronavirus Spreads through Africa, 5 May 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/2yK80AF

[2] Giovanni Carbone, Camillo Casola, The Coronavirus Will Hit Africa Hard, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, Rome, 9 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/35ONjQ5

[3] Prepared by the researcher based on data released by the African Arguments website on the number of infections in Africa as of 9 May 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3bnLWcc

[4] Giovanni Carbone, Ibid.

[5] Idem.

[6] African Union, Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19 Outbreak, 5 March 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3clOqcH

[7] Giovanni Carbone, Camillo Casola, Ibid.

[8] Institute for Security Studies, COVID-19: South Africa takes charge at home and on the continent, Pretoria, 22 April 2020, Available at: https://bit.ly/2ztCPcG

[9] Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Africa Adaptions to the COVID-19 Response, Washington, 15 April 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3bse7XO

[10] Ugo Tramballi, I virus dell'Africa, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, Rome, 9 April 2020, Available at: https://bit.ly/3fFi12u

[11] Idem.

[12] Shannon Smith, Managing Health and Economic Priorities as the COVID-19 Pandemic Spreads in Africa, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Washington, 30 March 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3fD2SPr

[13] Dr. Essa Abdi Djama, DOES SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA NECESSITATE A UNIQUE RESPONSE TO COVID-19? MORE THAN TEN AFRICAN COUNTRIES HAVE NO VENTILATORS!, Somaliland Chronicle, 28 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2zpvpr2

[14] Giovanni Carbone, Camillo Casola, Ibid.

[15] Philip Obaji (and others), Africa's paradox: It may be the worst and best place to ride out coronavirus, USA Today, 30 March 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2zu1Bte

[16] The Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Five Myths about Coronavirus in Africa, Washington, 27 March 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/2xRjEcB

[17] Wendy Williams, COVID-19 and Africa’s Displacement Crisis, The Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Washington, 25 March 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3cndjEO

[18] Shannon Smith, Op.cit.

[19] Philip Obaji (and Others), Ibid.

[20] Judd Devermont, COVID-19 Is an African Political Crisis as Much as a Health and Economic Emergency, Center for Strategic & International Studies, 18 March 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2LnMNyZ

[21] Institute for Security Studies, Towards a regional response to COVID-19 in the Horn, Pretoria, 22 April 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3ckqtCw

[22] Idem.

[23] Institute for Security Studies, COVID-19 compounds security threats in West and Central Africa, Pretoria, 20 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/35ZB17P

[24] African Union, Ibid.

[25] Brahima Coulibaly, The G20’s action on debt is an important first step; now for the hard part, The Africa Report, 20 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3cnCyXw

[26] African Union, Ibid.

[27] Kartik Jayaram (and Others), Tackling COVID-19 in Africa, McKinsey& Company, 1 April 2020. Available at: https://mck.co/2SRa8NG

[28] Idem.

[29] African Union, Ibid.

[30] Kartik Jayaram (and Others), Idim.

[31] Dr. Essa Abdi Djama, Op. cit.

[32] Shannon Smith, Op. cit.

[33] Chuku Chuku, STEPS TO INOCULATE AFRICAN ECONOMIES AGAINST THE IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS, Somaliland Chronicle, 28 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3dvVMuf

[34] Japhet Biegon, 19 years ago today, African countries vowed to spend 15% on health, African Arguments, 27 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2YQUGVN

[35] Shannon Smith, What the Coronavirus means for Africa, The Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Washington, 4 February 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/35UHQav

[36] Nicholas Norbrook, Coronavirus: WHO warns of 190,000 deaths in Africa, The Africa Report, 8 May 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2WjbdjI

[37] Giovanni Carbone, Il coronavirus scuote l’Africa, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, Rome, 9 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2yNPveH

[38] Shannon Smith, Op. cit.

[39] Dr. Essa Abdi Djama, Op. cit.

[40] John Cambell, How Jihadi Groups in Africa Will Exploit COVID-19, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), 3 April 2020. Available at: https://on.cfr.org/2STbeIW

[41] John Cambell, Idem.

[42] Giovanni Carbone, Il coronavirus scuote l’Africa, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, Rome, 9 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3fIZyT5

[43] Institute for Security Studies, The African Union’s structures and mechanisms put to the test, Pretoria, 20 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3fAWjwJ

[44] Morné van der Merwe (and others), South Africa: The Impact of COVID-19 on Key African Sectors, Global Compliance News, 26 March 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3dyncQ1

[45] Nina Callaghan and Mark Swilling, Covid-19: Economic impact on East and southern Africa, Daily Maverick, 27 March 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2xRk0jr

[46] Sergio Carciotto, COVID-19 could stall Africa’s integration agenda, Pretoria, 29 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Lf30Xm

[47] John Cambell, How Jihadi Groups in Africa Will Exploit COVID-19, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), 3 April 2020. Available at: https://on.cfr.org/3fA0pFj

 

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