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Coronavirus and Africa - What Are the Stakes?

Coronavirus and Africa - What Are the Stakes?
 Mahaut de Fougières
Head of the International Politics Program

Ever since Covid-19 first appeared last December, it has spread rapidly across the globe, overwhelming healthcare systems and weakening the global economy. Initially spared by the epidemic, the virus now seems to be gaining ground on the African continent: 48 countries have been affected to date, including South Africa, Cameroon, Kenya, Senegal and Morocco. Will it spread as widely as in Asia and Europe? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "Africa must prepare for the worst".

The African continent has a number of advantages...

The demographics of Africa would suggest that the continent may not be as affected by the pandemic as other regions of the world have been. Indeed, those over 65 years old are the most at risk of complications if infected by the virus, however Africa is a very young continent where only 4% of the population belongs to this age group, compared to 20% in France, 16% in the United States and 11% in China.The African experience could thus stand out, compared to its ageing European and Asian neighbours. Another factor of hope often mentioned is the continent's climate, which may be less favourable to the spread of the virus. However, no data supports this theory as of yet.

Moreover, the health crisis we are currently facing is not the only one that has affected the African continent in recent years. The Ebola health crisis, for example, which has caused tens of thousands of deaths since 2013, has built the experience and capacity in crisis management of affected countries.

Will [the virus] spread as widely as in Asia and Europe? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "Africa must prepare for the worst".

This likely explains in part why many countries on the continent were quick to implement strict measures, such as temperature checks at airports, border closures, suspension of international flights, and lockdown measures. The speed of the spread of the virus in Europe, before it actually reached Africa, further explains the great responsiveness of some African governments wishing to anticipate the crisis. 

...that do not outweigh the causes of concern  

Nevertheless, a number of factors inherent to the African continent constitute obstacles to the implementation of certain preventive measures on the same scale as in Europe or Asia.

  • Social distancing is complex on a continent where 70% of the urban population - approximately 200 million people - live in overcrowded slums.
  • In addition, 40% of Africans live in water-scarce environments, making simple (and effective) preventive measures such as regular hand washing difficult.
  • Finally, containment measures that prevent citizens from going to work could jeopardize the survival of many, when half of the continent’s population lives on less than two dollars a day, with no savings or assets, and the informal sector accounts for 85.8% of jobs.

The likelihood of the virus spreading on a large scale on the continent has crystallized the fears of many observers, who believe that African countries’ healthcare systems – albeit at different levels – are not equipped to cope with the crisis. They lack resources both in terms of medical personnel and equipment, and especially equipment that is specifically needed to treat patients suffering from this virus. This is the case with respirators, "which are counted in dozens for millions of people". A situation all the more distressful considering the continent is still fighting diseases that  can be treated but remain lethal in many cases, such as AIDS, tuberculosis, or malaria. The burden that Covid-19 will place on healthcare systems could hamper the treatment of these other diseases, and the effects of Covid-19 combined to such diseases or malnutrition remain unclear. These factors raise concerns that case-fatality rates in Africa may be higher than elsewhere, despite the youthfulness of its population.

What about the economy?

What will be the consequences for the continent’s economy? Hard to say, as long as we do not have more visibility on the extent of the health crisis in Africa. Nevertheless, effects were already being felt before the first case of contamination was even announced. Indeed, intra-African trade accounts today for less than 18% of the continent's trade, meaning the African economy is largely dependent on trade with the rest of the world. Moreover, the continent's industry is largely centred on raw materials, whose prices have suffered considerably with the global crisis.

Intra-African trade accounts today for less than 18% of the continent's trade, meaning the African economy is largely dependent on trade with the rest of the world.

The overall impact is "more severe than in 2008", according to Albert Zeufack, the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa.

According to the continent's Finance Ministers, a $100 billion stimulus package – including $44 billion in debt service waivers – is needed to address the crisis. While Western countries are able to inject billions into their economies, as much as $4,000 billion for the United States and $750 billion on the European side, this is not the case for African countries. In spite of numerous national and regional initiatives, the continent will not be able to overcome this crisis without support from the international community.

Will Europe, which presented a new global strategy for Africa on March 9th, rise to the challenges facing its African partner?



Copyright : Luca Sola / AFP

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