COVID-19 in Africa — global solidarity critical to avert economic, humanitarian crisis

May 21, 2020

COVID-19 in Africa — global solidarity critical to avert economic, humanitarian crisis

The making of a perfect storm

WFP food distribution in Kaya — COVID-19 in Africa
WFP food distribution in Kaya, Burkina Faso — 30 March 2020 (WFP/Mahamady Ouedraogo)

The global community is racing to slow down and eventually halt the spread of coronavirus. In Africa, the virus has spread to dozens of countries and more than 2,500 people have died. Governments and health authorities across the continent are striving to limit widespread infections.

In recent prediction modelling, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of the likelihood of a more prolonged outbreak in Africa. This would overwhelm medical capacity.


In Africa, if measures to contain COVID-19 fail, up to 190,000 people could die, according to the modelling. Between 29 million and 44 million people could get infected in the first year of the pandemic, and up to 5.5 million people would be hospitalized.

Faced with a health pandemic of the scale forecast, Africa would be woefully unprepared while also dealing with poverty and deep humanitarian crises caused by war, natural disasters and climate change.

For Africa, much hangs in the balance, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

The virus and measures to contain it threaten years of gains made in improving people’s wellbeing across the continent.

“Economic growth has been strong. The digital revolution has taken hold. A free trade area has been agreed.”

“COVID-19 threatens to aggravate long-standing inequalities and heighten hunger, malnutrition and vulnerability to disease.” said Mr. Guterres.

Fast action

As the pandemic unraveled in Asia, Europe and North America, Africa acted quickly and in solidarity. For example, the African Union endorsed a joint continental strategy.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control is curating real-time information in close collaboration with WHO. It has also set up the Africa COVID-19 Response Fund with the public-private AfroChampions initiative to raise funds for immediate response needs and support to vulnerable people.

African countries are ramping up detection, tracing and containment measures. Lessons learned in countries affected by the HIV and AIDS epidemic and the 2014 Ebola outbreak are being applied.

Public health-care gaps

Despite these efforts, there are many public health-care gaps.
For example, according to a WHO survey conducted in March in 47 African countries, there were an average of nine intensive care unit beds per 1 million people.

In a UN policy brief released on 20 May, Mr. Guterres urged African countries to improve testing capacities and access to medical supplies, among a range of other measures.

Strong and resilient health systems are the best defence against outbreaks and pandemics.

How the virus affects Africa’s health system will soon become apparent. A lot remains unknown about how COVID-19 interacts with prevalent diseases, such as malaria and HIV.

WHO has also warned that shutting down immunization services during the COVID-19 pandemic risks triggering a resurgence of preventable diseases, such as measles and polio.

Maintaining essential health services is key to avoid overwhelming health systems already battling COVID-19.

The virus is affecting African countries differently.

INFORM COVID-19 Africa risk index
The INFORM COVID-19 Risk Index is a composite index that identifies: countries at risk from health and humanitarian impacts of COVID-19 that could overwhelm current national response capacity, and therefore lead to a need for additional international assistance

A dramatic rise in food insecurity presents a more immediate crisis.

The specter of famine

In the Sahel, more than 12 million people could face severe food insecurity by August (4 million more than at the peak of the 2018 crisis). This is without including projections from the impact of COVID-19.

In Eastern Africa, the disruption in supply chains due to travel restrictions, lockdowns and curfews is affecting trade and essential commodity flows. Access to farms and farming inputs is limited. The region, which also hosts millions of refugees and internally displaced people, is also facing devastating floods and a desert locust upsurge.

The World Food Programme (WFP) warns that due to COVID-19, 130 million people living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, risk being pushed to the brink of starvation.
This is on top of more than 130 million people already facing crisis levels of hunger or worse.

Without response, if we see an increase of 260 million in the number of people on the verge of starvation, there will be a spate of big famines,” warned UN Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock recently.

“Famines used to be ubiquitous. They are rare now. I am not sure the world would tolerate that even in these dire straits.”

In the just-released policy brief, Mr. Guterres called for the prioritization of agriculture by declaring it a critical sector that should not be interrupted by COVID-19-related measures.

“Focus should be on most acute risks, strengthening social protection systems and safeguarding access to food for the most vulnerable,” he said. “Food corridors should be made secure and farmers supported to ensure uninterrupted supplies.”

Socioeconomic fallout

Mr. Lowcock explained that for poor countries, the biggest impact beyond the disease will be the economic fallout.

“We can see incomes plummeting and jobs disappearing, food supplies falling and prices soaring, children missing vaccinations, meals and school,” he said.

In sprawling, overcrowded and informal urban settlements, from Nairobi to Lagos, many residents rely on daily wages to put food on the table. Their jobs are on the line due to lockdowns, supply chain disruptions and other shocks.

Tourism has also been hard hit, with millions of jobs at risk after the closing down of entire cities and countries, travel restrictions and bans.

According to the Secretary-General’s Policy Brief on Africa, the African economy is projected to contract by 2.6 per cent in a worst-case scenario. Millions of people could be pushed into extreme poverty, millions of jobs lost. Remittances to sub-Saharan Africa will likely decline.

The pandemic is also affecting peace and security efforts in Africa.

The Secretary-General has welcomed African support for a global ceasefire. This includes temporary unilateral ceasefires announced by armed groups in Cameroon, South Sudan and Sudan.


Coordinated global support critical

Amid COVID-19, the odds seem stacked against poor countries.

These are still early days for the pandemic in Africa, and disruption could escalate quickly.

Mr. Guterres has called for a global response package amounting to at least 10 per cent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product. For Africa, this means more than $200 billion.

He is also calling for a comprehensive debt framework, including an across-the-board debt standstill for countries unable to service their debt, and targeted debt relief.

In his policy brief, he urged Governments to ramp-up measures to save lives and protect livelihoods, as well as efforts to support large, medium and small enterprises and the informal sector.

Emergency budgetary support is also needed for essential life-saving materials.


The UN has launched a global framework for the immediate socioeconomic response to COVID-19, complementing the WHO-led health response
There is also the OCHA-coordinated $6.7 billion COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, which aims to protect millions of people in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries and stop the virus from circling back around the globe.

United Nations solidarity flights have delivered millions of test kits, respirators and other supplies, reaching almost the entire continent.

Mr. Guterres called for international action to: strengthen Africa’s health systems, maintain food supplies, avoid a financial crisis, support education, protect jobs, keep households and businesses afloat, and cushion the continent against lost income and export earnings.

“African countries should also have quick, equal and affordable access to any eventual vaccine and treatment, which must be considered as global public goods,” he said.

The boundaries and names shown and the designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations. Dotted line represents approximately the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir agreed upon by India and Pakistan. The final status of Jammu and Kashmir has not yet been agreed upon by the parties. Final boundary between the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan has not yet been determined. Final status of the Abyei area is not yet determined.

INFORM is a multi-stakeholder forum for developing shared, quantitative analysis relevant to humanitarian crises and disasters. The Joint Research Center of European Commission is the scientific and technical lead for INFORM.

We thank our UN Online Volunteers Connard Co for the support on the design of the infographics.